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The History of Beer


By Rob Hill, author of “The Total Guide to Beer”

Imagine you’re a prehistoric human, at the end of a long day of hunting woolly mammoths. What could be better than sitting around the communal fire to share some beers with your buddies? While it may sound like an episode of “The Flintstones,” archaeological evidence suggests that beer-like drinks, humans and woolly mammoths did indeed coexist. Beer has been part of human life since the dawn of recorded history, and has played a significant role in almost every culture. Whether revered as a gift from the gods or reviled as the devil’s brew, this “liquid bread” is so deeply ingrained in our existence that an examination of beer’s history illustrates how all of the world’s people are different – and yet very much the same.

The making and drinking of beer dates back many thousands of years to ancient Babylon, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Anthropological research indicates that humans began producing grain-based alcohol around the same time they abandoned their nomadic ways. They cultivated cereal grains, such as barley and wheat, to make bread and beer for sustenance, instead of exclusively hunting and gathering. While safe, sanitary water was largely nonexistent, the bready porridges from which beer was made provided essential nutrients for maintaining health, and the alcohol provided antiseptic qualities and was safe from disease.

Of course, ancient humans had collected wild grain long before they settled into agrarian societies, so the theory goes that some of that grain may have accidentally fermented at some point. In fact, some believe the pursuit of a steady supply of the intoxicating mix caused ancient humans to begin farming. Could beer, not bread, be the answer to the age-old mystery of what caused humans to evolve from small nomadic groups into the large and complex agrarian societies we call civilization?

Ancient Egyptians likely first learned of beer through trade with the ancient Sumerians, and soon they were brewing their own. Beer quickly became a staple in Egyptians’ diets as well as their religious lives. In particular, beer played a central role in Egyptian mythology. They believed Osiris, one of their most important deities, invented beer, and its association was with fertility, death and resurrection. Archeologists have discovered many tombs with beer ingredients and recipes written on the walls to ensure the dead don’t spend the afterlife beer-less.

It’s unknown how much alcohol, if any, the beer actually contained. The Oxford Companion to Beer notes that Egyptians regularly consumed their beer “young,” or soon after initial fermentation, when the alcohol may have been low. Yet, evidence suggests that beer brewed for the dead was made to prevent spoilage. Egyptians may have known how to make strong beer for the dead, but chose not to for the living.

Woman’s world

In ancient times it was primarily the women who made beer, and this remained true for thousands of years across many cultures. In Europe, the woman of the house – the “ale wife” or “brewster” – was particularly esteemed in the community if her ales were good. The homes of the ale wives were local meeting points, where people could drink and buy ale – the first brew pubs. Hops had not yet been discovered for use in beer, so early ales were a drink made from the fermented sugars of grain malt with the addition of gruit – a mix of herbs, plants and spices for flavor. Fermentation occurred naturally and was considered to be magical, for it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that scientists documented the role of microscopic yeast in fermentation.

In the sixth century, brewing gradually became a large-scale commercial endeavor, and brewing technology and science advanced by leaps and bounds, thanks in large part to the scholarly approach of Christian monks.

The monks brewed beer as a way to sustain themselves during long fasts, reportedly drinking nearly two gallons of beer a day. As David J. Hanson notes in his “History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World,” it was in this period that brewing beer became a truly commercial enterprise in Europe. While home brewing did not stop, monasteries and nunneries became the “repositories of brewing and winemaking techniques.”

Beer became a huge source of revenue for the monks and helped fund their philanthropic efforts. Monks jealously guarded the secrets of their craft.

During the medieval period, as many as 500 monastic breweries existed in Germany alone, and the monks essentially controlled the commercial brewing industry for a time. They were very adept at experimenting with ingredients in their brews. Though the history is unclear, some scholars credit the monks as the first to introduce hops – that now ubiquitous female-flower cluster from the plant humulus lupulus – as an ingredient in beer, recognizing their preservative qualities, which extended the life of the brew. This would become a particular advantage for commercial brewers. However, European ale drinkers did not universally or immediately like hops, and for quite some time, “ale” was the drink brewed using gruit, and “beer” was brewed with hops.

Letter of the law

By the 12th century, feudal lords had taken note of the popularity of ales and the profitability of brewing and, having once supported monastic brewing rights, began to take away those rights so they could control the brewing industry. Germany’s monks were forced north to what is now Belgium and the Netherlands, where they continued their traditional style of brewing.

