The first beer was likely brewed by accident, the Neolithic equivalent of what happens when you put off cleaning out that fridge: a wet piece of bread ferments, the odor is not unpleasant, somebody drinks it. (Kids, don’t try this at home!)
Beer brewing probably arose simultaneously in the great ancient civilizations of Africa, Egypt and Sumeria between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago. The earliest Sumerian account of brewing – The Hymn to Ninkasi, written in 1800 BC – depicts barley bread being crumbled into water to form mash. The mash was then strained into a liquid that made people feel, “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful.” See? Beer’s effects haven’t really changed much in the last 4,000 years!
Suds were seen as a civilizing influence in those days. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the prostitute charged with wild-man Enkidu’s upward mobility taught him how to drink beer. And one of the earliest laws on record was Hammurabi’s rationing decree: high priests got five liters of beer per day, while ordinary workers only got two.
Beer took a hit when the Greeks and later, the Romans became the dominant culture of the Mediterranean basin. Wine was the quaff of choice; beer remained popular only on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Luckily those outskirts included what today is Germany – and so the German beer-brewing tradition began. The Romans took a dim view of it. In 98 AD, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “”To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine.”
Beer brewing followed the cultivation of barley as it spread north and east across Europe into areas where grape cultivation was difficult to impossible. By Medieval times, beer had become a dietary staple: it had residual yeasts and carbohydrates, and was essentially a soup – and since boiling was part of the brewing process, safe to drink when the water wasn’t.
The most important event in brewing history may have been the purity pledges taken by German brewmeisters. The Reinheitsgebot, codified into law in 1516, stated that only four ingredients could be used to make beer: water, malted barley, malted wheat and hops. Yeast was taken for granted – though its role in the fermentation process was not fully understood for another three hundred years until the great French scientist Louis Pasteur explained it.
Beer came to English-speaking America with the Pilgrims, and the Dutch put up breweries in New Amsterdam as soon as they could build walls. Northern-European style ales dominated American brewing prior to the large influx of German immigrants late in the 18th century. Germans brought lagers and pilsners.
Commercial breweries themselves in the United States remained small and regionalized until the post-Civil War era saw a dramatic growth in railroads and a wave of German and Czech immigration to the great grain-growing regions of the Midwest. Milwaukee and St. Louis became centers for vast brewing enterprises. Ales disappeared from taverns as German-style beers with names like Busch, Schlitz and Pabst conquered the market. In Gold Rush San Francisco, though, steamed beer – a uniquely American brewing process – remained popular until Prohibition.
The Volstead Act changed everything. (There was no political correctness in those days, and so we must forgive those bereft beer lovers who mumbled, “Give women the vote and they ruin everything.”) With Prohibition, small breweries were shuttered while larger brewing conglomerates were reduced to producing nonalcoholic near beers. Behind closed doors, illicit breweries flourished but quality suffered. With Repeal, the hegemony of lagers and pilsners seemed assured.
But small breweries never entirely went away. In places like central Pennsylvania and rural Minnesota, or in New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi, brewers clung to their ales and even stouts and porters. A change to the regulatory laws in 1978 let American beer drinkers, tired of the same-old same-old, seek something different.
In Boston the Samuel Adams Brewing Company was formed to produce older, more classic styles of ale; on the west coast, Anchor Steam revived the steam brewing process.
Today there are over 1,500 American breweries from micro-operations that sell their suds in their own brewpub to national brands with breweries coast to coast. Across the globe, beer has never been bigger as emerging markets like China learn to savor the smooth taste of suds.
And did you know that beer is more than just a beverage? Add beer to your next batch of chili for a richer flavor base behind the heat, or try it in a beer bread recipe (where it takes the place of yeast.) Beer is the gardener’s friend: slugs love it. Pour some in a jar and they’ll leave your cabbages alone. (The subsequent fate of the drunken slugs is up to you.) Beer also makes a great gold polish, stain remover and wood treatment.