A Totally Incomplete and Unauthorised History of Beer

Some people think that beer is merely a method for getting hedged or unlocking social mores. Others may associate it with de-stressing or drowning one’s sorrows in a glass after a long hard day. Whether for amusement, socialising, or to forget, these modern associations all point to one thing: escapism.

When it comes to human history, this line of thinking oversimplifies the origins of beer and its importance since the dawn of civilisation. Beer finds its roots in much more than just being a facilitator of a good time. In some cultures, it was a necessary form of sustenance and in others, it facilitated access to the spiritual world. 

The Beginning

It may surprise many that beer in some form has been around as nearly far back as recorded human history, if not prior. The earliest example of alcoholic fermentation was discovered in 13,000-year-old residues of a gruel-like and cereal-based substance. It has been deduced that this “beer” was used by the semi-nomadic Natufians as part of a feasting ritual in the caves of the Carmel Mountains of Israel. 

Many archaeological findings support the theory that cultures around the world discovered beer separately and in their own time frame. Forensic chemical testing found the remnants of fermented cereals on pottery dating around 3500 BC in what is modern-day Iran. And in China, evidence of fermented beverages has been found dating back as far as 7000 BC.

The Goddess of Beer

Many in the beer world will be familiar with the Sumerian goddess, Ninkasi. There’s a famous Regional brewery in Oregon that’s taken goddesses’ moniker. Not to mention the most prestigious homebrewing award given out by American Homebrewers Association. Now, why is that? Ninkasi was the Goddess of Beer.

Beer was so important to the Sumerians, they had written down the world’s first beer recipe on clay tablets way back in 4000 BC! According to the extinct civilization, one only needs to combine bread with malted and soaked grains. Then let it ferment and filter it.

This ancient poetry as it turns out was actually a hymn to Ninkasi, The Goddess of Beer. After giving explaining how to make beer, the poem ends: 

“When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.”

Of course, the Sumerians couldn’t know about yeast at the time. Rather instead, they had a better explanation for the magic of alcoholic fermentation: divine intervention.

The Europe of Rome

It is safe to say that beer became vital to grain-growing and farm-based civilisations such as the Egyptians. Like the Sumer, those in Egypt drank a sludge-like fermented cereal beverage through long thin reeds that filtered out the nasty and bitter by-products of fermentations

Skipping ahead to the Roman Empire, we can find plenty of evidence of the beer diaspora, possibly from the Middle East, throughout most of Europe. As it turns out, a recent highway dig discovered  British beer that far pre-dates the Roman invasions. Electron microscopy reviewed evidence of British beer brewing found dating back to 400 BC.

So when the Romans first arrived in Britain between 55 and 54 BC, they found the local people to be drinking a beer known as curmi. Hops were not integral to beer at this time. Instead this brew was flavoured with herbs and spices. 

Romans are known for wine and deservedly so. And plenty of Roman historians have made known their distaste for the barbaric beverage of beer. However, there is evidence of many Romans enjoying beer. This includes an account of Roman Legionnaires garrisoned in England requesting more beer to be sent as they had run dry of the good stuff.

Medieval Europe, Where are the Hops?

By the middle ages, beer brewing was the norm for most parts of Europe, especially the Northern and Eastern parts. We all know beer today as having malt, hops, yeast, and water. But as we’ve seen, this wasn’t the case for thousands of years.

The first account was beer with hops from the early 9th century (822 AD). Before that and for a long time after, beer was flavoured with a mixture of local spices and herbs that were known as gruit. These additives were meant to help preserve the beer from spoilage. But more likely, they were an attempt to mask offensive flavours and odours ranging from mouldy to barnyard or worse.

Reinheitsgebot

Today the use of hops in beer is mostly credited to the Germans, or more specifically the Kingdom of Bohemia. This is mostly due to what is known as the Reinheitsebot, aka The Gebot. The beer purity law has been covered in romance by hipsters and neckbeards alike. However, reality paints a much different picture. 

The Gebot was first passed in Munich in 1497 and eventually ratified for all of Bavaria in April of 1516. At the time, the restrictions on beer ingredients were for water, barley and hops. Of course, with Louis Pasteur some three centuries away, brewers were not yet aware of the existence of microorganisms such as yeast

The Bavarian purity law involved much more than a simple ingredients list. Welding powers that would make the founders of CAMRA green with envy, the Gebot also set forth what time of year beer could be brewed and its price.

The Gebot was adopted by the Duke of Bavaria to prevent price competition with bakers for malts such as wheat and rye. This also set Northern German brewers at a disadvantage as many of their beers involved ingredients outside of malt and hops. In other words, the Duke gave Bavarian beers an instantaneous market advantage. 

Lager is Life

We must apologise. There is a lot that happened in farmhouse brewing across Europe as well as the British Empire with its Porters and Imperial India Ales. Unfortunately, we will have to zoom past that to a more important point of history relative to the state of global brewing as it stands today.

There was just one more thing that needed to happen so that you could suck down that mass-produced pale pilsner on your summer holiday. And that was for Louis Pasteur to help usher in modern brewing science. His work also led to the identification of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces pastorianus

These two discoveries would change the trajectory of beer brewing forever. With the latter microorganism eventually leading pale lagers to total world domination. There’s a lot more to the story. Read more about Louis’s discovery of pasteurisation on our blog.

