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A History of Beer
The word “beer” conjures up tall, sweaty glasses of sudsy, golden beverage. Made primarily from malt (a grain, such as barley), hops, yeast, and water, it is most likely the oldest alcoholic drink made by man. It is enjoyed in almost every culture and country in the world. Julius Caesar proclaimed it a “high and might liquor” (Bamforth). The late pop star Michael Jackson was even fond of saying that the United States was the best place on the planet to drink beer. It was also vilified during the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s.
Beer comes in different styles (lagers and ales) and types (amber ales, barley wine, IPA, pilsners, and stouts). To date, the Brewer’s Association has classified more than 140 different styles of beer (Patterson and Pulley). It truly is one of the world’s universal drinks.
The word “beer” could come from the Old English beor, which means “a strong drink, beer, or mead,” which itself could be derived from the Old Dutch bier or Old High German bior. Bior probably comes from the monastic West German borrowing of the Vulgar Latin biber (a drink or beverage). The word might also come from the proto-Germanic beuwoz, from beuwo, or “barely” (“Beer”).
Beer in Antiquity: 8000 B.C.
The early history of beer most likely coincides with the cultivation of grains in the Near East as early as 8000 B.C. in Sumeria, or modern-day Iraq. Sumerians called their beer kas, which literally meant “what the mouth desires” (Mosher). Beer was thought to have both magical and medicinal powers. It played an important role in Sumerian culture, where it was considered as important as bread and was used as a form of currency. It also had an important role in funeral rites.
Ancient beer hardly resembled the drink we enjoy today, and it was made out of a primitive kind of wheat called emmer This ancient beer hardly resembled the drink we know today. It was made out of malted six-row barley or a primitive type of wheat called emmer. The beer was always unfiltered and cloudy, and bitter sediment would gather at the bottom of the drinking vessels, necessitating the invention of special drinking straws to avoid the mush (Butler).
From the Sumerians, we have the oldest known written recipe, for a form of bread called bappir, which was baked in an earthen vat, soaked in water, and allowed to spontaneously ferment. This recipe, called “The Hymn to Ninkasi,” praised the Goddess Ninkasi, who was the brewer to the Gods and also taught the Sumerians how to make beer. It describes her as “the one who waters the malt set on the ground… You are the one who bakes the bappir-malt in the great oven…. You are the one who soaks the malt in the jar…the waves rise, the waves fall” (Oliver).
Egyptians: 3000 B.C.Ancient Egyptians called beer hekt, or hqt, and were widely brewing it by 3,000 B.C.
Beer brewing passed on from the Sumerians to the ancient Babylonians and then to the Egyptians, who called beer hekt, or hqt. By 3000 B.C., it was an established part of ancient Egyptian culture. Beer became their everyday drink because it was far healthier than the available water and was available to everyone from the pharaoh to the peasants.
The Egyptians had several kinds of beer, which they also brewed from grains such as barley and emmer. Different texts mention many kinds of ancient Egyptian beer, including some used solely for ceremonial purposes. They had “dark beer,” “sweet beer,” “thick beer,” “friends’ beer,” “garnished beer,” and “beer of the protector.” Hieroglyphs depict the gods who guarded the shrine of Osiris partaking of the “Beer of Truth.” The Egyptians built massive granaries, and both grain and beer were often offered as exchange for labor. It is also worth noting that brewing the beer was largely the work of women, a tradition that continued through various civilizations until the end of the Middle Ages (Oliver).
Greeks and Romans: 700 B.C. to A.D. 400
The Egyptians passed on their beer-brewing knowledge to the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks called it zythos because of its foaminess. They preferred wine because beer was considered rotten grain—and it was also the drink of their rivals.
The earliest mention of beer in Greek sources is by Archilochus in the 7th century B.C., commenting on Phrygians and Thracians drinking beer at parties. Fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus claimed that since grapes did not grow in Egypt, people there produced a kind of wine made from barley. The Greeks were impressed with the intoxicating power of beer, and Aristotle even wrote that other intoxicants make drinkers fall in any direction, but beer drinkers always fall backwards (Unger).
