Writing a column about the history of beer is a much more daunting task than one might expect.
As I stated in my last column,beer is the oldest alcoholic beverage recorded in history. In fact, “The Hymn to Ninkasi,”circa 1800 B.C., a tribute to the Sumerian women whose responsibility it was to brew beer, is one of the earliest writings that we still have today. They brewed beer by baking bappir (a honey bread), crumbling it in water, and allowing it to ferment, with the addition of honey and/or dates. The unfiltered beer then had to be drunk through a straw with a filter—much like the South American yerba mate tea.
Allow me to digress here and offer a plausible theory of how the first beer came to be discovered. I say “discovered,” because brewers are stewards of the yeast or bacteria that make sugary wort (the fermentable, hoppy brew at the end of the brewing process) into glorious beer; they do their best to make a suitable environment for the yeast to do their business. I submit that the first “brewers” (circa 5,000 B.C.) probably didn’t brew at all, but instead carelessly left a bowl of grains out in the open, allowing rainwater to collect inside. Or perhaps they prepared a hot cereal of some kind, and the same thing happened. After a period of a couple of weeks or so, someone was brave—or desperately thirsty—enough to stick in a straw and take a hit. (My hunch is that, knowing humans, it was on a dare.) The result was a slightly euphoric feeling, and eventually, someone figured out how to improve the process.
You may laugh, but animals and insects were in on the act long before homo sapiens was. Certain species either have a high tolerance for alcohol in overly ripe fruit, or eat said fruit and enjoy a good buzz.
Let us move to ancient Greece and Rome. As wine grew to prominence, beer remained the alcoholic drink of the lower classes. In northern Europe, beer reigned—mostly due to climate. Without refrigeration, hot weather sours beer quickly, while in cooler climates, beer can be fermented for much of the year. Therefore, you can imagine a sort of “grape/grain” line dividing Europe latitudinally. This largely remains true today, with some notable exceptions. Beer also afforded people a safe beverage in places where the water source might have been “compromised.”
Our friend humulus lupulus, aka the hop, comes into the picture around the 9th century A.D. in writing, but it would take another 200-300 years before it became the preferred bittering and antiseptic agent in beer. Keep in mind, bacteria and yeast were not known about until Louis Pasteur in the 19th century. Brewers just knew that, with hops, their beer was less likely to be undrinkable. Climate also shows its influence here: Hops thrive between the 35th and 55th latitudes in both hemispheres. This plays out in history, with places like Scotland and Ireland having much more malt-forward beers (though in the case of Scotland, this was as a slight to England, where most of the hops were grown), and places like the Czech Republic and Germany having more crisp, hoppy lagers. The makeup of the water in every region played a big part as well.
And then there’s Belgium. Since this is a “brief” history, I must restrain myself from heaping effusive praise on Belgian beers and their histories. What I will mention is that it all began in the 12th century with monks in abbeys seeking to brew something potable. What then ensued was the creation of some of the most elegant, subtle and exciting beers in the world. If you have any interest in learning more about Belgian beer history, ignore the books (for now); get to the nearest beer store; and start making your way through the country’s beers. Just avoid the fake beers like Stella Artois and Leffe. They are corporate black parodies of Belgian beer.
England and Germany also deserve mention. Germany is responsible for the invention of lagering (cold storage during a slower fermentation period than an ale, with a different type of yeast), as well as Noble hops. England invented the porter, stout and pale ale, among others—and amassed a huge empire that helped make beer well-known.
From these two brewing cultures, we move to America. Native American tribes were making a form of beer before Europeans arrived that used maize and birch sap. Once settlers came, brewers often had to make do with native ingredients—like a different type of malt, grains like maize, and hop varietals such as Cluster hops. The result was a much drier, lighter-bodied beer. German immigrants eventually used these ingredients to their advantage to create what is now known as the Pre-Prohibition Pilsner. After Prohibition, a few of the surviving breweries took this style and used even more corn and other lower-protein adjuncts to create a more-diluted version. Then they added marketing to sell this as the working man’s drink.
Several ghastly decades later, some breweries began to appear and make beer that, well, tasted good. A man who is widely considered to be the godfather of craft beer is Fritz Maytag. He purchased the Anchor Brewing Co. in 1965 and quietly began brewing tastier beer. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law making homebrewing legal. Not long after, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. introduced the world to its Pale Ale. It was its day’s “hop bomb.” Piney, citrusy, bitter and vastly different from everything else on the shelves, it spurred more creativity. Around the same time, Jim Koch and his Boston Beer Company began to brew Samuel Adams and introduce drinkers to forgotten styles in America.
The leak in the dam became a deluge; new styles evolved; and the United States became the most exciting country in which to be a beer drinker. As of this writing, there are more than 5,300 breweries in the United States. This is up from 89 in 1978. And the end doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.
One could look at all of this history and conclude that this is the best time and place for a beer-drinker to be alive. One could also pour a beer and raise a glass to celebrate this fact.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.