Historically hops, yeast, malted barley, and water have all played the
greatest and most important role in society. For almost 8000 years these
ingredients have been mixed and have been appreciated by all classes of society
in almost all civilizations.
The old cliche “accident is the mother of invention” is a phrase that
definitely holds true in the world of beer. The discovery was made way back
when the Mediterranean region was the seat of civilization and barley flourished
as a dietary staple. The climate of the Mediterranean was perfect for the
cultivation of barley, and was used as the primary ingredient in breads, cakes,
and other common food products. A farmer during this period discovered that if
barley become wet, germinates, and eventually dried, the resulting barley would
be sweeter and would not be as perishable as the original state of the barley.
There is not any first hand knowledge on how beer was discovered, but we
can imagine the incident step by step. When the farmer discovered that his
barley crop was wet, in order for him to salvage the crop, he probably spread it
out to dry in the sun. Chances are that germination had already begun, and the
grain had therefore malted and developed a much sweeter taste. The sweet result
of what the farmer considered a disaster is now modern-day malted barley. This
malted barley gave a sweeter taste to breads, cakes, or anything which had
previously been prepared with unmalted barley. After a while when barley malt
became a common ingredient it is thought that a loaf or bowl of this malt was
accidentally left in the rain. When wet, the dissolved starches and sugars in
the malted barley became susceptible to wild yeast, which started spontaneous
fermentation (5). The discoverer of this new mix probably tasted it and
realized how good it was. Unbeknownst to this ancient farmer, he had brewed the
first beer ever.
Sumerian clay tablets dating from 6000 B.C. contain the first ever
written recipes for beer. The tablets also detail specific religious rituals
that one had to perform before he could consume the beverage. The Sumerians
also left the first record of bureaucratic interference when their governments
taxed and put tariffs on beer distribution.
Some anthropologists say that ancient strains of grain were not really
good for making bread. Early wheat made heavy, pasty dough. Flour made from
barley made crumbly, lousy bread. It was determined that humankind’s first
agricultural activity was growing barley. Forty percent of the grain harvest
in Sumeria was converted to ale.
The laws pertaining to beer in ancient times were very strict. The Code
of Hammurrabi in Babylon proved to be more harsh than our laws today.
Establishments that sold beer receive special mention in those laws, codified in
1800 B.C. Owners of beer parlors who overcharged customers were sentenced to
death by drowning. Those who failed to notify authorities of criminal elements
in their establishments were also executed (1). Many of the beer makers and
bartenders in the ancient world were women who sold ale under the supervision
of the goddess Ninkasi, “the lady who fills the mouth.” These Babylonians
brewed at least sixteen styles of beer with wheat and malted barley.
Egyptians paid their workers with jugs of beer, and Ramses II was said
to have consecrated over half a million jugs of it to the gods. In the Nile
region beer was flavored with lavender, date, cedar, nutmeg, sugar, and probably
The bible’s references to unleavened bread suggest that the isolation
and deliberate use of yeast was known at the time of Moses. A professor even
wrote that beer is mentioned in the book of Exodus as one of the unknown leavens,
and when Moses told Jews to avoid leavened bread during Passover in Exodus 12,
he also meant that they should avoid beer. King David of the Jews was a brewer,
and in early days of Christianity the Jews carried on the art of brewing and
often introduced it to many other cultures.
The classical Greeks and Romans learned the art of brewing from the
Egyptians. The word beer comes from the Latin “bibere” meaning simply “to
drink.” The Latin word for beer is “cerevisia,” a composite of “Ceres,” the
goddess of agriculture, and “vis,” Latin for “strength.”
Beer was carried by many barbarian tribes in Western and Northern Europe,
and by the nineteenth century, hops was cultivated for brewing purposes in
France and Germany. Even though hops give beer is refreshing properties it was
neglected by many countries for centuries. Instead beers were flavored with
woodruff, juniper, or grenadine, and can still be found in some European beers
In the Renaissance period brewing was mostly done by kings and monks.
Home brew was the drink of mostly lower classes. It wasn’t uncommon for
children to drink beer on a daily basis. The fermentation process was very
useful to destroy many malignant microorganisms in the distinctly undrinkable
waters of most villages (7).
As the reformation came around, the church spent more time on religious
matters than on brewing. At this time commercial brewers started to pick up the
slack and were licensed under kings, queens, dukes, and earls. During this time
queen Elizabeth I had a brew so strong that none of her servants could handle it,
even though they received two gallons per day.
The New World exploration began and Elizabeth oversaw that no ship left
port without a large cargo of beer. Beer provided a clean supply of water, some
food value, and a good protection against scurvy, the lack of Vitamin C.
Another extraordinary example of beer’s influence on history is the case of the
Pilgrims. They had first proposed to sail to Virginia but were forced to land
at Cape Cod instead because they were running low on beer. When the Pilgrims
arrived they saw the the Indians too had discovered their own beer made of maize,
rather than barley. The Indians had learned the art of brewing from their Aztec
and Mayan neighbors.