As the Romans spread their empire into the lands of Western Europe, they discovered peoples who were already brewing beer. The Germanic tribes were drinking barley- or wheat-based beer out of wooden vessels. The Celtic Briton and Hiberni (Irish) tribes were making a drink called courni from barley, which had been brewed in England since 3000 B.C. and was most likely the predecessor of the famous British ale (Oliver).
Conquering Romans found that the Celtic tribes in Britain and Ireland were already brewing a drink called courni from barley from about 3,000 B.C. that was most likely the predesccor of British ale For the Danes and Anglo-Saxons who came from Scandinavia and Germany, ale was their preferred beverage and was considered the perfect drink for heroes. The Norse seafarers prepared themselves for battle by drinking great tankards of ale and they comforted themselves with the thought if they should die in battle or on the sea, they would be drinking ale with their comrades in Valhalla.
Beer in the Middle Ages: A.D. 1000
During the 500-year period from A.D. 500 to 1000, beer brewing continued but without much advancement. It was mainly done by women, called alewives, using huge kettles outside their homes. However, by the beginning of the Middle Ages, after A.D. 1000, beer brewing was mainly done by the monasteries and convents of the Roman Catholic Church.
It was St. Benedict who established a monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy, in 525 and stressed the need for self-sufficiency, including the brewing of beer. By the early 800s, the monks of the monastery at St. Gallen in Switzerland had built the first full-scale brewing operation, and their floorplan would be recognizable to brewers working today. By the end of the first millennium, there were over 400 monasteries brewing beer in Germany alone, and numerous saints were associated with the practice including St. Augustine, St. Luke, and St. Nicholas among others (Denny).
In the early 1100s, German brewers began adding hops to their beer-brewing process, which preserved the beer longer and allowed it to be transported over longer distances In the early 1100s, German brewers introduced the addition of the hop to the beer-brewing process. Before hops, beer was made bittered and flavored with spice and herb mixtures called gruit. The female hop flower was shown to have certain oily acids that not only add flavor but deter bacterial growth as well. “Hopped” beer kept longer and could be transported longer distances. The first documented link between hops and brewing is from 822 when a Benedictine abbot wrote a series of statutes covering the running of the monastery that included gathering sufficient hops for brewing beer (Oliver).
The Catholic Church at first resisted allowing its monasteries to use hops because it made a lot of money selling gruit, but the breweries, especially in Central Europe, continued to use hops and became powerful beer-brewing centers.
Around 1300, King Wenceslas of Bohemia convinced the pope to revoke the brewing-beer ban outside the monasteries, and this led to the establishment of brewing guilds throughout Europe. Commercial brewing and trading boomed between countries. For example, Bavarians imported Czech beer from Budejovice that they called Buddwes—hence the name of the famous American beer Budweiser (Denny).
Beer in Colonial America: 1600s and 1700s
The English most likely brought beer to America. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have malted corn in Virginia as early as 1587, but it was the Pilgrims led by William Bradford who brought the first beer into the country aboard the Mayflower when it landed on Plymouth Rock in December 1620.
When their supply of English beer dwindled, the Pilgrims had to resort to brewing beer using an Indian corn. The Wampanoag Tribe, led by Chief Squanto, showed the settlers how to mash and ferment the grain into a beer-like drink. The Pilgrims barely survived that first winter, and in the fall of 1621, as a part of celebrating the bounty of the first harvest and a hunt with the Wampanoag tribe, they tapped a keg (Smith).
European-style brewing was soon introduced to the New World with whatever grain could be found or grown. As the colonial cities grew during the 1700s, so did their breweries. They made the same kinds of beer found in England at the time, including other sugars such as molasses to supplement the malt. Farmhouses making their own beer brewed with barley malt, wheat, corn, pumpkins, peas, and spices (Oliver).
