The history of beer is frequently regarded as the history of human civilization, inextricably linked to humankind's social, cultural, and political interactions. In ancient times, beer nourished kings and slaves alike, and the transformations that occurred during brewing practices were frequently attributed to deities and forms of divine intervention. Historically considered a mundane household chore, brewing has at other times seen unrivaled regulation and mechanization. It has served as a tool of political unrest and revolution and as a symbol of peacetime and creative expression. Controlled fermentation, which selects for certain ingredients and environmental conditions, remains an integral part of cultures throughout the world. Converting starches to sugars, and the subsequent fermentation of those sugars is a specific process known as brewing; the resulting product is known as beer.
The human-mediated brewing process is thought to have emerged roughly 5,000 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a region now identified as Mesopotamia or the Fertile Crescent. There is some debate about the technical origins of beer and brewing, but it is believed that grain supplies, buried underground or simply left outdoors, interacted with moisture and began to sprout. Sprouting grain initiates an enzymatic reaction that begins to convert starches into sugar. When heated and dried again, perhaps naturally or by an individual attempting to bake bread, the enzyme-modified starches break down into simple sugars ready for fermentation. Historians credit ancient Sumerians as the first creators of a human civilization; lower Mesopotamia's capacity to produce ingredients for beer appears to have shaped their decision to settle there.
The earliest literary accounts of brewing date to 1800 b.c.e., when the ancient Sumerian “Hymn to Ninkasi” glorified the Sumerian goddess of beer. Ninkasi, represented by an ear of barley, provided fermented beverages to the temples and religious centers of Sumeria. Composed of two Sumerian songs, the hymn represents one of the oldest discovered works of literature. One song provides instructions for brewing, while the other sings praises of Ninkasi for her generous bounty, capable of altering moods and bringing great joy. Ninkasi taught her followers how to brew beer, which was known as kas.
Early literary records are not the only Sumerian relics found still bearing the stamp of beer and brewing traditions. Shards of Sumerian pottery bear deposits of calcium oxalate. Also known as beer stone, these deposits are a known by-product of brewing processes. Furthermore, the clay jars used to brew and hold beer also serve as the Sumerian symbol for beer, one of many pictographs that compose the Sumerian written language.
Codified soon after the Sumerians praised Ninkasi for her abundant and fermented gifts, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi illustrates the economic importance of beer. This early legal code regulated the price of beer sold in taverns, classified beer into 20 different categories, based on ingredients, and established other rules for the production and sale of beer. Strictly and ruthlessly imposed, the Code of Hammurabi marks the beginning of a long line of brewing regulations and beer laws.
Around 3000 b.c.e., Sumerian brewing culture had also diffused into Egypt. Being healthier and heartier than water, beer became the most commonly consumed Egyptian beverage. Funerary offerings such as beer jugs and beer straws showcase beer as consumed by social elites, while descriptions of beer as payment frequent the records that shed light on lower castes. Like their Sumerian and Babylonian contemporaries, Egyptian women were the primary producers of beer, and they brewed several different styles from several different varieties of grain. Barley and emmer, an ancient wheat cultivar, were ingredients in everything from peasant libations to Osiris's beer of truth. This rich brewing tradition continued even after the Greeks conquered the region under Alexander the Great in 332 b.c.e.
