In 2018, 1.94 billion hectoliters of beer were produced across the globe (and for the non-metric among us, that translates into 51.25 billion gallons of beer--or many (many!)
bottles of beer on the wall).
A few years earlier, an American trade group called the Brewers Association, basing their early work on the contributions of the famous beer journalist, Michael Jackson (no, we're not talking about that MJ), updated its exhaustive catalogue of beer styles and descriptions.
This list contains ales of British, Irish, North American, German, Belgian, French, and “other” origins.
It includes lagers of European-Germanic, North American and “other” origins.
It inventories hybrid/mixed lagers and ales produced throughout the world.
And (perhaps begrudgingly) it includes gluten-free beer and alcohol-free malt beverages.
People like beer.
I mean a lot.
Enough to develop gluten-free versions of a traditionally gluten-based beverage.
Enough to develop alcohol-free versions of a drink intended to provide a buzz.
People love beer so much that there are even two words for people who obsess about it: “zythophiles” and “cerevisaphiles.” So, what is beer exactly, and what are the origins of this popular beverage?
Assuming you are over the legal age, pour yourself a tall one, sit back, and enjoy today’s episode of Origin of Everything!
Before we "hops" into the cultural origins of beer (come on, you know I was gonna throw a pun in there somewhere), I want to talk briefly about beer’s chemical origins.
The science of brewing will be very familiar to the “zythophiles" among you, but for the rest, here is a quick summary of how beer gets its distinctive flavor.
In the most general terms, modern beer is a fermented, alcoholic result of mixing water, malt, hops, and yeast.
Water carries minerals and chemicals that can determine its “hardness” or “softness” and can also affect a beer’s taste.
But malt also has a big impact on flavor.
Malt is barley (or another grain, such as wheat, maize, sorghum, millet, or rice-or even a non-grain, such as buckwheat) that has been soaked in water and aerated (to stimulate germination), dried (to stop the sprouting process), and milled (or ground).
Brewers mix malt with hot water and mash it, allowing its enzymes to convert starches into sugars.
Then they move the mash to a tank designed to separate solids from liquids.
Then they boil the resulting liquid (un-appealingly called the “wort”) to evaporate extra water and sterilize the mixture.
Next brewers add “hops,” flowers of the hop plant.
“Hops” flavors beer, acts as a stabilizing agent, and is a preservative.
Some brewers incorporate other ingredients into their recipes, including individual fruits, herbs, or gruit (a mixture of herbs).
After removing solids and allowing the mixture to cool, brewers transfer the fluid to a fermentation tank.
Next they add yeast, which consumes sugars, produces ethanol and adds carbonation, though many beers are artificially carbonated later.
This brings us to a little beer trivia moment: When the yeast-filled mixture is stored in warm or room-temperature conditions, small strains of yeast rise to the top and fermentation occurs relatively quickly, producing an “ale,” or a beer with a bitter, malty flavor.
When the mixture is “lagered” or chilled in a refrigerated tank, the strains of yeast sink to the bottom of the tank and can be filtered out.
“Lagers” tend to have a less bitter and less malty flavor than ales.
They also contain less sediment.
So now that we understand a little about beer’s chemical origins, let’s talk about its cultural origins.
Early evidence of beer was discovered in 1992 by Patrick McGovern.
McGovern identified chemical evidence for beer inside a double-handled pottery jar from around 3,000 BCE, found at the Godin Tepe ruins, an outpost along key trade routes first inhabited around 5000 BCE.
The word for beer is one of the most common in Sumerian cuneiform writing and even appears in The Epic of Gilgamesh (commonly regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature).
In this text (dated at around 1700 BCE, though likely taking place a thousand years earlier), a prostitute persuades a wild man that drinking beer is a civilized custom when she says: “Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Another ancient Sumerian poem, “Hymn to Ninkasi,” written on tablets dating from 1800 BCE, praises the Sumerian goddess of beer and even offers something resembling an ancient recipe for brewing.
Fermented beverages have been brewed in disparate parts of the world for thousands of years.
In the Americas, Neolithic people chewed corn and spat it into bowls where it fermented, producing a beer-like substance known as “chicha.” In Jiahu, China, chemical traces of a rice-based beer (which turned out to be a beer and wine hybrid) were discovered in a village occupied 9,000 to 7,600 years ago.
And in Mijiaya, China, 5,000 year old pottery vessels suggest that brewers used specialized tools to create beer and may even have controlled temperatures during fermentation.
Ancient peoples in modern-day Israel seemed to prefer a cereal-based version of beer.
At the Raqefet Cave, a 13,000 year old Natufian burial site, stone mortars provide what researchers call, “the earliest archaeological evidence for cereal-based beer brewing by a semi-sedentary, foraging people” and suggest that beer production, “predated the appearance of domesticated cereals by several millennia in the Near East.” Beer before cereal?
Now that sounds like the breakfast of champions!
Ancient Egyptians liked beer so much that some seem to have accepted it as payment.
In A Natural History of Beer, Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall explain that the laborers who built the Pyramids of Giza seem to have received some wages in beer.
And Queen Cleopatra imposed taxes on beer to pay for her wars with Rome.
However, the Egyptians lost to those wine-swilling Romans.
In northern Europe, excavations at Skara Brae (an archeological site on the Orkney Islands of Scotland) dating from 3,200-2,500 BCE, provide potential evidence for malting and brewing ale.
Excavations in Germany, dating from 500 BCE, suggest that Iron Age tribes also prepared malts.