Beer cocktails also became popular in Colonial America. Most of the earliest recorded recipes for these drinks included eggs, with half the beer as a base. Once thoroughly mixed with other ingredients such as brown sugar and a touch of rum, the concoction was heated. Well blended, the remaining beer was added and the drink was served immediately. Initially, the word “hum” was used to describe any sort of heated ale and beer mixture. It was typically sold and presented in a small glass called a “hum-glass.” Hum was also a popular medication and eventually evolved into a beer laced with a spirit and then heated. It was said to have considerable strength (Smith).
Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Franklin had his own recipe for a spruce beer that he called “Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale” that he acquired while serving on diplomatic duty in Paris As they had no easy supply of hops, colonial citizens turned to perfecting a new kind of beer, the spruce beer, and even Benjamin Franklin had his own recipe, called Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale, that he acquired while serving on a peace treaty commission in Paris and shared with the general public. It called for one pot of essence of spruce and 13 pounds of molasses added to the sugar, yeast, and water and then allowed to ferment (ibid).
Finally, it is worth noting that George Washington was great lover of beer. He kept a sort of beer journal, or recipe book, where he recorded a recipe for small beer called Tavern Porter, made with a sizable substitution of molasses, while on duty with the British in the French and Indian War.
After Thomas Jefferson retired from public service, he too applied himself to home brewing beer at his Monticello estate in 1812 with the help of The Theory and Practice of Brewing by Englishman Michael Combrune, published in 1804. And in 1810 James Madison thought about creating a federal brewery at the suggestion of a New York City brewer named Joseph Coppinger.
The American Midwest and Big Breweries: Mid 1800s
By the middle of the 19th century, millions of European immigrants were flooding into the United States. Among them were Germans who brought with them their knowledge of brewing lager beer in 1840. The introduction of this style of beer in America heralded a golden age for beer brewing in the country. Before lager was introduced, all beers brewed in the U.S. were warm-fermented ales. John Wagner brought a bottom-fermented lager yeast from Bavaria and set up a small, eight-barrel brewery in the back of his home in Philadelphia. He then “lagered,” or stored, the beer in his cellar (Oliver).
The wave of beer-loving German and Irish immigrants, who were fleeing famine, ensured the success of this beer, and for the next 80 years, larger breweries sprung up around the country, with New York City having by far the most. It would be the golden age of big breweries, such as Pabst, Miller, Stroh’s, Coors, and Anheuser Busch.
In 1860, 55-year-old Eberhard Anheuser bought the struggling Bavarian Brewery in St. Louis, Missouri. When his daughter married a young immigrant from Mainz, Germany, named Adolphus Busch, he brought in his new son-in-law as partner, and the mighty Anheuser-Busch company was born. At the time, Anheuser’s Brewery ranked 29th out of St. Louis’ 40 breweries (Bamforth).
In 1865, Adolphus Busch and his colleague Carol Conrad invented a new kind of beer that they called Budweiser, which is still one of most best-selling beers worldwide today In 1865, Busch developed a new brand of beer with the assistance of his winemaker and restauranteur friend Carol Conrad, which would be uniform quality wherever it was drunk, and it was guaranteed to satisfy all beer drinkers. This new beer was called Budweiser and it would go on to become what is still one of the best-selling beers in the world to this day.
When Eberhard Anheuser died in 1880, Adolphus Busch took over the company as sole owner. He didn’t give business acquaintances his card, but rather a pocketknife with a peephole revealing his photograph. He was the first to recognize that American society was changing and he made it a priority to keep up with the advancing technology. He used developments in refrigeration and pasteurization to open up the entire country to his beer. In 1896, he established another great brand, Michelob, and by 1901 Anheuser-Busch was brewing more than 1 million barrels per year (ibid).
Prohibition: 1920s and 1930s
On January 26, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, forbidding “the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor.” It was approved by all but two states. That same year, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which gave the federal government the right to enforce the ban on all intoxicating liquor, defined as a drink containing in excess of 0.5% alcohol (Bamforth).
