A History of Beer: How Beer Made Civilization

[Focus words: beer]

“I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt

knight wearing armor and holding mug of beer

Beer, ale, lager, stout, bitter, pale – whatever you call it, it’s glorious stuff. Whether your downing pints in soggy England or sipping Mexico lager in the sun, beer is a worldwide obsession. In fact, we drink more than 100 billion litres of amber nectar globally every year. The modern behemoth breweries and small cottage industry craft beers make the USA the number 1 consumer, swilling down around 23 billion litres annually. However, the Czechs consume the most beer per person, with an average consumption of 188.6 litres per year.

It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, drinks as diverse as mead (honey wine), wine, chicha, and rice beer were the most common drinks in many regions. Even the beer-glugging Americans were once a nation of cider-swiggers prior to World War II.

What happened? How did beer conquer the world?

What is beer?

Before we start delving back into history – like remembering a drunken night – it’s important to nail down what we’re talking about. What even is beer? And how is it made?

In a nutshell – beer is a fermented, alcoholic drink made from water, malt, hops, and yeast. That’s it. No complex list of ingredients; it’s just the trifecta of malts-hops-yeast that form the basis of every keg.

Rather, it’s the process in which these ingredients are combined, brewed, or hopped that makes each and every brew unique. Modern breweries aim solely for consistent batches. But craft beers often experiment with adding new flavours and ingredients. They tweak the ratio of barley, hops, and roasted malts to produce either a deep earthy malt or an intense hop aroma. It’s all down to the brewing process.

Like bread uses yeast to rise, beers rely on starch-based yeast for the fermentation process. Here, the sugar in the grains – which is ground down to a mash – is converted to ethanol and CO2. Different beers let this process play out in different ways – some opting for a slightly stronger beer. Most beers, however, range between 3 to 6 per cent alcohol content.

Types of beer

History of beer

Depending on the brewing process, you can produce eleven or more types of beer. However, the main beer types are:

  • Ale is a broad spectrum of beers. Some are deep and brown, others light, citrus, and pale. What separates ales from other beers is their warm and short fermentation period. Because you don’t need specialised equipment, it’s a popular beer with homebrewers.
  • Lager is a newer beer type, heralding from Czechia, Germany, and the Netherlands. It’s often served cold and is carbonated. It is brewed at much lower temperatures, relying on bottom-fermenting yeasts.
  • Stouts are rich and dark. You’ll often notice notes of coffee or caramel, which come from the unmalted roasted barley. Guinness is perhaps the most famous stout in the world.
  • Porters are like stouts in having a dark black colour. However, they’re often sweeter, with a distinctive fruity or dry flavour.
  • Finally, as the name suggests, wheat beers are made from wheat. They’re common in Germany, where the smooth, citrus taste is highly sought-after.

When was beer invented?

Beer is the drink of civilisation. Being reliant on cereal crops for rich flavour and strong alcohol content, it’s little surprise that as soon as humans grew crops, they started brewing beer. In the modern-day Middle East, in an area known as the fertile crescent – stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean into Mesopotamia – early villages and farmland began springing up some 13,000 to 11,000 years ago.

Within those early years, brewing rapidly arose in Israel – where the beer was more an alcohol porridge than the liquid amber we know today. For these people, it was a nutritious meal, which lasted longer because of the alcohol content. It’s also believed beer was fermented in China – another cradle of agriculture – around the same period – though as before, it was little like our familiar boozy beverage.

In fact, some suggest it wasn’t that humans grew crops to eat – and then made beer. Rather it was the desire to make beer that drove early hunter-gatherers into the agricultural lifestyle. Known as the “beer before bread” theory – it posits civilisation itself owes its entire existence to brewing.

Robert Braidwood, a Middle East scholar from the University of Chicago, theorised that rather than gather a meagre pile of grains by hand, silos formed permanent settlements for grain storage. Bread production took hold, creating the first villages. Others disagreed. Jonathan Saur, a Wisconsin botany professor, argued that the tools found in stone age sites were actually critical to brewing, not baking. It was beer these first farmers were after – not bread.

Though it’s not just that beer is a lot more fun – it’s also a major source of B vitamins and the essential amino acid lysine. In short, early beers were a lot more nutritious than bread.

Beer mania takes hold

Flash forward to 4,000 BC, and the descendants of those early farmers are the Sumerians – one of the oldest true civilisations in history. These powerful kingdoms and cities ruled the Fertile Crescent, forming the first empires and complex political structures. It was a time of firsts.

In these urbanising agrarian societies, beer was no longer just a nourishing beverage. It was the centrepiece of feasts and gatherings. A social lubricant that forged alliances and kinships. It also opened minds – art, literature, language, and society may have been born from beer’s loosening tendencies. Beer got people talking.

Indeed, beer was so pivotal to the running of civilisation that the Code of Urukagina – an ancient Sumerian king – the world’s oldest legal code, even uses beer as the principal unit of payment and penance. Imagine getting paid in beer!

After all, beer was the drink of the gods. As one ode to beer said:

                Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collection vat
                It is [like] the onrush of the Tigris and Euphrates.

