A Brief History of Beer

November 12, 2018

A Brief History of Beer

Beer is one of oldest beverages humans have ever made and it’s history goes way-way back - about 6,000 to 7,000 years to what is now modern-day Iran. It is a beverage that was present - in some form or another - in many cultures that had a farm-based agrarian society. Initially, brewing occurred by accident as a result of leaving barley loaves out in the rain which started fermentation (not really sure who was brave enough to figure that out). But what started out as an accident turned into of the most loved beverages of all time. It was such a vital part of those ancient societies that it was even used for bartering and paying workers.

Early Roots of Brewing 

The Sumerians brewed beer as far back as 6,000 years ago. A poem was even found, dating back 3900 years, which honored Ninkasi - the patron goddess of brewing - and conveniently included a recipe. This brew was bitter and unfiltered so to avoid drinking bitter solids the Sumerians used straws. Ancient Babylonians, descendants of the Sumerians, were known to have had over 20 varieties of beer. Everyone was entitled to daily beer rations depending on social standing. 

The Egyptians continued the brewing tradition and added a few of their own ingredients, like dates, to their brew. Germans and Celts were also noted to have brewed the drink, but the Romans never really took to it, preferring wine. Later, the Catholic Church took up brewing, and the abbeys were instrumental in refining the brewing methods. It is even believed that Charlemagne trained some brewers himself. 

Medieval Brewing

Hops made their entry somewhere around the 9th century and were gradually adopted. Brewers had previously used gruet - a mix of herbs - to flavor the beer. This didn’t have the preserving properties of hops so any beer made couldn’t have been exported. The medieval towns of Bohemia perfected hopped beer by the 13th century.  

Up to this point in the history of beer,  brewing beer was largely a home activity. But in Germany brewers began standardizing barrel sizes and were able to produce beer on a slightly larger scale. This type of production began to spread to Holland, Flanders, and eventually England by the late 15th century when beer in Europe began to take on a more artisan quality, rather than the family-oriented nature it previously held. In the late Middle Ages beer brewing went from a small scale industry to a large scale export industry. German brewers came up with the German Purity Law in 1516 - or Reinheitsgebot - which pledged to drinkers a certain quality to the beer they were drinking. It also stated the ingredients of beer be restricted to water, barley, and hops - yeast was later added once it was discovered in 1857. 

Industrial Revolution’s Effects on Brewing

The industrial revolution brought about the industrialization of beer. A few other innovations in brewing came about with the invention of the thermometer and hydrometer in the late 1700s. The hydrometer, in particular, transformed how beer was brewed. It allowed brewers to calculate the yields from malt and led them to discover that pale malt had the highest yield. Brewers began using mostly pale malt and supplemented with high quality highly colored malt for color. The next innovation of the time, the drum roaster invented in 1817, allowed for the creation of dark, roasted malts, contribution to the flavors of porters and stouts. Finally, Louis Pasteur’s discovery of yeasts role in fermentation in 1857, led to brewers developing ways to prevent beer from souring. 

United States Brewing History

Throughout Europe and the United States, brewers built empires of commerce in the late 1800s. Britain predominantly made ales, and Europe, Scandinavia, and America focused on lagers - though America’s lagers had diverged from its European roots. Prohibition was the next big hurdle that changed American beer. When breweries re-emerged after Prohibition the beer they produced was markedly different. Due to commerce, technology, and advertising produced the mass-market beer that was technically impressive but far less flavorful than its predecessors. The 1970s and 80s saw a time of renewal for England and the US. Microbreweries and craft breweries began to pop-up. 

Beer has come a long way from its beginning in ancient times to the modern day versions we have today. Just about every civilization we know of had some form of brewing taking place. The history of beer goes hand in hand with the history of civilization. Today craft brewers, inspired by tradition and creativity, are the next chapter in the long history of beer. 





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