In Germany, feudal lords created laws granting themselves exclusive brewing privileges. Beginning in Munich in 1447, ordinances demanded that all brewers use only barley, hops and water for their beers. By 1493, Duke George the Rich extended the 1447 ordinance to central Bavaria. Then, on April 23, 1516, Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV (William IV) and his younger brother, Duke Ludwig X (Louis X), issued the Purity Order, later referred to as Reinheitsgebot, to all of Bavaria. The government now had the tools to regulate ingredients, processes and the quality of beer sold to the public. As with the original 1447 ordinance, the 1516 Reinheitsgebot stipulated that beer be made only with barley, hops and water.

The lords soon created court brew houses, such as Hofbräuhaus, which exist to this day – as does the Reinheitsgebot itself, the oldest food-quality law in Germany. Yeast and wheat were subsequently added to the law as approved ingredients.

“Give me a warm one”?

Through much of beer-making history, all beers were fermented at warm temperatures and were a murky brown color. Not until the Industrial Revolution, during the 18th and 19th centuries, did brewers develop cold fermentation and storage techniques, or “lagering.” They also developed more controlled malt-kilning processes, allowing for the production of pale, rather than all dark, malts.

England and Germany remained the major centers of commercial brewing in Europe during the 1800s. But Bavarian brewer Josef Groll, working in the Bohemian city of Plzeň (Pilsen), in today’s Czech Republic, introduced a beer in 1842 using select Bohemian pale malt, local Žatec hops (Saaz hops in German), Pilsen’s naturally soft water and a cold lagering process – a clear, golden-colored beer. Quite different from any beer before, this new “Pilsner” beer was instantly liked and soon began to catch on in nearby Germany. Not to be outdone, German brewers began experimenting to create their own version of Pilsner.

Pilsner’s popularity notwithstanding, darker beers continued to dominate the market. But the lager brewing method proved to have many advantages to brewers, including staving off bacterial infections, and so dark lager production quickly spread throughout the world. The Germans influenced lager brewing in Africa and South America, while Austrians influenced brewing in Mexico, with their red Vienna malts producing crisp, dark lager beers.

Still, dark mild ales and porters maintained favor with English drinkers, with only English pale ales gaining popularity following the introduction of pale malts into ales by some English brewers in Burton-on-Trent. Ales retained popular favor over lagers in England until as recently as the 1950s.

Global impact

Through centuries of brewing, with Europe leading the way, brewers created various types and styles of beer, with different colors, textures and flavors across the many cultures, countries and cities. They created beer styles largely based on locally available natural ingredients and resources as well as on the predominant role of beer in each society—either as a form of safe liquid refreshment, nutritional sustenance or social lubricant. The local water source, either naturally soft or hard in its mineral (pH) content, was a key factor in the type of beer that brewers could successfully brew and be considered palatable. For example, the soft water of Pilsen was perfect for the pale malts used in light-colored Pilsners, while the high-alkaline water of Dublin called for dark malts to create the balanced and drinkable dark stouts of Ireland.

These differences and distinctions exist around the globe, with two all-encompassing modifiers—Old and New World. Just as with wine, “Old World” refers to beers from Europe. In addition to the Czech Republic and the iconic Pilsner beer style that originated in Bohemia, classic Old World brewing countries include Belgium, England, Germany, Ireland and Scotland.

Ales, with their unique fruity and spicy aroma and flavor characteristics from Belgian yeast strains, stand out for many beer enthusiasts. Much of Belgium’s beer history is tied to the Trappist and abbey ales brewed and inspired by monks who migrated to Belgium from other points in Europe.

England is also known for its classic ales, in part due to wide exportation as well as the steadfast grip of English brewers on the ale-brewing tradition. Indeed, the arrival of English Porter on the scene in the 1700s helped shaped Europe’s modern brewing industry.

By the first half of the 1800s much of Europe was embracing the new lagering techniques for brewing. But English brewers maintained their warm-fermentation processes, producing ales long enjoyed by English drinkers, including “real ales” that are racked straight from the fermenters into casks where final conditioning of the beer occurs in pub cellars.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, large international brewing operations left England awash in pale lager beers. The move inspired a growing, vocal resistance to the dilution and consolidation of local and regional ale brewers and the resulting pub closures. Since 1971, the Campaign for Real Ale, which began as a grassroots consumer organization founded by four drinkers, has stood up to preserve the brewing of traditional beers and advocate for English public houses as vital components of community life.

New world order

As Europe was perfecting a variety of brewing techniques, beer was an essential feature of American diets – even before the country was a country, beginning the very first day settlers set foot in America. Colonists brewed ale from corn at Jamestown in the 17th century, and the Mayflower famously carried 42 tons of beer, 10,000 gallons of wine and just 14 tons of water. In fact, it was a shortage of beer on the Mayflower that persuaded the colonists to land at Plymouth Rock, Mass., instead of the more southern destination of Hudson, N.Y., where they originally meant to settle.

