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Definition: brewing from Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary

The production of beer, ale, and malt liquors by a process involving a complex series of enzymatic reactions. The most important of these is the conversion of starch to a malt extract (wort), which in turn is fermented with yeast. Mashing is the preparation of wort from malt and cereals by enzymatic hydrolysis, after which the product is boiled with hops, which impart the characteristic taste and aroma of beer. The malt extract must contain the nutrients required for yeast growth. Mashing involves a complex interplay of chemical and enzymatic reactions that are not fully understood. Few changes have been made in the basic brewing processes for more than a century, but increased automatic operation and quality-control techniques ensure a consistently good product.

See fermentation; yeast; wort.

Summary Article: Brewing
from Alcohol in Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia

Brewing in its broadest sense is a combination and sequence of chemical mixing processes for preparing raw cereal grains so that their starchy carbohydrates can undergo fermentation by yeast, thus producing ethanol or alcohol for human consumption. The modern meaning of brewing is restricted to the production of beer, although technically, tea, sake, soy sauce, and certain biofuels are also produced by brewing processes.


Raw cereal grains are difficult to consume when first harvested. To extract their nutrients, brewing is required to convert the tough grain starches into a sugary liquid, which in turn is converted into alcohol by the process of fermentation via the addition of yeast.

More specifically, brewing is a lengthy process requiring the following sequence of steps: (1) “malting,” or the conversion of raw grain to a malted starch, via steeping in water, germinating and subsequent heating in a dry kiln; (2) “milling,” or cracking the malted grains to further soften them; (3) “mashing,” or adding hot water to the cracked grain, then extracting the larger solids to leave a sugary solution called the “wort”; (4) “brewing,” or boiling the wort, then mixing in selected additives (e.g., hops for flavoring), then extracting the smaller solids to produce a refined wort; (5) “cooling” the refined wort quickly in a separate cooling tank so that yeasts can be added; (6) “fermenting” the cooled wort in a separate fermentation tank by adding selected yeasts so that the sugars in the wort can be converted into alcohol; (7) “racking” in a separate conditioning tank so that the flavors of the alcohol can be improved by aging; (8) “finishing” the recipe by filtering (if required), stabilizing the flavors, polishing, fixing the final color, and so on; (9) carbonating the finished product; (10) moving the finished product to a holding tank; and (11) packaging, finally, in bottles, cans, kegs, or tanks.


Copper kettles used for brewing beer.

(Kai Koehler/Dreamstime)

The end result of this lengthy brewing process is beer, a fermented alcoholic beverage based on recipes of the four basic ingredients of water, malted grains, brewer's yeast, and preservative flavoring components (e.g., fruit, herbs, hops).

Almost any substance containing sugar or starch can be substituted for the malted grains. Malted barley is traditionally used, though mixtures of starches can be used in a brewing recipe, depending on what is locally available in the natural environment and/or commercially available in regional, national, and international markets. For example, other common grain sources include rye and wheat from Europe, maize (corn) from the Americas, rice from Asia, and sugar from the Caribbean. Less widely used starches for certain locally produced beers include millet, sorghum, and cassava root in Africa, potato in Brazil and Peru, and agave in Mexico.


Though brewing involves many decisions about source ingredients and the corresponding manipulation of the physical properties of the final product, the basic brewing process itself crosses national and cultural boundaries. At the simplest level, beer style is a function of locally available yeast strains and yearly climate patterns, for these two environmental variables minimally determine whether lagers (bottom-fermenting yeasts), ales (top-fermenting yeasts), lambics (wild yeasts) or hybrids are brewed.

Beyond obvious choices of ingredients and style, culture also specifies who can brew (householders, religious specialists, craft specialists, guilds, corporations), where brewing can take place (households, taverns, monasteries, restaurants, breweries, factories, microbreweries), in what social contexts brewing can occur (domestic, religious, scientific, commercial, national, international), and how brewing can be celebrated (literary arts, performing arts, visual arts, festivals).

Origins and History

Beer is one of the oldest human-made beverages. On present ceramic and documentary evidence, brewing of fermented rice occurred in China some 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, and at that same time, brewing was frequently mentioned in the literature of ancient Mesopotamia. Specifically, in the Code of Hammurabi, laws regulate Babylonian beer production and consumption from 4,000 years ago; in the Hymn to Ninkasi, a prayer to the Sumerian goddess of beer offers a poetic brewing recipe from 3,800 years ago; and in the Epic of Gilgamesh, ancient Iraqi brewing traditions are described from 3,200 years ago.

