A Brief History of Beer – Ancient Times

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Beer is not only the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world, it is the third most popular drink overall after water and tea. With a history dating back to the 6th millennium BCE, beer is also one of the oldest beverages known to man.

It also has a far more prestigious lineage than our contemporary image of frat house parties and working class bars full of middle aged men with beer bellies would suggest . One of the earliest written references to beer is a hymn to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi which serves as both a prayer and a way to remember a beer recipe in a society with few literate people.

Ancient History of Beer

ancient Chinese

The precise date for the invention of beer is not known. Ancient records suggest the Chinese were brewing a beer-like beverage known as kui 5’000 years ago. The earliest chemical evidence for beer was discovered in the prehistoric settlement Godin Tepe in the Zargos Mountains of western Iran and is dated to circa 3’500 – 3100 BCE. It also may have been known in Neolithic Europe as early 3’000 BCE but was most certainly only produced on a domestic scale. Eventually beer would become vital to most of the Eurasian and North African agrarian societies of antiquity.

The earliest evidence for large scale production of beer comes from Mesopotamia. Clay tablets from the region known as the cradle of civilization show that brewing was a highly respected occupation and that many of the brewers were women.

ancient Babylonians

The 1974 discovery in Elba, Syria of the Ebla tablets, which date from 2’500 BCE, shows that the city made a wide variety of beers, including one that seems to have been named for the city. The ancient Babylonians brewed beer as well. Their beer was brewed by priestesses and several varieties were created specifically for religious services. The famous law code of the Babylonian King Hammurabi contain early examples of laws specifically governing taverns.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Beer is also mentioned in the earliest known written story, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh in which the “wild man” Enkidu is given beer to drink. According to the poem, “…he ate until he was full, drank seven pitchers of beer, his face glowed and he sang out with joy.” Although coming from an ancient poem, the scene of eating and drinking could just as easily describe a contemporary “fern bar” style restaurant such as Applebee’s or TGIFriday’s.

Beer was also consumed in ancient Egypt. It served as a drink, a medicine, the most proper gift for the Pharaoh, and as a sacrifice for the gods. It is thought that the Egyptians taught beer brewing to the Greeks. Sophocles wrote about the importance of moderation in beer drinking and believed the best diet for the Greeks included bread, meat, vegetables, and beer. A tablet written in the script known as Linear B suggests that beer may have been enjoyed in Greece as far back as the Mycenaean Age.

Greeks

The Greeks introduced the art of brewing to the Romans. The Romans in turn passed it along to British and Germanic tribes who came under Roman rule. The Romans drank beer, which they called cervisia, but preferred wine. In fact, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote disparagingly of the beer brewed by the Germans of his day.

Ancient Beer

photography of person holding glass bottles during sunset

The word beer came into use in the middle ages to describe ales that were flavored with hops. The earliest brewers didn’t have access to hops so the earliest form of beer was more like an ale with the texture of gruel or porridge. Loaves of bread were made and left to rise. They were then lightly baked but not enough to kill the yeast. The under baked bread was then broken into chunks and mixed with water and boiled. This technique, although not as efficient as those involving malting, produced enough fermentable sugars from the unmalted grain for the yeast to create small amounts of alcohol.

This alcoholic porridge was consumed with a straw to avoid the bitter chunks left over from the fermentation process. Of course straining out the solid matter would create a finished product more like a beverage and less like mush and it is likely that ancient brewers may have even added a variety of herbs, spices, fruits, and sweeteners to their brews to create a range of flavors and speciality drinks just as microbreweries do today.

The History Of Beer – Dark Ages, Middle Ages & Discovery Of Hops

As the Roman Empire fragmented and collapsed, various Germanic tribes came to dominate much of Western Europe. Under the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Franks, Bavarians and other tribes from Germany and Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians in Scandinavia ale come of age and evolved into true beer.

Ale During the Dark Ages

gray concrete buildings with street post turned on at night

The Germanic peoples made ale out of malted barley kilned over charcoal and boiled in an iron pot or with hot stones in a wooden tub. The stone method created caramelization which added flavor to the brew. Germanic names for beer varied from region to region. It was called Ol in the North and Ealu in the South. One Saxon term for beer was “woet” (pronounced “weet”) which may be the ancestor of the modern brewing term “wort”.

Brewing required a fire and a certain amount of attention. Since men in the Dark Ages spent a great deal of their time away from home fighting wars and becoming legends of song and story, brewing naturally became an extension of women’s work. Women who made really good ale may have even sold it to their neighbors.