Production of grain-based beers in northern Europe had a resurgence after the collapse of the Roman Empire, due to its salubrious effects and the fact that beer was often safer to drink than untreated water, which could carry a host of diseases.
So it was better to be drunk and germ free than hydrated and diseased.
Although this truism may be a myth of the 20th/21st century.
And if it’s true, then Belgian and German monks took their health particularly seriously.
(Or at least brewing their beer very seriously.)
As DeSalle and Tattersall explain, brewing provided monks a way to preserve extra tithed cereals and selling beer boosted the fiscal health of their monasteries.
By the thirteenth century, the commercial middle class in Europe wanted a cut of such a lucrative business.
Brewing guilds were established, cities began to develop signature beer styles, regions began to compete, governments also took their share of taxes.
Soon, these governments began to put legal restrictions on beer to maintain beer quality and ensure a steady source of revenue.
The German beer purity law (or the fun to say Reinheitsgebot) first went into effect in 1487 in the Duchy of Munich.
In 1516, it was codified across Bavaria.
Later, it was imposed with various modifications in different parts of Germany.
The law stated that the only legal ingredients in beer were water, barley, and hops (yeast would be added later).
In 1553 further legislation in Bavaria banned brewing in the warm summer months, when dangerous microbes spread.
This particular law had interesting consequences: Bavarians, who could not brew during the summer, began to produce lagers because ale yeasts go dormant in winter.
By contrast, Belgian monks, who did not have these restrictions, continued to brew a wide variety of ales.
In Great Britain, brewing during the Middle Ages was mainly the provenance of alewives, who made the beer.
By the fourteenth century, men took over the industry and formed brewing guilds.
Towns hired “ale conners” to test the strength and quality of beers and sometimes to establish pricing for taxation.
So they were basically professional drinkers which sounds like the best job in the world.
During the Industrial Revolution, beer manufacturing became increasingly scientific.
As DeSalle and Tattersall report, new hydrometers and thermometers allowed brewers to have more control of their process.
The eighteenth century cheapening of coke (a prepared material which burns more efficiently than raw coal) helped fuel the large-scale production of a lighter, and less smoky malt.
This beverage became known as pale ale.
Many of you may be familiar with the India Pale Ale, or IPA, which itself has an interesting history.
Prior to refrigeration, it was too hot to brew beer in India and English colonials, wary of drinking Indian water or the local liquor, had to import their beer.
During the five month boat ride from England to India, ale would slosh around in wooden caskets and get kind of skunky.
To combat this, brewers raised the alcohol content of the ale and added more hops.
During transit, the ale went through a second round of fermentation, which gave the beer a slightly fruity, refreshing flavor.
At the same time a very different style of beer was gaining popularity in Ireland.
In 1759, Arthur Guinness opened a brewery in Dublin that produced dark ales with smoky flavors from heavily-roasted malts.
DeSalle and Tattersall say that during World War I, the British government banned extra roasting as an energy-saving measure, but Ireland did not.
Guinness came to dominate the market in the category of dark ales.
The United States also has its own beer history.
The settlers who arrived on the Mayflower brought casks of ale from England.
In The United States of Beer, Dane Huckelbridge explains that building a brewhouse was a priority of the inhabitants of Plymouth Plantation which seems like they had their priorities pretty straight!
It took several seasons to figure out how to grow barley in the harsh New England climate and the settlers also relied on imported hops.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony began to malt its own grains on an industrial scale and, in 1634, Samuel Cole established a licensed drinking establishment that served beer.
Beer also came to America via the Dutch, who initially settled in places like New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Huckelbridge reports that the Dutch were already farming hops in New Amsterdam in the late 1620s and, by 1632, had produced their own brewery.
In the mid-nineteenth century, German lager brewers came to America as part of a large wave of immigration.
Many settled in the Midwest, where they had access to grains and ice from the Great Lakes that was ideal for producing lager, so yay Midwest!
By the end of the nineteenth century, as DeSalle and Tattersall report, half of the nation’s beer was brewed in Milwaukee.
Large American breweries survived Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, by producing things like soft drinks and malted beverages.
Smaller breweries, for the most part, closed.
The mid-twentieth century American beer market was dominated by large companies (aka, “big brew”), who mainly produced a pasteurized, industrial beer with a long shelf-life, intended to be drunk cold.
In America, innovations in bottling and canning meant that beer consumption was shifting from bars to the home.
American beer was becoming more uniform and, to some consumers, bland.
Enter the craft beer movement, made possible by a confluence of events.
In 1972, a government breeding program released “cascade hops,” one of the most popular hop varieties used in craft beer.
That same year, the venerable, San Francisco Anchor Brewing Company, produced what’s thought to be the first post-Prohibition American porter in the U.S., rekindling a taste for more complex styles of beer.
And in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that ended a Prohibition-era federal ban on home-brewing.
These changes opened the door for professionals and hobbyists to experiment with new flavors.
Of all the varieties of craft brews out there, the Delaware-based, Dogfish Head Brewery, has most significantly raised the bar when it comes to what has become known as “extreme brewing.” Working with Patrick McGovern (who I mentioned earlier), Dogfish has produced an Ancient Ale series, which includes “Midas Touch” (based on molecular evidence found in a Turkish tomb), “Chateau Jiahu” (based on findings from a 9000 year old Chinese tomb), and “T’ej” (an Ethiopian brew).
I suppose that this brings our discussion of beer full-circle.
Today, we have the opportunity to enjoy a truly vast array of beer styles.
I mean, there seem to be as many styles of beer as there are bottles of beer on the wall.
So, bottoms up!
And I’ll see you here next time!