A Brief History of Beer

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Odairson Antonello/iStock via Getty Images Plus / Odairson Antonello/iStock via Getty Images Plus

In 1814, Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery was the victim of some very bad luck—or maybe just poor engineering. At the time, massive storage vats were en vogue in London’s breweries, and when one of these large vats burst at The Horse Shoe Brewery, it led to over a hundred thousand gallons of beer flooding the surrounding area in a veritable brew-nami. The surge led to the collapse of two nearby buildings and the loss of eight lives. Over the years, rumors even popped up that unconscientious ale-lovers had flocked to the scene of the accident to consume the runaway beverage.

Contemporary accounts suggest there’s not much substance to those rumors, but it’s easy enough to see why people would believe them. People really like beer. Behind water and tea, it’s thought to be the third most widely consumed drink on Earth. It helped shape civilization as we know it, and we're not just talking about those commercials where the guys say “whasssup?!”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the story of the world’s most-widely consumed intoxicating beverage is shrouded in legend and half-truths. Was beer brewed to make water potable? When did hops enter the picture? And what do the Budweiser Frogs have in common with Captain Jack Sparrow? The short answers, respectively, are “no,” “the 9th century, at the latest,” and “Gore Verbinski.” But the long version is more fun.

The Ancient Origins of Beer

Ancient Sumerians were cultivating grains thousands of years ago, and there's some debate about what they were doing with the grains they grew. According to one theory, the grains were used to make beer before bread ever entered the picture. The discovery of ancient tools potentially designed for beer brewing supports this. That would mean beer was part of the origin of agriculture, which is arguably what allowed humans to build civilizations, which led to the development of new technologies, which made it possible to brew even more beer.

In 2018, archaeologists from Stanford announced they had evidence that people in what is now Israel were brewing something like beer around 12,000 years ago, which they noted predates “the appearance of domesticated cereals by several millennia in the Near East.” The archaeologists speculated that it was likely a thin gruel possibly consumed for religious purposes.

Beer, by the way, is any fermented, alcoholic beverage made with cereal grains such as wheat or barley. There was a time when beer and ale were considered two different beverages, with beer defined by the presence of hops, but we’re going to proceed with more modern usage, where the two words are basically interchangeable. We’ll get to hops soon enough (about 11,000 years).

Early beer was likely made by crushing up grains, heating them gradually in water, then possibly baking them, and steeping them again. This process encourages fermentation. Grains contain starches, and heating up grains helps break these starches down into their simple sugar components. Fermentation happens when yeast microbes consume these sugars and convert them into alcohol, flavor compounds, and carbon dioxide. It’s sometimes said that Louis Pasteur discovered yeast in the mid-1800s, but that’s a little misleading. Sure, single-celled organisms like yeast are invisible to the naked eye, but when millions or billions congregate in the beer-making process they can be seen and manipulated.

In Richard Unger’s Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he points to several indications that brewers began to intuit the vital role of yeast hundreds of years before Pasteur’s time. Rather than relying on wild yeast in the air, a 15th-century brewer in Munich received permission to use a specific source of yeast from the bottom of his brew. In 16th century Norwich, England, brewers recognized the value of skimming off excess yeast for use in bread-making and further brewing. They actually donated some of that yeast to charities. Even without Pasteur’s experiments defining the biological processes that result in living yeast turning glucose into ethanol—what he dubbed alcoholic fermentation—people evidently knew that fermentation made beer bubbly, flavorful, alcoholic, and generally much more fun to drink than plain barley water.

Beer: The Beverage of the Gods

Beer was among the Sumerians’ most influential contributions to the world, right behind written language and a formal number system. And the Sumerians knew they had come up with something big. They even had a goddess of beer and brewing named Ninkasi. In the year 1800 BCE, a hymn was written for Ninkasi that doubled as a beer recipe. Because it was written in song, the recipe was easy for the average beer drinker to memorize if they didn’t know how to read. It’s also the oldest beer recipe ever discovered. Here’s an excerpt:

“Ninkasi, You are the one who handles the dough with a big shovel....you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground. ... You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar, the waves rise, the waves fall...You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats, coolness overcomes.”

If the Sumerians penned a similarly poetic cure for hangovers, it hasn’t been discovered.

The Ancient Egyptians were also fanatical about their beer. They believed that beer brewing knowledge was a gift from the god Osiris, and they incorporated the drink into their religious ceremonies. It infiltrated other parts of Egyptian culture as well. Beer was so common that the laborers who built the pyramids of Giza were given daily rations amounting to about 10 pints of the stuff. It was also served at celebrations, where over-imbibing was not only accepted, but encouraged. As far as etiquette was concerned, leaving a party when you could still walk straight was the Egyptian equivalent of not finishing your meal.

