The History of Beer

December 28, 2015

The History of Beer

Beer is old, really old! It is one of the oldest -if not the oldest- alcoholic beverages that humans have produced. It has long been important in society, having been used in religious practices, as part of a healthy diet and as a method of payment. It is mentioned in the oldest work of literature known to mankind, The Epic of Gilgamesh, has had its own Gods and, from what we know, was the first recipe ever to be recorded by man. So how did this well-traveled, multipurpose beverage end up, thousands of years after its discovery, as a global product, enjoyed by man on every continent, turning over billions of dollars a year in a multibillion-dollar global marketplace? And how has it changed in the process?

It all started around 7000 years ago and was a result of humans ditching their nomadic lifestyles to become farmers and cultivate crops; from this it has been argued that a want for beer helped to domesticate mankind, allowing us to develop technology and build civilisation. From what we currently know this began in the part of the world called Mesopotamia, now known as Iran, and was discovered by the Babylonians and other civilizations that occupied that part of the world. This ‘discovery’ is not, to say, a definitive truth because beer, in a rudimentary form, has been evidenced in many other ancient civilizations around the world. Not only being made from barley but from almost any grains, including wheat, oats, rye and corn. It seems that once man settled he went about experimenting with what was possible with the crops at hand. It is interesting to note that it is indicated on an ancient clay tablet that the first brewers were more than likely women, because back then beer was considered a food. This is entirely the opposite to what is now being considered a male-dominated trade.

Back then beer was produced using water, your available grain and a variety of herbs and spices for flavouring. These herbs and spices varied from civilisation to civilisation but some examples include juniper, ginger, mugwort, heather, cinnamon, anise and caraway. However, besides the quality of the product, which has obviously improved with time, not much changed along the timeline of beer, until about 2000 years later.

The flavour of ancient beer, as you would expect, is nothing compared to what we drink today. Dr. Patrick McGovern, an alcohol archaeologist, in collaboration with some breweries, has been trying to recreate old, old recipes from all over the world and has described the flavours of them as quite bitter-less, sour and, in some cases, as tasting more like vinegar than like our modern beers. However there was one they brewed that was sweet and tasted like honey, so maybe there’s still hope of finding a palatable one.

5000 years ago is when we have evidence of beer being brewed and sold domestically; like us guys or you home-brewers do. So this is when your taverns and pubs, with all their gallivanting and raucous activity, that are portrayed in ancient TV shows and films, would have arisen. And this, seemingly, is how beer continued along for a long while, comfortably finding its part to play in the life of man; which is probably the same part it plays now, as a refreshing beverage after a long journey or a hard days work.

Skipping forward a little, (to when it starts to get interesting) and by the 7th century AD beer was still being brewed and sold domestically and also by European monasteries; partially for income but also to be supplied to weary travelers who were passing through. It around this time that hops were first used to flavour beer. Their use was first recorded by the head monk of an abbey in 822, however, this method of flavouring beer was slow to get going as getting the mix right was difficult to do. The process was finally perfected in the towns of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) by the 13th century. The use of hops greatly improved not only the flavour of beer but also the brewing process and the longevity of the beer, meaning that it could be transported further allowing more people to taste this much-improved product.

Next door, towns in Germany were pioneering a greater scale of operation by standardising barrel sizes, allowing for larger scale exports. Both of these improvements in brewing, hops and the standardisation of distribution networks, spread throughout Holland and the surrounding areas in the 14th century, before finally reaching Britain in the late 15th century. At first it was prohibited in England for a brewer to brew beer and ale in the same location (beer being with hops, and ale without), however by the 16th century this ruling had been dropped, as all brews were then being hopped and the term ale was only being used to refer to a stronger beer. All these changes around hops and standardised brewing techniques changed beer from a small scale domestic product to a larger scale export industry, fuelling the growth of specific breweries and providing the consumer with more choice.

The industrial revolution brought about yet more changes in the beer world, in essence industrializing beer itself. Improvements in technology and innovations in the brewing process further increased the efficiency of the process and the quality and consistency of the product. Technologies that were introduced to the brewing process included: the thermometer, the drum roaster, the beer engine (beer pump) and the hydrometer. The hydrometer gets a special mention because it revolutionised how beer was brewed. Before its use in the brewing process dark malts were used for dark beers, pale for pale beers, etcetera. With the introduction of the hydrometer brewers could calculate the yield of their malts, and upon realising certain things recipes were changed to ensure cost efficiency and quality of product.

The final big turn in the story of beer came during this period but its significance was not fully recognised until 1857, with Louis Pasteur’s completed work on pasteurization. With the invention of the microscope in the 1700’s yeast was “discovered”, but it wasn’t until Pasteur released his work on fermentation that its part in the brewing process was fully explained and realised. Before this yeast wasn’t considered an ingredient in beer and beer was fermented by wild, airborne strains. Since then we have discovered lager yeast, or bottom fermenting yeast, (before then making lager was a sort of brew and hope system) and have isolated and cultured hundreds of different strains, which brewers can now select from and order online. Once yeast’s importance was realised and recognised it was readily and widely accepted and even added to the, then 250 year old, Reinheitsgebot Act (the German Purity Law).

Since these discoveries and implementations the process of brewing has changed very little, however, the industry has grown from old-school, small-scale domestic production into a global industry dominated by major corporations. We’ve seen how this industry is beginning to change again in our look at The Craft Beer Debate: Defining Craft Beer, but nowadays brewers are resistant to any changes in the brewing process because they do not wish to lose the tradition, flavours, colours and aromas already present in their successful brews.

Well, there you have it! That’s the history of beer in a pint-sized-ish piece of information. There are many more interesting and humorous facts out there about beer (some true, some not) that we really wanted to include but we decided to stick to the relevant without overloading you with information. If you know of any post them in the comments section below for other beer lovers to discover too!