Beer is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages, and is likely, the most ancient manufacturing art in the history of mankind. The word beer originates from the Latin word bibere, which means “to drink”. It is widely believed that beer brewing began as early as the 5th millennium BC as recorded in the written history of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. It is speculated that beer may have even pre-dated the making of bread. Most likely, the two were either a by-product of the other or simply originated around the same time when ancient cultures first learned to cultivate grain, the first domesticated crop.
Cultures from around the world used different types of grain to make beer. In Africa, millet, maize, and cassava were used. Japan used rice, while China and other Asian cultures used wheat and sorghum. The Russians made beer from rye. Egypt brewed with barley and may have cultivated the crop strictly for beer brewing as it did not make good bread.
The oldest written records of beer brewing trace back to Mesopotamia where the Sumerians discovered the fermentation process. The goddesses Siris and Nimkasi were patronesses of beer where the ancient “Hymn to Nimkasi” contains a written record on the process of making beer. Within this hymn, it is noted how this “divine” drink made one feel invigorated and blissful. The rapturous sensation derived from drinking beer leant to its association with divine origin while considering it to be a gift from the gods. Certain types of beer were reserved exclusively for religious ceremonies in places of worship. The Babylonians, who ruled Mesopotamia after the fall of the Sumerian empire, began brewing beer in large quantities in many different styles. They were known to have brewed around 20 different types of beer such as; dark beer, pale beer, red beer, beer with(out) a head, etc. Occasionally, in order to avoid swallowing bits of grain left in the beverage, many used straws to sip their beer.
Egyptians continued the art of brewing beer sometime after the Sumerians and Babylonians. They began brewing commercially for use by royalty, as a burial provision to accompany individuals into the afterlife, and for medical purposes. Ancient Egyptian texts record many medical prescriptions whose main ingredient was beer. The Egyptians used unbaked bread dough and added dates to improve its taste. Around this time, beer carried great value and was often used as a means for compensating workers for labor as a part of their regular wages.
The Greeks and Romans continued the tradition of beer brewing. While wine was the alcoholic beverage of choice in Ancient Greece, it was beer that first became popular. However, once wine became more prevalent in Greek and Roman society, beer lost its appeal to these cultures. Wine carried a more divine quality, while beer was associated with mortal men and even considered barbaric in some societies. The Roman legions introduced beer to much of Northern Europe around the 1st century BC; however, it is believed that beer was brewed in what is now considered present-day Germany back around the 9th century BC. The Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote about the Germanians and their style of beer, referring to it as a horrible brew that bared only a faint resemblance to wine. As in Egypt, the ancient Germans thought beer to have a divine quality and was often used as a sacrifice to the gods, while the Romans and Greeks preferred the mythic embodiment of wine.
During the middle ages, beer brewing became a more widespread practice in Europe, eventually becoming a more commercial enterprise rather than a family operation later in the period. Beer was produced in monasteries and convents and used for trading, tithing, and method of payment. Beer was considered a food, and since women were the primary cooks, they also generally bore the responsibility of beer brewing. Beer became an important part of religious and social ceremonies, including weddings. Brides often sold ale on their wedding to offset the expenses of the ceremony. The word “bridal” is derived from this custom and the term “bride-ale”. Ale was exclusively applied to unhopped fermented beverages.
It was around 1000 AD when hops first became used in the brewing process. The term beer became more associated with a brew associated with hops. In this sense, there was a clear distinction between “ale” and “beer”, although this distinction no longer applies today. Ale consisted of malt, water, and yeast but contained no hops. By the 15th century, the County of Flanders (which spread over parts of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands) introduced hops into the brewing process, which created a more bitter taste and contained a better preservative quality. Beer soon began to replace the English ale and was exported throughout Europe. It was also around this time in the late 15th century that Columbus found Indians in the New World making beer from corn, and on his last voyage, found the natives of Central America making a quality brew from maize, which carried a resemblance to English ale.
Beer was quickly spreading throughout the European continent by the 16th century and was often a significant portion of cargoes traveling across the North and Baltic Seas. During the late 1500’s, Queen Elizabeth I often drank strong ale for breakfast during her rule. She would always require an adequate supply of ale during her travels if the local ale did not meet her expectations. Around 1587, beer is first brewed in America at Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in Virginia. However, being a relatively new and unpolished custom in America at the time, colonists often requested the importation of better beer from England.
Up until this time, there had not been any effective method of properly storing beer. However, in the early 1600’s, a man by the name of Dr. Alexander Norwell discovered that ale can be stored longer in cork sealed, glass bottles. Dr. Norwell was the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1560 thru 1602. He fell upon this discovery by corking a bottle of ale and leaving it in the grass for several years. When he came back and opened the bottle, he noticed that the ale had retained its taste and quality.
In 1612, the first commercial brewery opened in present-day Manhattan. Throughout the next couple centuries, breweries began opening up all over the American Colonies. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams all operated their own individual or commercial brewhouses. Molson, North America’s oldest beer brand, opened its first brewery in Canada in 1786. Beer and bread became a staple in every ordinary person’s diet as its popularity and mass production spread.
On October 12th, 1810, the first Oktoberfest festival is held in Munich. The two-week festival is held each year in Germany during late September and early October. It is the world’s largest fair and many other cities across the world also hold fairs modeled after the Oktoberfest festival in Munich. In the 1820’s, a brewer named Garbriel Sedlmayr II the Younger of Munich traveled Europe to develop his brewing skills. By the 1830’s, Sedlmayr developed the lager method of beer production which spread quickly throughout Europe. The Bavarian lager carried a dark color because of the hardness of Munich water. Sedlmayr’s friend Anton Dreher used this new lager technique in Vienna to create an amber-red rich colored lager from the Viennese water which enabled the user of lighter malts. In 1842, brewer Josef Groll used a different malt from the local water in Bohemia which resulted in a beer composed of a very bright golden color. This new type of beer became commonly known as Pilsner and was widely popular throughout Europe.
The modern era of brewing began in the United States in the late 19th century with the advent of commercial refrigeration, automatic bottling, pasteurization, and railroad distribution. The total number of breweries in the United States began to rapidly grow and reached well over 2,000 by 1880. However, in the early 1900’s, increased competition and Prohibition caused a significant decrease in beer brewing. By the mid 1930’s after Prohibition ended for beer, less than 200 breweries still existed and operated. By the mid 1900’s the beer industry began a period of extraordinary growth in the United States. Budweiser was the first to sell over 10 million barrels of beer in a year in 1966. By 1991, 20% of the world’s beer volume is produced in the U.S. The top 3 brewers (Anheuser Busch, Miller Brewing, and Coors), accounted for over 75% of the domestic production of beer. In 1993, retail beer sales exceed $45 billion. Today, the beer brewing industry continues to be a massive global business, consisting of several multinational companies and thousands of smaller brewpubs and regional/local breweries.
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