Beer: A Brief History of Good Times

So, you want to make beer, huh? Fancy a change from the mass produced lagers that you’re used to? Well, you’re in the right place.

In this second article of my brewing series, I’m going to give a brief history of beer, it’s development, and the role it’s played in society. Yes, beer is important – from being potentially the reason for early human static settlements, to the development of mathematics and writing; for helping keep people alive in Dark Age Britain, to the discovery of germ-science, that is a cornerstone to our medical system today.

Yes, beer, this social lubricant, is that important to human civilisation. Not convinced? Read on.

So, when did beer first arrive in our lives? When did this all consuming beverage first grace our tables? A hundred years ago? Five hundred? These are the guesses I often hear when I ask the question. Well, you’re a bit off the mark if you’ve pinned your hopes on this kind of number. The real answer? When was the first beer made?

Probably around 8000 years ago!

Yep, that’s right folks, as a human civilisation we’ve been drinking beer pretty much since the end of the last Ice Age (and probably longer if you believe the theory of advanced civilisations that existed before that period. But that’s for another post…). The proof has been found in the residue of ancient jars that were used to store beer, vessels that prove man was brewing beer three thousand years before the earliest evidence that we were baking bread.

Why is this important? Well, in the accepted theories of human development there is a period commonly known as the Agricultural Revolution, where man stopped being roaming Hunter Gatherers and settled in one place for the first time. The belief is that this was for the purposes of propagating barley – a cereal – for the use of making bread. Essentially, this is the origin story of farming, and the settlements which grew up around them, which developed into the first villages, towns and cities. Only, there is now a contrary theory challenging this accepted idea…for barley is more than simply the main ingredient in bread.

It’s also the main ingredient in beer, too. Without barley, or a similar grain, there is no beer. Nothing to ferment, nothing to turn into the beverage we all love. And, as I said earlier, there is evidence that beer was brewed first, well before bread was baked. It makes sense, as bread needs heat – i.e. fire, to transform dough into bread.

Beer production is a far more natural process.

Which is evidenced by the fact that beer was most likely discovered by complete and utter accident. How can that be, I hear you cry. Brewing is a complex, technical process. How can beer be made by accident? Well, here’s the most accepted theory.

Beer is made, in its simplest terms, by soaking barley in water to encourage the seeds to begin to germinate. This releases enzymes which turn the starches stored in the grain – which are used as energy to create new grain in the next growing season – into sugars. More liquid is then added and yeast – a naturally occurring micro-organism – consumes the sugars and gives off, as a waste by-product, alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is how alcohol is produced in every single alcoholic drink you will ever consume.

So, how could early man achieve this?

The idea is that grain was picked and stored in a jar or other open vessel. The Hunter Gatherer group then goes off on a hunt or something and it rains, partially soaking the collected grain. The germination process begins, the sugars start to come out, then it rains again. Wild yeast, floating around in the air, discover this source of food, eat the sugars in the grain-jar, and give off alcohol as waste. The liquid left in the jar is now the first ever alcoholic drink ever produced.

Then the early humans return to their cave. They look into the jar, and see the bubbly liquid (caused by the other by-product, carbon dioxide, bubbling to the surface. Carbon dioxide is the source of bubbles in all fizzy drinks from Coke to Budweiser). The scene is fascinating to early man, and some brave soul took the decision to drink the liquid.

The effect must have been marvelous. It would have been vastly different to drinking water, and the intoxicating effects must have prompted early man to repeat the process as often as possible – as many of us do today. The effect of this first beer must have persuaded the tribes to grow more barley, simply to make more beer. To get drunk more often.

And we are all grateful to this day.

And so the life of beer as central to civilisation begins. The first ‘story’ ever written – the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh – describes beer’s effects: “His (Gilgamesh’s) mood become free and his face lit up” after eating the bread and drinking the ale. We’ve all been there. Then there is a Finnish Saga with over 200 words for beer – which is more than the Eskimo’s/Inuits have for snow.

The Pyramid builders of Egypt were paid in beer. The standard ration was two loaves of bread and eight pints of beer a day. Tokens have been found which were used to cash these in, like a credit system. It’s estimated it took around 14 Million litres of beer to build the Great Pyramid. Beer certainly made the Ancient Egyptians productive!

So how did beer contribute to maths and writing? Well, once ancient humans began farming they had to lay out the boundaries of their fields, using maps, ratios and trigonometry. Then, once beer became a commodity in ancient Sumeria – the ‘first’ civilisation – records of production and trade were kept. Ancient clay tablets have been uncovered with items, like beer, being recorded upon them in cuniform text.

Crazy, no?

Okay, okay, I hear you say. So beer helped with maths and writing. But you said health, too. Fuck off. You’re lying.

Guess again!

In the post-Roman period all the way up to modern day, Britain was rife with disease and plague. The main reason, though it wasn’t known, was the state of the drinking water. Most bodies of water – rivers and canals etc – served not only as sources of drinking and cleaning water, but as open sewers. Butchers’ shops dumped their offal into the rivers, tanneries deposited their waste, too, all on top of the human waste we all produce.

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? So the drinking water was hugely contaminated. It would have held eColi and other such bacteria and was not safe to drink. But, the one thing that was safe to drink…was beer. Even children had a dish of beer to start the day – lucky things, even if it was only 2-3% strong.