The practice of brewing soon spread throughout the Middle East. Soon everyone was swigging back beer like modern-day frat boys. Ancient Egypt took note and carried on the brewing tradition, later passing on the secrets to the Greeks and Romans.

However, as civilisation grew to new heights, beer fell out of fashion. Wine, made from the sweet grapes of the Mediterranean, became the new drink in town. Beer, meanwhile, was the drink of Barbarians and marauders – a heavy ambrosia which sent a man to mischief and mayhem.

Germania, the barbaric territory bordering Rome, had grown beer as early as 800 BC. (And still does so in great quantities today.) This tradition of beer brewing was then carried by the Saxons, and Germanic peoples to England – many English brewing terms, like malt, mash, wort, and ale, are Anglo-Saxon in origin.

Brewing beer in the Middle Ages

The Collapse of the Roman Empire shook up the old ways of doing things. No longer were the northern nations marauding barbarians but noble kingdoms in their own right. In place of the Roman Emperor was the Catholic Church – and it was in the monasteries and abbeys of Medieval Europe that the brewing techniques were remembered and refined.

Though early Christian religious orders made mead as well. Throughout the Middle Ages, beer increasingly became the drink of choice. After all, it was beer profits that kept many monasteries afloat. Brewing and drinking was just part and parcel of being a monk. It’s a wonder they got any praying done!

Even Charlemagne, the legendary King of the Franks, is said to have taught people to brew beer. But with a royal and religious stamp of approval, beer became the good drink of Christian men. Or, as the writer Hunter S. Thompson put it, “Good people drink good beer.”

Still, beer was not as we recognise it today. Local brewing traditions often meant adding fruits, honey, plants, herbs, and spices into the beer to give a fresh flavour. Hops, the quintessential beer ingredient, weren’t mentioned until 822 by a Carolingian Abbot.

But as hops became more prevalent and beer more popular, the classic pub or tavern began popping up at crossroads, towns, and popular meeting spots. There was nothing better than a flagon of ale after a day in the fields or on the road.

Towards a familiar beer and modern breweries

By the 15th and 16th centuries, hops were a common ingredient in beers. Germany was the first to adopt their use in the 1000s, later developing a bottom-fermentation process, where beer fell to the bottom of the brewing vessel. Because of this process, Germany’s brewing became a winter activity, being kept in coolers in the summer. The word lager comes from the German lagern, meaning “to store.”

This is likely the first point where beer is truly recognisable.

From here, the fermentation process changes little – instead, with industrialisation, modern breweries began producing beer on a monumental scale. Pale ales and craft beers start being churned out by the millions of bottles. Innovations in ice-making and refrigeration allow lagers to be brewed throughout the summer.

Meanwhile, in the 1860s, French chemist Louis Pasteur established the standard microbiological brewing practices still in use today. Alongside new strains and methods of cultivating yeast, beer production spread throughout the world.

In America, German-style bottom-fermented lagers were drunk from New York to San Francisco – turning the cider drinkers into beer brewers. Though, In New England, pale ale was the preferred beverage. By 1880, it’s estimated 3,200 breweries were pumping beer out across the US. With the advent of railroads and automatic bottling, mass production reached new heights, as everyone wanted to crack open an ice-cold bottle of beer.

Things became so heady that the prohibition movement rapidly gained ground. Gone were the days when beer was the drink of good Christian men – now it was a vice and temptation. The 18th Amendment outlawed beer in the US throughout the early 1900s – being repealed in 1933.

Britain also had a notable drinking problem. But where in America all alcohol was seen as a vice, beer was a virtue contrasted against troublesome spirits like gin in the British Isles.

Beers in the modern-day

After World War II ended, food shortages resulted in the brewing of lighter beers. Regional breweries also started being swallowed by bigger and bigger breweries, producing beers on an unfathomable scale. Britain’s vibrant beer scene was destroyed as six big breweries ran a virtual monopoly on beer products.

Furthermore, in Germany, age-old beer houses were shut down by the Soviet Union. Numerous Nazi meetings had been held in Germany’s beers house, garnering the drink a bad reputation. And, the communist Polish government brought all brewing under the purview of the state.

Since then, brewing has once again returned to the people.

From Australia to Turkey, the craft beer revolution has transformed the brewing landscape. Increasingly, beer drinkers don’t want the same bland brands. Microbreweries and smaller operations now dominate the market. Pilsner, sour ale, IPAs, and wild-fermented beers can be commonly found in most pubs and bars. Countries like Mexico, Poland, Cyprus, Germany, and Belgium all experienced this phenomenon – either returning to their brewing roots or else devising new spins of this age-old classic.

Far from the standardised beers of the post-war era, brewers are evolving, adapting, and experimenting with new flavours and brewing techniques. Just as beer in the 17th century was unrecognisable from 200 years before, so will future beers be totally different from today.

Beer may be responsible for civilisation, but it’s also a reflection of it. It changes with every age as new ingredients and technologies come into practice.

Who knows where we’ll be in fifty years?!



Shopping Cart