Soon afterwards the invention of the hydrometer and the thermometer would bring a level of consistency never seen before that exponentially level up industrial brewing (alongside things like refrigeration and drum roasters).

Across the Pond

Always a melting pot, early Americans held to the brewing traditions of their European homelands. According to Dale P. Van Wieren, the first colonists in Virginia were brewing ale using corn in 1587. From about 1650 to 1800, the first English and Dutch settlers began growing malt, hops, and brewing beers. A 1660 map of New Amsterdam showed at least 6 brewhouses

One can only wonder what seasonal brewpub specials were kicking about back then, tobacco-infused porter anyone? Was it a typical brewlyfe - someone thought a 9% Saison was a perfect refreshment for summertime?

Even founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid homebrewers. We can only assume that the early discussions that would become the Declaration of Independence took place over several pints of locally brewed beer. 

All postulating aside, by the early 19th century the US was well on its way to producing ales and crispy lagers. In fact, commercial brewing was booming across the country from the 1860s as depicted in the below figure. 

Year

National Production (millions of barrels)

Number of Breweries

Average Brewery Size (thousands of barrels)

1865

3.7

2,252

1,643

1870

6.6

3,286

2,009

1875

9.5

2,783

3,414

1880

13.3

2,741

4,852

1885

19.2

2,230

8,610

1890

27.6

2,156

12,801

1895

33.6

1,771

18,972

1900

39.5

1,816

21,751

1905

49.5

1,847

26,800

1910

59.6

1,568

38,010

1915

59.8

1,345

44,461

Source: United States Brewers Association, 1979 Brewers Almanac, Washington DC

*One US barrel = 117.35 L

You’ll notice we didn’t get to 1920. Well, there’s a good reason for that.

Prohibition

Prohibition was always on the agenda for many American protestants and 1920 was their perfect storm. In 1918, the US Congress had already passed a temporary wartime ban on beverages stronger than 1.25% ABV.  Getting political support for a complete and permanent ban was merely a tiny stretch of the imagination. 

Today, academics debate on whether or not prohibition was like jet fuel for the growth and widespread dissemination of organised crime. By 1925, it was estimated that between 30,000 and 100,000 illegal speakeasies were operating across the country. But things were about to get ugly.

The US government had become frustrated with all of this illegal boozing. In 926, The US Treasury Department oversaw the addition of denaturing compounds and poisons to industrial alcohol. The effect was seen immediately, with nearly 1200 people sickened in New York City by poisonous alcohol in just the tail end of 1926. 

By mid-1927 the US government was aware that the poison was not diminishing alcohol intake and only causing harm. And yet they decided to continue the program, accounting for an estimated 10,000 deaths. The prevalence of the theory of Eugenics at the time would likely have only emboldened them as they targeted the “flawed” genes in that of drinkers. 

Light Beer is on its Way

Although the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933, the damage to America’s brewing industry was already done. Once more than 1000 strong, the surviving breweries of the alcohol ban were few. This elimination of local and regional competition encouraged a monopolistic orgy of commercial brewing. The effects of which were only amplified throughout World War II a la disaster capitalism. 

Breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Coors Brewing Company found themselves among the big winners. And wartime brewing had led to the use of low-cost ingredients like corn and rice to supplement their industrial produced lagers. They also used fewer and fewer hops, which resulted in beers with 10 IBUs or lower. 

After the war, America’s palates had shifted toward these lightly flavoured pale pilsners. Mergers and acquisitions by the big brewers continued well into the 1970s. According to the Beer Institute, the US had a total of just 44 breweries in 1979.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, light lagers such as Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Light were dominating the market. And in the eyes of European brewers, Americans didn’t really like beer. Or did they?

Craft Beer Revolution

In the 1970s, a few local US breweries quietly opened from 1976 beginning with New Albion, Anchor, and Sierra Nevada. These first craft breweries were rooted in the communities of American homebrewers who wanted hoppier and more flavourful beer. As hard as it might be to imagine, a beer like Sierra Nevada pale ale was seen as obscenely hoppy and undrinkable to the average drinker. 

Luckily, we’ve come a long way since then with the Brewers Association reporting in 2020 a total of nearly 9000 craft breweries in the US. The influence of US-brewed hoppy IPAs, and fresh takes on British, German, and Belgium styles has helped to re-ignite passions across the pond. 

While many European countries are steeped in brewing tradition, beer (ales especially) had become an old man’s drink. Today, this is much less the case. Modern beer appeals to one and all. And beer certainly isn’t a “man’s drink” anymore. There is a lot of work to be done but we’re slowly getting there, even Max our beer dog is known to stick his nose in our home brew experiments...

Advocates, like Brooklyn Brewing’s Garrett Oliver, have shown that beer can compete with wine in food pairing competitions. More recently, non-alcoholic and low alcohol brewers across the Globe, like Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing, are pushing a healthier craft beer lifestyle.

We’re All a Part of it

Beer history is still being written. It’s been one of humankind’s best friends for thousands of years. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. But if we can’t learn from the past, then what’s the point?

At SiWC, we are about inclusion for everyone. We want our beer to speak to people from all backgrounds. And we hope in the future to provide friendly and safe spaces for everyone to enjoy a drink and make new friends. 


Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.