After the start of Prohibition in January 1920, beer companies in the United States had to destroy their stocks, close their doors, or turn their beer into other products such as ice cream or syrups Most of the beer stocks in the United States had to be destroyed, and some of the biggest names in beer brewing, such as Lemp in St. Louis, closed forever. Other companies took their beer and tried to turn into other products such as ice cream, nonalcoholic malt-based beverages (including “near beer”), yeast, and syrups.
The time between 1920 and the repeal of the 18th Amendment became known as Prohibition, or “the Noble Experiment.” During this period, illegal home brewing and bootlegging as well as speakeasies flourished as people still sought ways to obtain their alcoholic drinks, including beer. One Prohibition agent in New York City reckoned that there were 100,000 speakeasies, or covert drinking clubs, in the city in 1926 alone. Gangsters in Chicago, such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars in illegal alcohol sales. The American public was beginning to feel that these gangsters were out of control (ibid).
Then the 1929 Wall Street crash and the Great Depression hit America, and the country was basically broke. Prohibition wasn’t working anyway, and the government wanted the lost revenue from liquor taxes. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran on a platform to repeal Prohibition and won the presidency in a landslide.
Prohibition was officially repealed on April 7, 1933, at midnight. At 12:01 a.m., the brewers in Milwaukee and St. Louis opened their doors and shipped 15 million bottles of beer. The first shipment of beer from Anheuser-Busch was taken immediately to the airport and flown to the White House. Pro-repeal lobbyists in New York received their shipment by the company’s own Clydesdale horses (ibid).
Modern Beer: 1970s and 1980s
By 1970, the nation’s five biggest breweries were producing nearly half of all America’s commercially made beer. By the middle of the 20th century, Americans were drinking an average of 21 gallons of beer per year, up from 18 before Prohibition (Acitelli). Almost without exception, the only kind of beer a person could buy commercially looked the same and tasted the same.
Lite beer was born in 1972 when a waiter introduced George WPeissman, chairman of Philip Morris International, was offered a German beer called diet Pilsner Then, George Weissman, chairman of Philip Morris International, went on a diet. In 1972, he went out to dinner with John Murphy, the new president of Miller Brewing, which Philip Morris had just purchased. A waiter at the restaurant offered Weissman a German beer called diet pilsner (Diät pils), which was low in sugar and specifically made for diabetics. Murphy and Weissman took the waiter up on his suggestion. Murphy said after tasting the beer, “There has to be room for something like this in America.” Soon thereafter “Miller Lite” beer was born and, within a generation, almost half the beer sold in the United States would be light (ibid).
Craft brewing also took off in the 1970s. In 1965, there was only one craft brewery in the entire United States: Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. Within the next 30 years, the number of American craft—or small, independent, specialty—brewers would increase 500 percent. In 2014, craft beer made up 10% of the entire beer industry (Snider).
Top current trends in beer include nano breweries and local breweries, which are small operations often started by home brewers, working for the love of beer. They typically brew just one batch at a time for a limited clientele, such as family, friends, and maybe a local bar.
To create the unique flavors in sour beer, certain wild yeasts have to be added during the fermentation process. These yeasts are responsible for the beer’s sour flavor, which have earthy tones and have been compared to bandage or barnyards. These beers can range from slightly tart to downright puckering. Besides sour beers, schwarzbiers (black beer), smoked beers, low-hopped, and old-style European ales are also making combacks (“Top Beer Trends”).
Some countries turned more to wine and spirits, but others—like the United States, where the average American drinks 22 gallons of beer a year—remain beer-drinking countries. In fact, beer is the third most widely consumed beverage after tea and water (Patterson and Pulley). Love it or hate it, beer can be found in one form or another in almost every culture. Perhaps the earliest drink known to man after mother’s milk and water, it is almost certainly the oldest alcoholic drink known to history.
-- Posted August 7, 2015
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Bamforth, Charles: 2009. Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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Denny, Mark. 2009. Froth! The Science of Beer. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Snider, Mike. “Craft Beer Trends: Sour, Less Boozy, Collaborations.” USA Today. May 11, 2014. Accessed June 8, 2015.
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