Beer: A Brief History

Brewing began maybe as long as 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Theres ancient texts on tablets and pottery of  people making and drinking beer found in parts of Egypt and Mesopotamia dating back 7,000 years. Barley was a staple food in the Mediterranean region and someone along the way realized, probably be accidentally leaving some grain in the rain, that when sprouted and dried the grain got sweeter. Not only did this grain make better porridge, but left out, that porridge started to bubble and gave a wonderful feeling when drank. This fermented beverage became a staple in homes. It was “godly” and used in religious ceremonies (after a couple I totally understand), and was nutritious.

There have been found in stories and poems references to beer and inscriptions and depictions of gods of beer (actually, usually it’s goddesses suggesting that brewing was likely the job of women in the households). In ancient Iran (home of the Sumerians). they honoured their goddess of beer, Ninkasi, in poem:

“Ninkasi, you are the oneYou are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort…Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.”

And beer is mentioned in the famous Epic of Gilgamesh:

“…he ate until he was full, drank seven pitchers of beer, his heart grew light, his face glowed and he sang out with joy.”

Beer was fermented in homes, but as villages grew to towns and then to cities, clean water became harder to come by. Beer, with its alcohol content and higher acidity, was safer to drink in many cases than water. The increased demand for beer brought brewing from homes and made it a communal resource, a vocation for some of the townspeople. This was the beginning of regional styles as beer brewed in a town started to take on characteristics of the local water and grain supples, and the brewer(s) in the town.

By about 700 AD beer had made its way across Europe despite the Roman efforts to demonize beer as a drink of barbarians (they preferred wine, I mean, booze is booze, but beer is beer). It was brewed across the continent in towns and villages. In Scandinavia, the Vikings even believed that heaven was a grand beer hall, called Valhalla, where every night they ate and drank and their cups were never empty, magically filling themselves (sounds like heaven to me!).

Early beer was not something that modern beer drinkers would recognize. It wasn’t made with hops, but with honey, fruit, spruce, juniper, or other plants and herbs. It was probably herbal and sweet. Hops were first introduced in the Middle Ages, but took centuries before they were a standard ingredient. Hops in beer was first written about in 822, but is was the 1200s before they were becoming popular and the 1400s before they had spread across Europe to the major brewing areas.

Hops are remarkable. They taste and smell great, and have preservative properties. Hops, as a preservative, allowed for the storage and export of beer. In the 13th century, hops were becoming widespread in Bohemia, and in Germany they had standardized the barrel. Those two things combined. allowing for export of beer from the region. Along with larger kettle sizes (allowing for larger batches), beer was becoming a more lucrative business.

In 1516, William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot, Bavarian Beer Purity Law, which said that beer must be made of only barley malt, hops, and water (they didn’t know about yeast and that it’s pretty crucial, good thing it makes it in anyway). This is still followed today even though its no longer law. But wheat is a popular ingredient too. This law and other like it help lead the way for not just hops, but protection for the consumer. Until legislated, many things were added to beer, some of them toxic, to try and save a buck.

The next big advancements came with the Industrial Revolution. New machinery brought new techniques and equipment for brewing. In 1760 the thermometer was invented (prior to the thermometer, brewers would use their thumbs to approximate temperature, hence, the rule of thumb), and in 1770 the hydrometer was invented (allows measurement of the density of a liquid and therefore, approximates sugar). Brewers were now able to increase their efficiency and more easily reproduce their product.

Prior to the 18th century, malts were smoky due to being dried over a fire with no protection from the smoke. New kilns allowed for the drying process to be done in an enclosed environment away from the smoke of the fire producing a smoke-free malt. Also, there was better control on the roasting process allowing for very dark malts and pale malts to be produced. With pale malts brewers could produce the pale beers we know today, including pale ales and pale lager beer—most anything lighter than a dark brown. Dark malts were used to produce porter, once the most popular beer and the daddy to our modern stout.

In the mid-1800s, Louis Pasture isolated yeast cells. This lead to purification of the strains of yeast that brewers were using. Until then, much of the beer would have been contaminated by other microorganisms producing inconsistent results and beer that would “sour” over time. Purer yeast meant that there was longer shelf life for the beer and a more predictable result.

In the 20th century, beer and beer culture continued to evolve. The most notable event in modern beer history was the Noble Experiment, otherwise known as Prohibition, lasting from 1920 to 1933. Before 1920 there were several thousand breweries across the United Sates and by the time the Second World War ended there were just a handful. Many brewers were lost in Prohibition and others were bought and amalgamated. This was the birth of the mega brewery. From the U.S., the mega breweries exported their product, mainly pale lager, to the world. The effect of this mass marketing program was the decline of regional styles and the rise of factory made, generic lager. The ironic outcome of the U.S. export was the craft beer movement inside the U.S. starting in the later part of the 20th century continuing to grow today. Many of the world regional styles being lost in their native lands have been saved by craft brewers in the U.S. By the end of the 20th century, craft beer represented about 5% of the American market, and that number is steadily growing.


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