Preferring wine, which they consumed in great quantities, the ancient Greeks and Romans were not primarily beer drinkers. Instead, they associated beer production and consumption with the conquered people of Egypt and with barbaric Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic tribes, for whom beer was an important element of subsistence. Roman scribes provide the first written accounts of Germanic brewing, noting its corrupt resemblance to wine and an aromatic likeness to goats and livestock. Yet, even the Romans eventually succumbed to beer drinking, for beer was easier to produce than wine and provided a more reliable source of energy for Rome's wayward troops. Evidence of Rome's brewing history lies near Regensburg, Bavaria, where a recently unearthed brewery indicates the earliest known “modern” brewing facility—complete with mash tuns and boil kettles.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476, monasteries began producing beer in order to sustain themselves and traveling guests, and by the early 800s, St. Gallen monastery of Switzerland had constructed the first full-scale brewery in Europe. At this time, beer was produced with gruit, the assortment of herbs used to flavor and preserve beer before the introduction and widespread adoption of hops. Composed primarily of bog myrtle (also known as sweet gale), yarrow, and wild rosemary, gruit may be made of any number of herbal constituents, including wild hops. Throughout this early period of European history, the Catholic Church controlled the sales and taxation of gruit until the surfacing of the Reformation in the early 16th century brought with it a new law that would forever change the face of beer.
In 1516, the German Reinheitsgebot, otherwise known as the Beer Purity Law, restricted the use of anything but malted barley, hops, and water for all bottom-fermented (lager) beers. As yeast's relationship to fermentation was not discovered until 1857, the law would later be amended so that the microorganism would also be allowed. At the time of Reinheitsgebot's inception, brewers and bakers competed for grain and other ingredients. The Purity Law effectively insured that specialty grains such as wheat and rye went to bakers rather than brewers. While the law initially applied only to lagers, most ale brewers eventually adopted it as well.
Reinheitsgebot has endured numerous revisions and amendments and is now part of the modern German tax law, but it is important to note that two versions of the Beer Purity Law exist. A Bavarian version allows for additions of malted wheat and malted rye but only for top-fermenting ales. A German version is more lenient, allowing for various adjunct sugars and coloring additions made from those sugars. The historical validity of the name Reinheitsgebot is also frequently misunderstood. While the law is more than half a millennium old, the current name was coined in an act of the Bavarian Parliament in 1918. Even so, Reinheitsgebot is the world's oldest, continuous example of food and consumer safety legislation.
Roughly 100 years after the establishment of Reinheitsgebot, when British colonists settled in the Americas, small beer (beers around 2 to 3 percent alcohol by volume [ABV]) existed as a staple beverage. Indeed, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 chiefly because of dwindling beer supplies. Much like Ancient Babylon and Egypt, women were the primary domestic producers of beer in the colonies, producing small batches for consumption by individual families and social units. After a short period of acclimation in which adjustments to the American climate and lack of proper equipment interfered with brewing processes, male brewers and tavern keepers began producing beer on a more commercial scale. As a significant amount of commercially produced beer was sold as military and ship rations or was traded for goods from other colonies, domestic brewing continued to produce the majority of beer consumed by colonists. Not until the mid-1800s did commercial breweries replace home brewers as the main producers of domestically consumed beer.
Colonial brewing ingredients varied as widely as those used by contemporary brewers. Imported ingredients were a precious commodity and prohibitively expensive, and resourceful colonial brewers were forced to use unconventional adjuncts. Brewers used molasses as a common wort supplement, and frequently added new world fruits and vegetables for flavor and to further boost the amount of fermentable sugars. Occasionally they used peaches and persimmons, for example, and spruce was a common preservative. Pumpkin, in particular, was a common addition to the mashing process. A squash of plentiful proportion, its starches easily converted into simple sugars ripe for the production of alcohol. Knowledge of these indigenous brewing alternatives would prove important in the tumultuous era brought on by the impending revolution.
Frothing with patriotic pride, colonists relied on domestic brewing and beer to negotiate a turbulent time. Political centers such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia thrived on beer, which was prized by both royalist and rebel alike, and taverns frequently served as hotbeds of philosophical discussion and political unrest. Even the student bodies of Harvard University and the College of William and Mary, the colonies' two oldest academic institutions, had breweries on site or otherwise included beer in the students' daily rations. Colonial patriots such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were also great proponents of beer; they not only consumed beer in great quantities but also brewed their own. Samuel Adams, the namesake of the Boston Beer Company, came from a long line of malsters and brewers. Many of these founding fathers recorded beer recipes that survive today, and several of these recipes have been brewed by or adapted by modern brewers in order to pay homage to colonial brewing traditions and revolutionary era leaders.