The reason was that beer production had been refined by this point in history, and now included a boiling process. Boiling will kill pretty much all bacteria in contaminated water. A US University brewing science department once took duck pond water and turned it into a perfectly safe beer. Not sure I’d try that, but the point is valid. Boiling killed bacteria, beer was safe, and those who drank it lived in a dark time.

And, just to prove how progressive and inclusive beer is, most brewing at this time was done by women. It was an extension of household tasks, brewed frequently, and the women of the house were responsible for it. And in their creative ingenuity, they would add anything that grew to give the beer flavour and backbone. Heather, tree bark, chicken entrails…it was all worth a go.

Major breweries even used rats, though not by choice. In the days of open fermentation, rats would find their way into brewing vats, get drunk and drown in the liquid. The brewers would return and find the rat corpses arse-up in the liquid. But, when they tried to make the brew more rat-free, patrons complained about a lack of flavour. So, they let the rats back in and the drinkers got drunk on their favourite tipple, blissfully unaware of the source. Drunk rats.

Hence the British phrase – ‘rat-arsed pissed‘ – which means to be very, very drunk. True story.

But beer wasn’t done contributing to health and science. In the 1800’s, a French scientist named Louis Pasteur – who had a dislike of the Germans and their idea of supremacy – wanted to get back at the Germans and the idea that they make the best beer. They pretty much do – even the cheapest beer in the lowliest community shops in Berlin knocks socks off most commercial beer anywhere else. You have to love that Bavarian Beer Purity Law!

Anyway, Pasteur came at beer scientifically and was determined to prove that yeast was a real, living organism. Up to that point, brewers thought it was some sort of chemical process that happened during fermentation. Pasteur developed the process of flash-heating beer to kill infections – now known as Pasteurisation, and discovered yeast under a microscopic study. So, the next time you are having a heated discussion with your mates about why milk was Pasteruised, now you now it was beer that came first and developed the process. This allowed for all UHT products anywhere to be produced and consumed safely.

It was America that added to this next. Adolphus Busch, who would found the Annheuser-Busch Brewing empire that makes Budweiser – was a pioneer in developing refrigeration and refrigerated transport, so beer could be made consistently and stored safely, as well as being transported to far away places, leading to the global brands that dominate today.

But is Bud the biggest beer in the world? Unfortunately my US readers, it isn’t. Heineken is the beer brand that reaches further than any other, and its a far superior brew in my opinion. That said, Guinness – the beer I would drink if told I could only pick one for the rest of my days – sells over 1 million pints an hour worldwide. That’s some going. But Pilsener, or lager, is the most common style consumed. And here’s a Pilsener I made recently:

Looks great, doesn’t it? Tastes amazeballs, too. Made with golden sugar and honey, but the recipe is mine! But, how did this most popular style come to dominate the world of beer?

The story starts in the town of Plzen, now in the Czech Republic. A German brewer named Josef Grohl came to the town and set up a brewery. Then, for reasons unknown, he started brewing a lager using a very pale base grain. Up till that point, lagers were all dark. You wouldn’t recognise it as a lager we know today, although some craft brewers are now making dark lagers. There is a Belgian beer called Affligem, which is dark, and – if you are a UK resident in the West of the country – the Zero Degrees pub chain makes a gorgeous black lager direct on site. If you get a chance, try it.

But, back to the story. Grohl made a golden lager against all trend, but it was perfectly timed. For in Europe at that time, glassware was becoming all the rage. Glass was replacing the traditional pewter and earthenware tankards. Now people could see what they were drinking. It didn’t matter before if the beer had things floating in it, which it did, but now everything was clear. And this new golden beer looked just magic in the glass.

So it was named after the town it came from – Plzen, or Pilsener. And the original beer – Pilsner Urquell – is quite literally silk in a glass. And I’ve tried it direct from the brewery tap when I visited the county. O.M effing G!. Stunning brew. If you get the chance, go there!

Lager and Pilsener are essentially the same thing. Lager comes from a German term meaning ‘to store’. German brewers got into the habit of storing their beer in cold caves, giving rise to a new style of ‘bottom-fermenting’ yeast, which worked at low temperatures. It produced a fizzier beer and was seen as a superior product.

Then hops came in. A German named St. Hildegard is credited with first using hops in beer as a flavouring agent, but also because hops feed on proteins in beer and remove things which could make the beer go off, essentially making them a preservative. Hops also promote head retention and foam in beer. Hops are a cousin of the cannabis plant, so the mellow effect in hoppy beers draws on this link.

The preservative quality of hops was resisted in Britain for the longest time. Blame Shakespeare. His family had a connection to the traditional ale brewing industry of Britain and opposed lager or ‘small beer’ as Shakespeare called it. In one of his plays, the only beer drinker is a villain who gets killed off rather quickly.

But a dish of ale is said to be ‘fit for a king’. Make of that what you will.

It was only through Britain’s colonial expansion that hops came into general use. Beer would spoil when transported on ships to places far away, especially the Indian Colonies. So lots of hops were added to preserve the beer for the voyages. It was a style that proved very popular, and was soon introduced across the British Isles. It became known as India Pale Ale – or IPA – a style you may be familiar with.

And so beer continues to be enjoyed to this day. There are multiple styles and flavours and an array of choices out there, but they all follow a rather simple process that hasn’t changed much since that first accidental beer was made 8000 years ago. And it’s a process that you can learn to follow in your own kitchen, with little expense and maximum result.

But that will have to wait till another episode, as my beer kegs are calling to me and a homebrew awaits. So, raise a glass and enjoy whatever your favourite tipple may be.

After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” It’s enough to make you religious.

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