You probably don’t think about it every time you crack open a cold one, but beer is one of the oldest bedrocks of human civilisation, brewed all over the world for longer than recorded history. On National Beer Day this Sunday, we celebrate this age-old beverage.
From the Agricultural Revolution to the American Revolution, beer has been around to quench the thirsts of virtually all classes of all societies. Here are some facts you may not have known about the history of beer.
Beer dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, and held an important dietary role.
Archaeologists have dated the practice of beer brewing as far back as 3500 to 3100 BCE, in what is today Iran.
It’s believed to have been safer to drink than water, because harmful microorganisms were boiled out, and it contained nutrients absent from other drinks, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Brewing was also a religious practice, related to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi.
Ninkasi was worshipped as the goddess of beer, and the “Hymn to Ninkasi” was a worship song-slash-beer recipe thought to be passed down orally.
In recent years, modern scholars have recreated the ancient brewing process based on a clay tablet that recorded the hymn – and apparently, it wasn’t half bad.
AlphaBeta head brewer Michaela Charles who, along with beer and wine expert Susan Boyle, has spent the last six months trying to brew an accurate recreation of Ancient Egyptian beer told Vice’s Munchies that “The Ancient Egyptian method is: you have grain in cold water. You have grain in hot water. You heat up the one in hot water. You mix the two together. You rinse into a vessel, and you ferment it.” he continued. “There’s no boiling, there’s no sterilizing. You’re really flying blind with the Egyptian process.”
The straw was invented by the Sumerians for drinking beer.
As sophisticated as ancient brewing practices were, there was still a chance for sediment to end up in a drinker’s pint, so Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians were known to drink beer with straws made of reeds or gold, depending upon one’s social class, according to Mercury News.
Beer has existed in China for about 5,000 years.
Archaeological chemists have recently found evidence for an early brewing technique in China during the late Yangshao period, using broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears (a kind of grain), and tubers. The scientists behind these findings suggest that barley may have introduced to central China for the purpose of beer-making.
Some experts on the history of beer credit the drink with the rise of civilisation.
Scientific American quoted Charlie Bamforth, Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at the University of California, Davis, as saying, “Beer is the basis of modern static civilisation,” explaining that the discovery of bread and beer enticed early nomadic humans to settle, eventually (if indirectly) leading to the development of whole societies. This opinion has been echoed by others as well.
Yeast has always been an integral part of brewing – but humans didn’t know how it worked until the 19th century.
Fermentation happens when yeast metabolizes sugar (like that in barley) and turns it into alcohol and carbonation. The microorganisms are prevalent in nature, and so were a part of beer- and wine-making long before anyone knew they existed.
Yeast was first discovered in the early 1800s, and its role in fermentation was discovered by Louis Pasteur in the mid-1800s, according to Nature Education.
Monks played an important role in modernising the brewing process, including the addition of hops.
Monks in the sixth century C.E. and beyond made advances in brewing. Under the directive of St. Benedict, monks were to sustain themselves by their own handiwork, and many monasteries north of the Alps – particularly in Bavaria and Bohemia – were well-suited, climatologically, to undertake beer brewing, according to Beer Hunter.
Breweries still in operation today, like Weihenstephan and Paulaner, come from monastic origins. Because the church was a major site of study at this point in history, monks were able to experiment with and thus refine the process, even discovering the benefits of hops as a preservative, reported the Loyola Press.
The cold climates of modern-day Germany and the Czech Republic gave the Western world lagers.
Up until the middle ages, all brews known to history were ales. “Lager” means “to store” in German, and when German brewers began storing their beers in the icy caves of the Alps, they accidentally began culturing bottom-fermenting yeasts (rather than top-fermenting yeasts, which are more susceptible to damage from hot weather). Thus, according to Beer Hunter, the lager style of beer was born.
But the ancestor of lagers seem to have existed in South America first.
Recent findings have traced that cold, bottom-fermenting strain of yeast to Patagonia, where, according to Smithsonian magazine, evidence suggests that people were using it to brew alcoholic beverages 200 or more years before the first Bavarian lagers. The details are still unclear, but researchers think the yeast may have travelled across the ocean on wood (like ship timbers) or animals.
A 500-year-old law shaped the course of beer history in Germany and beyond.
In the year 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria enacted the Reinheitsgebot, also known as “German beer purity law,” which stated that the only ingredients that could be used in beer were hops, barley, and water (later revised to include yeast).
The law was part consumer protection, as it prevented brewers from using cheap fillers, and part economic in nature, preventing wheat from being used for beer rather than bread. Although the law is no longer in effect in its strictest form as of 1987, many breweries in Germany and beyond still uphold its standards, boasting the purity and quality it guarantees.
But some argue that it has stifled beer innovation in Germany, preventing brewers from experimenting with other ingredients until recently.
The Guinness brewery at St. James’ Gate in Dublin was leased for a period of 9,000 years.
In 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease for the space that would be, and still remains, the Guinness hub. The lease is no longer in effect, as the brewing company now owns the land outright.
The hop farming community of Boonville, California, developed its own folk language in the late 1800s.
Boonville, in the Anderson Valley, was an isolated community in Northern California known primarily for logging and hop farming.
According to The Paris Review, residents came up with their own jargon called “Boontling,” spoken in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The language has all but died out since, but local organisations and businesses work to preserve the heritage – including the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, whose slogan is Bahl Hornin’ – Boontling for “good drinking.”
George Washington was an enthusiastic home brewer.
The Digital Public Library of America houses a notebook the president-to-be kept in 1757, during the French and Indian War, which included a recipe for “small beer,” a low-alcohol and low-quality beer commonly made by soldiers. Later on, his estate at Mount Vernon became a prolific brewery as well.
Homebrewing only became legal in all 50 states in 2013.
Since the passing of prohibition in 1919, federal laws prohibited or restricted homebrewing until Jimmy Carter did away with federal taxation on homebrewers in 1978. Still, laws surrounding alcohol production are primarily administered by individual states.
In 2013, Mississippi and Alabama, the last two states to prohibit homebrewing, legalised the boozy hobby, according to the Brewer’s Association.
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