In ancient Egypt, brewing was especially important: over 5,000 years ago, beer fed the political elites, and in later periods, it was a sacrament, a sacrificial offering, and a medical treatment. Recent research also suggests that the political elites provided beer as compensation to the laborers who built some of the monumental architectural structures in the Giza Plateau.

Diffusion of brewing practices then spread from Egypt to Greece 3,000 years ago; from Greece to Rome 2,000 years ago; and from Rome to the early Anglo-Saxon tribes in Britain 1,500 years ago. During the subsequent rise of Christianity in Western Europe, brewing professionalized in monasteries. Monks produced beer as part of their religious duties and organized themselves into early trade guilds. Monastic breweries also supported church efforts by providing shelter, food, and refreshment to travelers and pilgrims during medieval times, and some of this religious preoccupation is evidenced by numerous Christian saints who are also patrons of brewing (e.g., St. Nicholas).

Brewing practices also spread through Western Europe by Germanic and Celtic tribes some 5,000 years ago, although these brewing practices were domestic and secular. As in the early origins of beer production in Mesopotamia, women were the primary brewers—in domestic households and also in the commercial taverns of medieval Europe. Interestingly, one of the first historical mentions of the use of hops was in 1067 AD by a literate Church woman, the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen.

Industrialization and Modernity

In Western Europe, brewing remained primarily a domestic activity of the household through the medieval period. By the fifteenth century, though, domestic brewing had been replaced by a combination of brewing in monasteries, pubs, and early commercial brewing companies. In this early modern period, brewing practices were codified and regulated by villages, cities, and, in some cases, nations.

During the Industrial Revolution, improvements and inventions in brewing technology made mass-produced European beer a reality. In quick succession, the following inventions were introduced and adopted by brewers: thermometers in 1760, steam engines in 1765, hydrometers in 1770, and drum roasters in 1817. Finally, the discovery of the role of yeast in fermentation by Louis Pasteur in 1857 further aided brewer knowledge by describing those chemical processes that sour beer.

In North America, a similar pattern evolved with some uniquely American twists: In the colonial period, brewing occurred in a variety of social contexts, including the household, the tavern, and in both craft and commercial breweries. Prohibition, however, devastated the thousands of brewery businesses in existence in the early twentieth century. Some of these businesses survived by converting their operations to the production of soft drinks (a modern American contribution to global beverage production), or by running their businesses illegally, which had some impact on developing a mainstream American beer palate that preferred lighter (watered-down) beers.

After repeal, surviving commercial breweries consolidated and grew into giant beer companies with industrialized quality control, mass production and mass marketing through the new medium of advertising. Consolidation also happened by merger and acquisition aimed at shutting down the operations of smaller rivals. It was not until the late twentieth century that small craft brewers and microbreweries reemerged, and by the early twenty-first century, the number of North American microbreweries and brewpubs finally eclipsed the number of breweries during the pre-Prohibition era.

Today, modern American craft breweries exhibit an inventiveness that defies culture-bound tradition, producing traditional styles from other countries, modern re-creations of ancient styles (e.g., Belgium lambics), and even styles that have never existed before, such as chili beer and cream ales. At the same time, a handful of multinational corporations use technological advances in refrigerated transport and international shipping to market mass-produced and nondescript grain-based liquids all over the globe. Brewing, in fact, is now big business, with total global revenues exceeding $300 billion in 2007. As well, home brewing has returned to the scene, providing additional economies of scale for this ancient cultural behavior. (See also Home-Brew.)

Further Reading
  • Arnold, John P. Origin and History of Beer and Brewing: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science and Technology. Reprint, Cleveland, OH, 2005 (1911).
  • Civil, Miguel, trans. “The Hymn to Ninkasi—Making Beer” (literature of Sumeria, nineteenth century BC).
  • Nelson, Max. The Barbarian's Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe. Routledge London, 2008.
  • Ogle, Maureen. Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. Harcourt Orlando, FL, 2007.
  • Palmer, John J. How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First Time. Brewers Publications Boulder, CO, 2006.
  • Percival, Sean. “History Lesson: The Story of Beer.” Manolith.
  • Smith, Gregg. Beer in America: The Early Years—1587-1840: Beer's Role in the Settling of America and the Birth of a Nation. Siris Books Boulder, CO, Brewers Publications, 1998.
  • Saenz, Karen Eilene
    Copyright 2010 Rachel Black

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