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History of Beer

William Penn's Brew Housex465

There are many great resources for information about the origins and history of beer. Some of them include Michael Jackson’s “Ultimate Beer Book,” Pete Brown’s “ Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer ,” and “The Encyclopedia of Beer,” edited by Christine Rhodes. Please refer to the Resources page for more.

Beer originated when someone left badly-made bread out in the rain. (Pardon the reference to “McArthur Park.”) When partially sprouted grains sitting in a bowl were soaked by rain water and found by natural yeasts (our very good friend, saccharomycetaceae,) the happy accident occurred. It wasn’t particularly tasty but it was nourishing and probably made the drinker feel good. (I’ve sampled a remake of a similar recipe and found it more flavorful than Michelob Ultra.) The outcome of the happy accident was no less than the start of civilization itself.

Once beer was discovered, so was the value of cultivating grain. People abandoned their nomadic ways to grow and tend fields of grain year-round. Villages and shared grain facilities were formed mostly near rivers and springs. (You think I am kidding about the link between beer and civilization? Babylonian clay tablets from 4300 B.C. detail recipes for beer. In ancient Egypt, 40 percent of all cultivated grain was used for brewing beer. I could go on and usually do.)

In the realm of alcoholic beverages, wine is created easily while beer takes real effort. Wild yeasts floating in the air seek food in the form of sugars, and moisture and warmth in which to breed. Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol and C0 2 (for carbonation). By comparison, soft, juicy, sugary grapes hanging from a vine are easy targets for wild yeasts—they rot (ferment) on the spot. All you have to do is stomp on them and bingo, you’ve got wine. Grains, on the other hand, do not surrender their sugars so easily. (Okay enophiles, I concede there is a bit more to it, but those are the basics.)

Hard-husked grains must be tricked into starting to grow (germinate) before their sugars are vulnerable to the yeasts, and they can’t be allowed to grow for too long or their sugars will be depleted by the growing process. The germinated grains must be boiled into a mash to extract the sugars, and then flavored by additional ingredients (hops, fruits, spices) added at the correct time before fermentation. The styles and flavors of the brew are characterized by the local water source (hard water like Burton on Trent or soft like Pilsen,) local ingredients (yeasts and grains) and traditional local additives (hops and spices).

By the Middle Ages, the Church took over brewing and began to stabilize the process. Monks were the first to recognize the value of hops as a preservative and flavoring agent. Records found in 1004 in Burton Abbey, Mercia, stated that Monks were allowed daily one gallon of strong ale and one gallon of weak ale.

Beer brewed by the monks was better than the “table beer” drunk by the serfs at most meals, which in turn was better than the available drinking water, which could kill you. Because beer was boiled it was vastly safer then the local drinking water, so beer became a healthful part of everyday life.

The woman of the house or ale wife was encouraged to place a broomstick outside of the house when a new batch of beer was ready. Eventually this broom stick was fashioned to stick-out horizontally over the doorway so it could be better recognized—and the modern “pub shingle” was born.

Commercial brewing began in the 1500’s in Germany and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic.) Ales (top fermented) were the only type available, and soon distinctive styles evolved due to local ingredients and special uses. For example, the demands of export and trade inspired the creation of stronger beer styles to withstand the rigors of travel. As an example, see Imperial Stout—though you can’t see through it.

In the 1800’s, Bohemian brewers noticed that ale stored in ice caves during the summer to prevent spoilage took on different properties. The yeasts sunk to the bottom of the kegs and as a result, the brews were more stable, lighter and cleaner. The cold storage process, lagering, also created a new strain of bottom-fermenting (lager) yeast that made a more highly carbonated brew. This new lager style grew in prominence and was exported throughout mainland Europe.

A number of coincidental developments helped the lager style beer to catch-on like wildfire. The industrial revolution made clear glass available to the average person for the first time. It was considered a great novelty to have a clear glass with a clear, golden brew bubbling up visibly to a bright, white, foamy head. Refrigeration was invented which enabled commercial lagering (not every brewer had his own ice cave) and, eventually, refrigerated transportation of these more delicate brews. As Europeans emigrated, they brought this style with them to their new homelands. Lagers became so popular that Augie Bush went to Bohemia and purchased the recipe for his brewery in St. Louis. He named his beer after the town in which he found it: “Budvies” Bohemia.

The rest, as they say, is history. There are now over 5,000 breweries in the world and more than 15,000 brands. The Volstead Act (“Prohibition”) in the 1920’s and 30’s nearly wiped-out the U.S. beer industry. By the 1990’s, the craft brew explosion once again made great beer (lagers and ales) available to everyday beer drinkers in the United States. Craft brewing is now the fastest-growing segment of the spirits industry.

Life has always been hard and beer, with its history ranging from ancient Egypt to the Middle Ages through colonialism, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars and today, has always been there to solace. It is affordable, accessible and social. It reflects its local origins. It is truly everyone’s drink.

Sweet beer is in the Buninu barrel.
Cup-bearer, waiter-waitress, servants and brewer gather around.
When I have abundance of beer,
I feel great. I feel wonderful.
By the beer, I am happy.
My heart is full of joy, my liver is full of luck.
When I am full of gladness, my liver wears the dress befitting a queen.
—From a tablet found in Mesopotamia (Tigris and Euphrates) 3000 B.C. Excerpted from Pete Brown’s “ Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer .”

“Beer—the cause and solution to all of our problems.”
—The Simpsons, Fox TV Network