The History of Beer

Beer: The Pursuit of Hop-i-ness

After the Late Glacial Maxima, around 10,500 B.C.E., descendants of early bow and arrow users, also known to use grinding-rocks for grains that they had gathered, settled in the Southern Levant region (the Southern Palestine area). Wild grains were plentiful there, so the development of agriculture seemed unnecessary. It was delayed another 2,500 years until 8000 B.C.E.…

Some beer devotees like to speculate about a forgotten container with barley in it, left outside subject to the vagaries of weather. It became rain-soaked, meeting up with some omnipresent environmental yeast, and when rediscovered a week later, the foamy-goo on top was removed, the barley was too bitter to be eaten, but the liquid was consumed, and the effects of alcohol were discovered. So beer may have been around for the last 12,000 years.

Beer Through History

What we actually know is that 7,000 years ago (5000 B.C.E.), in an area we now call Iran, evidence was discovered of beer stone or calcium oxalate (C2CaO4) build-up in the bottom of containers proving that beer had been brewed in them. It’s probably not the first instance of beer being brewed, but as the first instance that we are certain about.
Around 4000 B.C.E., the Sumerians where noted for fermenting a form of bread to make an intoxicating drink. By 3000 B.C.E. the Babylonians had managed to conjure up 20 different kinds of beer, generally drunk through a hollow reed, to avoid the solid nasty bits floating on top. Between 1600 and 1500 B.C.E. the Egyptians were noted for including beer in the tombs of their dead, so they’d have a little something to imbibe in when they got to the afterlife.
In the years between 1-100 C.E., beer was one of the most common drinks in Rome and throughout the empire. And its popularity only continued to grow throughout the Middle Ages as monasteries took up a tradition, allowing up to five tankards of ale per day for the monks. Of course they took a vow of silence – their slurred speech would have given them away!
We also know that bread and beer formed a large component of the diet for many of these people, particularly children. Often the water was foul with pollution; drinking it caused dysentery and death. Beer on the other hand with its alcohol component was disease free. In many cases it was the only safe thing to drink, and probably saved a number of lives, allowing our civilization to advance.
Star Beers IV: A New Hop
Somewhere in Germany around 800 C.E. they started adding hops as a way to make it more durable. It really hadn’t caught on but by 1000 C.E. most brewers had started the nasty tradition of adding bitter herbs. What heretofore had been a sweet, pleasant, refreshing drink suddenly took on the aspect of a horrible medicine. Their purpose? To make it last longer before it went bad. Eventually most herbal additives ceased and everybody started using hops. Goodbye sweetness!

Barley Legal

Germany passed a law in the early 1500s stipulating that beer could only be made from barley malt, water, and hops. At the time nobody knew about yeast yet and the role it played in the process. Around 1660 C.E., Britain’s lawmakers created legislation on the same principle, under the name The Purity Act. It continued in full force until 1880, when the Free Mash Tun Act came into effect allowing brewers to control the ingredients in their wort as their hearts desired. Cry “Freedom!” (such as it was, since they were then taxed on the sugar content).

Draught Dodgers

Draught beer (aka draft beer), is that which comes out of a cask. Modern metal kegs are not true draught beers. Beers in metal kegs have been filtered and pasteurized so that no further fermentation is possible—they often lack the intrinsic pressure to serve their own contents. They are additionally charged with nitrogen gas because nitrogen forms smaller bubbles at higher pressure.
The nitrogen makes for a “creamier” head on the beer because of the tiny bubbles. It’s a bit of a cheat. But brew masters selling draft beer have been clever about serving in cans or bottles while retaining the characteristics of the keg-derived beer. Guinness for example was known for its widgets—inside each bottle or can—which would inject a shot of nitrogen as soon as the bottle was uncapped or the can was opened.
Modern day designs incorporate a false bottom with a nitrogen charge. When the pressure is released by opening the container a shot of nitrogen gas is released into the beer. This emulates the characteristics of a draught beer.
If you actually look at a typical draft beer glass you’ll notice that there are laser-cut ridges on the bottom. These act as a nucleation point so the dissolved gases are slowly released and help to maintain the head on the beer.
Before such etching was possible, there was an alternative method. Bars kept salt cellars nearby so you could add bit of salt to form nucleation points, and that would sustain the head on the beer.

Doesn’t L’augur well for the future…

Virtually everything I’ve said has been about ales. That’s because ales have been around for millennia, whereas lagers have only been popular for about 150 years since commercial refrigeration arose; prior to that it was a fairly chancy operation undertaken when the weather was cool enough.
Maybe lager is just another one of those 150 year fads…


  • Hardwired telephones were invented in 1876. Now they’re practically gone.
  • In 1877 we recorded sound for the first time that could be played back. Now we can store hours, and hours of music on a thumb drive/data stick, or on a completely intangible “cloud”, but there is practically no tangible storage medium used. This occurred in the same amount of time it took for hardwired telephones to virtually vanish.
  • Motion picture theaters started around 1900, but now they’re under threat of vanishing because of phones, tablets, laptops, and home theaters.

In truth, cold, bottom-brewing will probably persist. It is currently the most popular type of beer in production today. Many people really enjoy the dry, acerbic palette and the lack of fruity esters. They love the extra-bubbly, highly-carbonated nature of the lager style.
Just to be sure, let’s check back in about 50 years and see how it’s going! In any case, we will probably never get rid of ales; and with lagers now coming into their own, we’ll probably have both types forever.

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