The History of Beer
History of the word Beer
Of the two terms, beer and ale, the latter is the older in English. It is believed to come directly from the proto-Indo European root *alu-, through Germanic *aluth- (). The same word is the stem for Finnish olut, Estonian õlu, Danish and Norwegian øl and Latvian/Lithuanian alus. Beer, on the other hand, is considered to come from the Latin verb bibere (to drink, ). Old English sources distinguish between “ale” and “beer,” but do not define what was meant by “beer” during that period, although there is some speculation that it refers to what would now be called cider, the alcoholic form. The Old English form of “beer” disappeared shortly after the Norman Conquest, and the word re-entered English centuries later, in exclusive reference to hopped malt beverages. The beverage is termed “cerveza”, or a derivative, in the various dialects of Spanish and Portuguese, from Latin cerevisia. Most other Western European (and even some Eastern European) languages use a form similar to the English “beer.” The Common Slavic *pivo, literally “beverage”, is the word for beer in most Slavic languages, with minor phonetic variations.
The Finnish epic Kalevala, collected in written form in the 19th century but based on oral traditions many centuries old, devotes more lines to the origin of beer and brewing than it does to the origin of mankind.
The British drinking song “Beer, Beer Beer” attributes the invention of beer to the presumably fictional Charlie Mopps:
A long time ago, way back in history
When all there was to drink was nothin’ but cups of tea,
Along came a man by the name of Charlie Mopps
And he invented the wonderful drink, and he made it out of hops.
Beer in antiquity
As almost any substance containing certain sugars can undergo spontaneous fermentation due to wild yeasts in the air, it is probable that beer-like beverages were independently invented among various cultures throughout the world. Chemical tests of ancient pottery jars reveal that beer was (like wine) produced about 7,000 years ago in what is today Iran, and was one of the first-known biological engineering tasks where the biological process of fermentation is used in a process.
In Mesopotamia, the oldest evidence of beer is believed to be a 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet depicting people drinking a beverage through reed straws from a communal bowl. A 3900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing, contains the oldest surviving beer recipe, describing the production of beer from barley via bread.
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground…
You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort…
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Tutankhamun Ale. An authentic replica of ancient Egyptian beer, brewed from emmer wheat by the Courage Brewery in 1996Beer is also mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Beer became vital to all the grain-growing civilizations of classical Western antiquity, including Egypt — so much so that in 1868 James Death put forward a theory in The Beer of the Bible that the manna from heaven that God gave the Israelites was a bread-based, porridge-like beer called wusa. The modern anthropologist Alan Eames believes that “beer was the driving force that led nomadic mankind into village life…It was this appetite for beer-making material that led to crop cultivation, permanent settlement and agriculture.”
Knowledge of brewing was passed on to the Greeks. Plato wrote that “He was a wise man who invented beer.”
The Greeks then taught the Romans to brew. The Romans called their brew “cerevisia,” from Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and vis, Latin for “strength.”
Beer was important to early Romans, but during Republican times wine displaced beer as the preferred alcoholic beverage. Beer became a beverage considered fit only for barbarians; Tacitus wrote disparagingly of the beer brewed by the Germanic peoples of his day.
Thracians were also known to consume beer made from rye, even since the 5th century BC, as Hellanicus of Lesbos says in operas. Their name for beer was brutos, or brytos.
Beer in the Middle Ages
The addition of hops to beer for bittering, preservation, and aroma is a relatively recent innovation: in the Middle Ages many other mixtures of herbs were often employed in beer prior to hops. These mixtures are often referred to as gruit. Hops were cultivated in France as early as the 800s; the oldest surviving written record of the use of hops in beer is in 1067 by well-known writer Abbess Hildegard of Bingen: “If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops.”
Beer in early European history
A 16th century breweryIn Europe, beer largely remained a homemaker’s activity, made in the home in medieval times. By the 14th and 15th centuries, beermaking was gradually changing from a family-oriented activity to an artisan one, with pubs and monasteries brewing their own beer for mass consumption.
In 15th century England, an unhopped beer would have been known as an ale, while the use of hops would make it a beer. Hopped beer was imported to England from the Netherlands as early as 1400 in Winchester, and hops were being planted on the island by 1428. The popularity of hops was at first mixed — the Brewers Company of London went so far as to state “no hops, herbs, or other like thing be put into any ale or liquore wherof ale shall be made — but only liquor (water), malt, and yeast.” However, by the 16th century, “ale” had come to refer to any strong beer, and all ales and beers were hopped.
Achel trappist beer (Belgium) with glassIn 1516, William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law), perhaps the oldest food regulation still in use today. The Gebot ordered that the ingredients of beer be restricted to water, barley, and hops, with yeast added after Louis Pasteur’s discovery in 1857. The Bavarian law was applied throughout Germany as part of the 1871 German unification as the German Empire under Otto von Bismarck, and has since been updated to reflect modern trends in beer brewing. To this day, the Gebot is considered a mark of purity in beers, although this is controversial.
Most beers until relatively recent times were what are now called ales. Lagers were discovered by accident in the 16th century after beer was stored in cool caverns for long periods; they have since largely outpaced ales in terms of volume.
Beer during the Industrial Revolution
With the invention of the steam engine in 1765, industrialization of beer became a reality. Further innovations in the brewing process came about with the introduction of the thermometer and hydrometer in the 19th century, which allowed brewmasters to increase efficiency and attenuation.