Hops To It

Adding unusual flavors to beer is not a new phenomenon. Before the first hipster microbrewery opened, ancient beer makers were using ingredients like carrots, bog myrtle, hemp, and cheese to make their concoctions. But one component that’s found in virtually all beer today took a while to enter the picture. That would be hops, the ingredient that gives beer its bitter, floral taste. Though it's more noticeable in IPAs, the vast majority of beers depend on hops to balance out their sweetness. And hops, by the way, isn’t the name of the plant; it’s the name of the flower or “cone” that comes from the plant. The plant itself is called Humulus lupulus, which means “climbing wolf” in Latin.

During the Middle Ages, Catholic monks supported themselves by selling homemade goods like cheese, mustard, and in some cases, beer. These monks were likely the first people to make beer with hops. In the mid-800s, Adalard of Corbie, a German Abbot from the monastery of Corvey in Germany (and a cousin of Charlemagne's), referred to the use of hops in brewing. A few hundred years after that first written reference, German abbess and eventual Catholic saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote, in her book Physica Sacra, that hops “make the soul of a man sad and weigh down his inner organs.” 

According to beer scholar William Bostwick, her description was actually so scathing that it helped launch a beer war between Catholics and Protestants. Partly inspired by Hildegard, Catholics ditched hops and fully embraced gruit, which was the mixture of herbs and aromatics used to flavor most early beers. This made hoppy beer anti-Catholic, so naturally Protestants claimed it as their own. Martin Luther himself was even a proponent of the beverage. During the Reformation in the 16th century, the rise of Protestantism helped boost hops’ profile in Europe. And hops had another advantage in the beer wars: The ingredient contains beta acids that delay spoilage and act as a natural preservative. Monks weren’t aware of this property when they first added hops to beer, and it when it did become clear centuries later, that was the final nail in gruit’s coffin.

The Beer Vs. Water Myth

Beer was a popular drink of the lower classes from ancient times through the Middle Ages, but there’s some confusion as to why. You may have heard that peasants drank beer every day because it was more sanitary than the water they had access to, and it makes a certain amount of sense. Brewing generally involves boiling the unfermented beer, or wort; this would theoretically kill off pathogens. Once fermentation takes place, the alcohol itself would presumably provide further disinfection.

While it’s hard to say that beer was never looked at as a healthier alternative to water, the theory doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny as it relates to the Middle Ages. The truth is that clean water wasn’t that hard to come by, even in poorer communities. People could get free water from wells and streams, and some places like London even had cisterns by the 13th century. A more likely explanation for beer’s popularity with poor and working class people is that, beyond its intoxicating effects, it was viewed as a cheap source of nutrition. If you were a worker in the Middle Ages, an afternoon pint provided a measure of hydration and quick calories at the same time.

The Witchy History of Women in Beer Brewing

Today the craft brewing industry skews heavily male, but women have likely been making beer for thousands of years. Female brewers during the 16th and 17th century may even have given rise to some of the iconic imagery around witches. From the cauldrons they brewed in to the pointy hats they wore (perhaps to attract customers) to the cats they kept to deal with grain-loving rodents, some writers have drawn a line connecting alewife entrepreneurs and what would eventually become witchy iconography.

While it’s difficult to source accusations of witchcraft levied at brewsters, there does seem to be overlap in assertions of duplicitousness, for example—perhaps as a method to drive women out of a field that was quickly becoming dominated by men.

Beer in the Industrial Age

For good and ill, beer-making took some big steps forward during the Industrial Revolution. Emerging technologies like steam power and refrigeration led to a tastier, more consistent, and easier-to-brew beverage.

Industrialization and globalization also paved the way for the widespread consolidation of the modern beer industry. When Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired SABMiller for more than $100 billion in 2016, the resulting conglomerate contained over 500 beverage brands [PDF] and accounted for over a quarter of global beer market sales, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.

Many of the “craft beers” you know may very well belong to a conglomerate like this. Because these giant beer-makers are also giant beer-distributors, with a big say in what brands up on store shelves, critics accuse them of reducing competition from independent producers and potentially stifling consumer choice. InBev would presumably argue that their scale and history in the industry allows them to operate more efficiently [PDF]. It’s interesting to note that you could buy a bottle of Budweiser or a bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and be supporting the same bottom line. Speaking of Budweiser ...

The Budweiser Frogs And A Return to the Past

During 1995’s Super Bowl, a commercial featuring the three talking amphibians—Bud, Weis, and Er—aired, and for some reason, America fell in love. That spot was directed by Gore Verbinski, who would go on to direct the American remake of The Ring and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. The frogs were brought to life by artists at Stan Winston’s studio, the same legendary company that helped create the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and The Terminator’s titular cyborg. That’s five combined Academy Awards and billions in box office success, all in the service of selling beer.

Mass-produced beer made from hops, grains, and yeast is standard today, but the brews of the past haven’t disappeared completely. Resurrecting ancient beer recipes has become a popular pastime among home brewers. Even some commercial breweries have joined the trend. New Belgium makes gruit ale, and Dogfish Head collaborated with a molecular archeologist to recreate a beer based on residue collected from what may have been King Midas’s tomb. But the truth is, no matter what beer you reach for, you’ll be drinking something that connects you to the very beginnings of civilization.