As brewing became more sophisticated and spread across Europe, it soon became subject to regulations imposed by the kingdoms that rose to fill the void left by the fall of Rome. For example, the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelbert of Kent, who had converted to Christianity in 597, seems to have been the first English authority to attempt to regulate rowdy behavior in ale houses when he included in his law code of 616, a law requiring payments of restitution to people injured by drunks. In 694, King Ine of Wessex took a step in regulating quality when he decreed that Alewives who sold inferior brews at premium prices should be dunked in a trough and have their ale confiscated and donated to the poor.

Ale and Beer in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages

Brewing continued to spread as the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, ale and beer were popular amongst all social classes and age groups in countries where grape cultivation was difficult or impossible. Also, since it was impossible to guarantee the purity of water, alcoholic beverages proved to be a popular choice for hydration because they were boiled during their manufacture. Beer was also a major source of calories in northern climates. In England and the Low Countries it is estimated that the per capita consumption of beer reached 275 – 300 liters by the Late Middle Ages, beer was consumed at every meal.

During the Middle Ages, monasteries became the first institutions to brew beer as a trade. Medieval monks built breweries as part of their efforts to provide food and shelter to travelers and pilgrims. It was probably monks and nuns who discovered the importance of adding hops to beer.

Monastic Beer

monasteries

It was during this time period and shortly after that brewing became a primary occupation of several religious orders, especially Christian monks. The monks’ experiments with brewing led to several advances in beer making, including better storage techniques, the use of hops as a preservative agent, and the emergence of regional beer styles.

The Bavarian Purity Law of 1516

One of the biggest developments in beer history was the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, a law that is still upheld by many contemporary breweries. The Law states that barley, hops and pure water are the only ingredients that may be used to make beer. It was initially only enforced in Bavaria, but it was later adopted by most other beer-making nations as well, since following the law ensured good beer quality. Prior to this law, brewers had added many different substances to their beer, including soot and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The Discovery of Hops

man holding Hops

Hops are the female flower clusters of the species humulus lupulus. The green shoots of the hop plant had been eaten by the Romans but in the days following the demise of the Empire, the humble plant was largely dismissed as a weed. However, it was discovered that hops helped preserve ale so that it could be stored and exported. They also imparted a bitter flavor that gave rise to the name beer and is still considered a hallmark of the beverage.

Flavoring beer with hops was known as early as the 9th Century, however, because of the difficulty in determining the proper ratio of hops to other ingredients, using hops only gradually became an accepted practice. Before that, ale was flavored with a mixture of herbs called gruit. However, gruit didn’t have the preservative quality of hops and ale made that way had a very short shelf life and couldn’t be exported. Many countries soon adopted laws requiring the use of hops. In England, such laws led to riots and revolts because the English preferred naturally sweet ale to bitter beer.

The only alternative to using hops was increasing the alcohol content of the brew but that was more expensive. Hopped beers were perfected in Germany and the longer lasting beer along with the development of standardized barrel sizes spurred the development of large scale production and export which soon replaced home brewing with professional manufacturing. This type of beer production spread to Holland in the 14th Century and later to Flanders and Brabant and was in use in England by the 15th Century. Eventually, large scale production would help spread beer around the world and create a dizzying array of ales, stouts, lagers, porters, pilseners, IPAs, and so on.

The Industrialization of Beer

For centuries, brewing remained largely an occupation of home brewers and monks. However, the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century caused brewing to become industrialized. Several scientific discoveries were made and incorporated into the brewing process, including the hydrometer (to determine the yields from different malts) and the role of yeast in fermentation, which allowed brewers to refine their products.

20th Century Beer

From the 20th century onward, the majority of the world’s beer supply has been made on a large, industrial scale. Breweries expanded from Europe throughout the rest of the world, especially North America and Asia. Consumer tastes shifted from the earlier preference of heavy, dark, malty brews to light, pale, hoppy beers.

Beer in the 21st Century

Into the 21st century, the beer industry has continued to be dominated by a few enormous multinational corporations. However, there have also been recent trends towards microbreweries and home brewing. Now more than ever, the average North American consumer has a huge range of beers to choose from, which come from all corners of the world.

References

Arnold, John P. [1911] Origin of Beer and Brewing: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science and Technology Cleveland, OH: BeerBooks

Nelson, Max  The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe London: Routledge

Dornbusch, Horst “Beer the Midwife of Civilization”. Assyrian International News Agency.

“Beer”. Brittanica .com

“Nin-Kasi: Mesopotamian Goddess of Beer” Matrifocus Johanna Stuckey.

Gasnier, Vincent. Drinks. New York: DK Publishing.

Hornsey, Ian. A History of Beer and Brewing. Cambridge: RSC Paperbacks.

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