Prior to the late 18th century, malt was primarily dried over fires made from wood, charcoal, or straw, and after 1600, from coke.
In general, none of these early malts would have been well shielded from the smoke involved in the kilning process, and consequently, early beers would have had a smoky component to their flavors; evidence indicates that maltsters and brewers constantly tried to minimize the smokiness of the finished beer.
Writers of the period describe the distinctive taste derived from wood-smoked malts, and the almost universal revulsion it engendered. The smoked beers and ales of the West Country were famous for being undrinkable – locals and the desperate excepted. This is from “Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors” (1700):
“In most parts of the West, their malt is so stenched with the Smoak of the Wood, with which ’tis dryed, that no Stranger can endure it, though the inhabitants, who are familiarized to it, can swallow it as the Hollanders do their thick Black Beer Brewed with Buck Wheat.”
So, a bit of an acquired taste, then. Here’s an even earlier reference to such malt by William Harrison, in his “Description of England”, 1577:
“In some places it [malt] is dried at leisure with wood alone, or straw alone, in other with wood and straw together, but, of all, the straw-dried is the most excellent. For the wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke. Such also as use both indifferently do bark, cleave, and dry their wood in an oven, thereby to remove all moisture that should procure the fume…”
Not exactly an unequivocal endorsement. Here’s what “London and Country Brewer” (1736) has to say:
“Brown Malts are dryed with Straw, Wood and Fern, etc.The straw-dryed is the best, but the wood sort has a most unnatural Taste, that few can bear with, but the necessitous, and those that are accustomed to its strong smoaky tang; yet it is much used in some of the Western Parts of England, and many thousand Quarters of this malt has been formerly used in London for brewing the Butt-keeoing-beers with, and that because it sold for two shillings per Quarter cheaper than Straw-dryed Malt, nor was this Quality of the Wood-dryed Malt much regarded by some of its Brewers, for that its ill Taste is lost in nine or twelve Months, by the Age of the Beer, and the strength of the great Quantity of Hops that were used in its preservation.”
Wood-dried malt had a horrible taste, but some London brewers did once use it because it was cheap and after long aging in a heavily-hopped beer you didn’t notice the vile smokiness any more.
However, the straw-dried brown malt preferred in London was the least affected. That was the very reason it was valued above the wood-dried variety. In “Town and Country Brewery Book” (approx. 1830, p.47), there is a chapter about what can go wrong during malting. Smoking malt was seen as a serious mistake:
“The third error consists in the drying of malt. They are apt to be tainted by the smoke, through the carelessness, covetousness, or unskilfulness of the maker. Every care ought to be taken to guard against this accident as one of the most prejudicial that can befall malt drinks.”
The hydrometer transformed how beer was brewed. Before its introduction beers were brewed from a single malt: brown beers from brown malt, amber beers from amber malt, pale beers from pale malt. Using the hydrometer, brewers could calculate the yield from different malts. They observed that pale malt, though more expensive, yielded far more fermentable material than cheaper malts. For example, brown malt (used for Porter) gave 54 pounds of extract per quarter, whilst pale malt gave 80 pounds. Once this was known, brewers switched to using mostly pale malt for all beers supplemented with a small quantity of highly-coloured malt to achieve the correct colour for darker beers.
The invention of the drum roaster in 1817 by Daniel Wheeler allowed for the creation of very dark, roasted malts, contributing to the flavour of porters and stouts. Its development was prompted by a British law of 1816 forbidding the use of any ingredients other than malt and hops. Porter brewers, employing a predominantly pale malt grist, urgently needed a legal colourant. Wheeler’s patent malt was the solution.
The discovery of yeast’s role in fermentation in 1857 by Louis Pasteur gave brewers methods to prevent the souring of beer by undesirable microorganisms.
Prior to Prohibition, there were thousands of breweries in the United States, mostly brewing heavier, European-style beers. Beginning in 1920, most of these breweries went out of business, although some converted to soft drinks and other businesses. Bootlegged beer was often watered down to increase profits, beginning a trend, still on-going today, of the American palate preferring lighter beers. Consolidation of breweries and the application of industrial quality control standards have led to the mass-production and the mass-marketing of huge quanitites of light lagers. Smaller breweries, including microbreweries and craft brewers, and imports, have serviced the segment of the American market that prefers fuller-bodied beers.
In 1953, New Zealander Morton W. Coutts developed the technique of continuous fermentation. Coutts patented his process which involves beer flowing through sealed tanks, fermenting under pressure, and never coming into contact with the atmosphere, even when bottled. His process is used by Guinness.
Today, the brewing industry is a huge global business, consisting of several multinational companies, and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewpubs to regional breweries. Advances in refrigeration, international and transcontinental shipping, marketing and commerce have resulted in an international marketplace, where the consumer has literally hundreds of choices between various styles of local, regional, national and foreign beers.
Some niche markets have only developed in the past few years. Perhaps particularly noteworthy is gluten free beer, which has developed because of the extreme reaction one in a hundred people have to gliadin and hordein (together, gluten) that is present in wheat and barley respectively. Around thirty gluten free beers are now available worldwide and they are reviewed by the international resource Glutenfreebeerfestival.com. With more and more people discovering that they have coeliacs, Dermatitis herpetiformis, or other conditions that rule out all “mainstream” beer, this niche is likely to expand dramatically in the near future.