Ale dominated the American drinking market in the early years. As soon as they were somewhat settled, the colonists began building America’s first breweries, but lager didn’t make it to America for another 200 years, when Dutch and German immigrants began to arrive in large numbers. John Wagner is credited with bringing the first strain of lager yeast to America after traveling by ship from his native Bavaria, reportedly carrying the yeast in his pocket when he arrived in Philadelphia around 1840. By 1857, lager, with its great appeal to the growing population of German immigrants, was outselling ale. German brewers became titans in the American beer industry. Names like Yuengling, Pabst, Coors and Busch would ultimately dominate the market up to, and in some ways, beyond, Prohibition.

The number of U.S. breweries peaked in the late 1800s, when more than 4,000 breweries operated around the country. However, most of these were small, local operations not producing very large quantities of beer. The invention of refrigeration, and especially refrigerated train cars, enabled the rise of mega-breweries, which shipped millions of gallons of beer around the nation. The number of breweries fell to about 1,500 by the time of Prohibition, yet the quantity of beer produced and consumed rose dramatically. According to the Economic History Association’s “Concise History of America’s Brewing Industry,” in 1865 the United States produced a little less than 4 million barrels of beer a year, but by 1915 brewers made almost 60 million barrels a year.

When America entered World War I, prohibitionists pushing for a national ban on alcohol seized the opportunity to use anti-German rhetoric in their efforts. Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League portrayed prohibition as patriotic; they urged Congress to investigate “German enemies” making the “Kaiser’s brew.”

Of course, on Jan. 16, 1920, legal brewing came to an end as the Prohibition era began. Prohibition lasted almost 14 years, until 1933. It would be many more years before a majority of states would repeal their Prohibition-era laws, remnants of which still remain to this day.

Master craft

The origins of modern craft brewing in the United States are in 1976 with the founding of New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, CA by Jack McAuliffe. Inspired by the flavorful beers he drank while in Scotland with the U.S. Navy, Jack returned to San Francisco where he was also inspired by beers from Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing Company. Jack parlayed this inspiration and funds from a couple of co-investors, along with a lot of home-made and repurposed old brewing and bottling equipment, into America’s first micro-brewery, making New Albion Pale Ale, Porter, and Stout.

While New Albion ultimately brewed its last beer in 1982, having not been able to expand to meet product demand and become profitable, it wasn’t without positively influencing a 1980s micro-brewery movement. This growing interest in small batch beers in the U.S. was also bolstered by an Act passed in 1978 that effectively ended the legal ban on home brewing and wine making that had remained in effect since the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Americans were getting a taste of small and experimental batches of beer and they were drinking it up! The artisanal beer-making scene was effectively born in the United States.

The 1980s and ‘90s saw a surge in popularity of local brewpubs. Pioneering independent craft breweries that entered the landscape at this time include the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in Chico, Calif.; Boston Beer Co. (brewers of Samuel Adams), in Boston, Mass.; Widmer Brothers Brewing Co., in Portland, Ore.; and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc., in Milton, Del.

The early 21st century has been a period of explosive growth in the American craft-brewing scene, with brewers adding American flair to Old World beer styles and often pushing the envelope of these classic styles to create new, uniquely American beer styles in the process.

Women too, are re-emerging as master brewers in this new beer era. Up until the last two decades, the American beer industry was almost exclusively male-oriented. Men brewed the beer, they sold it to each other and they drank it together: No women allowed. While men still far outnumber women in the industry, the gender gaps for both brewing and consuming beer are quickly shrinking. Based on a Gallup poll from July 2010, about 27 percent of women prefer beer to both wine and liquor – an increase of 7 percent since 2007.

As a result of this new age of brewing and beer enjoyment, many American craft beers are now in demand around the globe, and new breweries in countries like Japan and Scotland are taking their inspiration from American craft brewers. They brew New World, American-style beers, such as big, hoppy IPAs and whiskey barrel-aged beers.

So, when taken as a whole, the history of beer making illustrates the fact that … beer is history. Brewing is an act engrained in the human psyche, one that has evolved into a truly creative art. From the shelves of a cave after the day’s hunt in prehistoric times to a form of expression practiced by the thousands of brewers worldwide today, brewing represents a continuing search for the best tastes and aromas that individuals have obviously sought for thousands of years. If anything, this history should add to the complexity, depth and intrigue of that next brew and be an invitation to appreciate the passion behind that next beer – perhaps more than ever before.

With the breadth of beer styles available today, there is virtually a beer for everyone’s taste, from light to dark in color, sweet to bitter in flavor, crisp to complex in character. If you are not yet partaking in modern beer history by tasting this liquid honed from thousands of years of development, you’re invited to get started now.

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