In London, where the Industrial Revolution began, factories and widespread manufacturing introduced the dark porter as a new style of beer. The scientific revolution of the late 17th century began to divorce brewing from its domestic settings, and the introduction of the steam engine to the brewing process in the late 18th century solidified beer's place as a beverage of the industrial era. As boons of the brewing trade, advances in refrigeration and transportation would also help increase the efficiency of production and distribution practices. These advancements would soon diffuse throughout the Western world and would aid in the transportation of beer to locations as far away as India.
The mid-19th century saw an increase in German immigration to the United States. As a result, German and Czech lagers began to replace English-style ales. By 1873, the golden era of American brewing peaked with more than 4,000 breweries. Around 1900, Michael Joseph Owens's invention of the first automated glass bottle manufacturing machine spurred the industry ever closer to complete commercial production. People could now cheaply purchase small quantities of beer for consumption at home, thus saving the time and energy associated with home brewing. In response to the rapid industrialization of the United States, the mechanization of the brewing and bottling industries was able to provide an increasingly stressed population with an ever-growing supply of cheap alcohol.
Back in Germany, the 19th century was an age of new beer styles. Paulaner Brewery first produced its Salvator doppelbock in 1835. In 1838, the Düsseldorf-based Schumacher produced the first modern iteration of the altbier. By the end of the century, the Vienna lager, German and Bohemian pilsner, märzenbier, and Oktoberfest were all distinct styles. With the advent of railroad networks, pasteurization, thermometers, and hydrometers, among other advances, German brewing culture experienced incredible growth, ultimately leading to Germany's distinction as a brewing powerhouse.
Booming as it was, the alcohol industry in the United States did not grow unchecked. Temperance advocates began to demonize alcohol as a major cause of pandemic immorality. After a few decades of lobbying, antialcohol laws were passed on a national scale. The introduction of Prohibition, the period between 1919 and 1933 when the production and distribution of alcohol were illegal in the United States, hamstrung the growth of the United States beer industry. Ironically, the Noble Experiment (another moniker for the period of Prohibition) was also responsible for the resurgence of home brewing and home distilling. With commercial production outlawed, individuals returned to the largely unmonitored and unregulated realm of domestic alcohol production.
While home brewing practices increased, Prohibition crippled the American beer industry. Out of the estimated 1,400 breweries in operation before Prohibition, barely 100 remained afterward. Upon Prohibition's repeal, a generation of Americans who had known nothing but soft drinks and other sugary beverages rejected traditional, frequently bitter beers in favor of modern, sweeter beers made of corn and rice adjuncts. Using this cultural shift in taste as a foothold, American macrobreweries with flagship light lagers began to emerge as industry leaders. The mass-marketed beer produced by these industry giants had far less flavor than its pre-Prohibition counterpart. Forty to 50 years after the repeal of Prohibition, American brewers and consumers once again began to champion the diversity of pre-Prohibition brewing.
In the 1970s and 1980s, England saw a resurgence of microbreweries, whose flavorful and unique beers inspired the development of the United States' own microbrewery renaissance. With the legalization of home brewing in 1978, American brewers began slowly producing all-malt flagships and small batches of ales and lagers. Since then, more than 2,000 breweries have opened around the country. Though these craft breweries account for approximately 7 percent of the U.S. beer industry, they represent a quickly growing market segment and a global brewing trend that favors creativity and self-expression over strict style guidelines. In response to craft beer growth, large industrial brewing companies have merged into even larger, in some cases transnational, brewing corporations. While craft beer remains primarily a North American phenomenon, the concept is beginning to find favor among British producers and consumers and is even starting to emerge in the more traditional German market.
See Also: Brewing Beer, Techniques of; Craft Brewing Culture; Grain Alcohol: Ancient Era Through Middle Ages; Local Breweries; Prohibition
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