Beer was being brewed by Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam as early as
1612. Harvard College ran a brewhouse on campus in 1674, and the Harvard’s
first president was ousted because he failed to supply enough beer and food
rations (5). Beer was valued so high in the Colonial economy that Harvard
students were allowed to pay school tuition in wheat and malted barley.
Students were rationed two pints of beer a day until the end of the 1700s when
they stopped brewing.
Many of the Statesmen had a love for beer. William Penn had a malt
house and a brewery on his estate in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Samuel Adams
had the same set-up in Massachusetts. Benjamin Franklin kept very accurate
records of his household expenses which allowed orders of twenty gallons of beer
per month. George Washington developed his own recipes for the beer and made
thirty gallons of beer at a time. Thomas Jefferson built his own brewery at
Monticello in 1813 and maintained it until his death in 1826. His beer was
considered by many to be some of the best in the young country.
In the 1800s a boom of breweries swept across the nation. In 1810 there
were 132 breweries in the United States. By 1850 there were 431 breweries, and
by 1860 there were 1,269 breweries. New York and Pennsylvania dominated the
industry, brewing eighty-five percent of the country’s beer.
During the mid-1800s, millions of immigrants were pouring into the
United States from Europe. Many of these new Americans bringing along their art
and science of brewing lager beer.
Lager is made with a different kind of yeast than ale. They ferment at
the bottom of the barrel and have a drier, cleaner finish than ales. Lagers
provide a clearer brew that is less prone to sour in the days before
refrigerators. But lagers needed to be stored for weeks, or even months, in
cold caves where low temperatures helped mature the beer.
The mid-nineteenth century brought the discovery of the refrigerator,
allowing lagers to be made virtually everywhere. Louis Pasteur’s studies of
yeast cultures and fermentation help brewers brew lagers on more of a scientific
level in the united States. He discovered the efficiency of heating liquids
after they were packed in a bottle in order to prevent microbial contamination
(5). The process, called pasteurization, was discovered by Louis because he was
trying to preserve beer- not, as most believe, milk.
The lager-brewing breakthrough, coupled with a new wave of German
immigration, produced a golden age of brewing in America. Between 1870 and 1919
American brewers rivaled their European counterparts in both quality and
quantity of beer products. By 1890 there were seventy-four breweries clustered
in Philadelphia alone, seventy-seven in New York City, and thirty-eight in
Brooklyn. This was not just an East Coast phenomenon either. Chicago had
forty-one breweries, Cincinnati, twenty-four, Buffalo, twenty, and St. Louis,
twenty-nine. Milwaukee was an important brewing center in the upper Midwest,
and San Francisco, with twenty-six breweries, was the brewing capitol of the
Pacific Coast. This explosion of breweries gave beer drinkers a wide variety of
beers to choose from.
On July 1, 1919 the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution
went into effect. Know as prohibition, the law forbade the manufacture or sale
of any beverage with more than one-half percent alcohol.
Throughout the days of Prohibition, some breweries managed to stay in
business selling soda water, ice cream, and malt beverages. Others took
advantage of gangsters and corruptible police officials to keep production going.
Many breweries survived prohibition by selling malt syrup, which works quite
nicely for home brew. Flavor, taste, and appeal do matter, but with thousands
of breweries shutting their doors, quantity, rather than quality, became what
When Prohibition was repealed by the 19th Amendment in 1932, the entire
face of the brewing industry had forever changed.
The beer can was introduced in 1935, America entered a new era of
brewing. The can was lightweight, no deposit, no return container that could be
shipped anywhere. Radio, and later television, meant national advertising on a
scale unheard of before. Beer became a national product instead of a local one.
By 1940 there were over six hundred breweries nationwide. By 1980 that number
had dwindled to forty.
The beer renaissance got its start in 1978 in the United States Congress.
That is when the lawmakers legalized beer making at home. When Prohibition
ended in 1933, Congress intended to legalize the home brewing of both wine and
beer. Homemade wine was legalized, but the stenographer’s omission left the
words “and/or beer” out of the Federal register (1). Home brewing of beer was
technically illegal forty-seven years after Prohibition ended. Jimmy Carter
erased that glitch with the stroke of his pen in February 1979. Now it is legal
for every adult in a household to brew one hundred gallons of beer a year.
Today the the American Homebrewers Association counts twenty-seven thousand
members, and their numbers are growing drastically.
Now the microbrewery industry is in its second decade, and the number of
breweries in America has jumped from eighty to almost five hundred in less than
10 years. The microbreweries are doing great and are here to stay. In 1992
sales for microbreweries have increased more than 44 percent. In 1993 the story
was quite the same when sales increased yet another 40 percent.
Recently Becks beer has done some brewing experiments aboard the space
shuttle to study zero gravity brewing. So you can bet that by the time we take
our vacation to the moon we will have a beer waiting for us there.
Beer has been through a lot in its over 8000 years on this earth, and by
the looks of the beer market it may continue to be one of the oldest beverages
in the world.