From Goddess Ninkasi To New-Age Brews, Here’s The Complete History of Beer
There are few joys that are greater in life than being able to kick back at the end of a long day with a bottle of chilled beer in your hand. And although we deserve all the credit for the foresight of stocking a growler of our favourite craft beer last weekend, let’s spare a thought for our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestor who envisaged this moment 5000 years ago and began human civilisation for this singular purpose — making beer.
The Ancient Civilizations
While it may be unscientific to claim that man wanted to switch from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to an agrarian one, solely to have beer in peace, it would not be unreasonable to assume that it probably was an important motivation for the earliest human settlements.
Evidence for the first documented recipe for brewing beer has been found on 3800-year-old clay tablets unearthed from modern day Iraq, inscribed by the Sumerians who settled on the plains of Lower Mesopotamia- the world’s first civilization- as an ode to the Goddess Ninkasi, brewer to the Gods. A pictorial depiction of beer consumption on a Sumerian tablet however is at least 2000 years older.
Although bread was basic to the Mesopotamian diet, the primary incentive for raising barley was in all likelihood, beer. The earliest chemically confirmed evidence of barley-beer has been discovered at Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of modern-day Iran, on shards of Sumerian pottery that are 5400 years old, lined with beerstone, a by-product of the brewing process. But Sumerians weren’t drinking beer in pubs and having a go at each other over their favourite soccer teams.
In ancient Sumer, beer gained popularity with the people not just for its taste and favourable mood-altering effects, but mainly because it was the healthier alternative to drinking water, which was not always potable. The fermentation process for beer production involved boiling. Coupled with the sterilising effect of the weak alcohol, it emerged as the clear choice for an everyday thirst-quencher.
The Sumerians pioneered and mastered beer brewing and the product soon found its way into ancient Egypt. We know from unearthed evidence that beer consumption had become an important part of ancient Egyptian culture, consumed by everyone from the Pharaoh to the lowly commoner.
Cuneiform tablets recovered from Egypt carry records of wages received in the form of beer rations – 4 to 5 litres per day – for the paid labour tasked with the building of the staggering pyramids of Giza. Dry bread alone would have been insufficient incentive for the average Egyptian worker involved in the greatest architectural project of the ancient world. Were it not for beer, the Aswan High Dam would have been the only man-made Egyptian structure worth discussing.
Greko-Roman Contempt for Beer
When Greece, led by Alexander the Great invaded Egypt in 332 BCE, beer was looked down upon by the wine-loving Greeks who referred to it as Zythos – referring to its foaminess. They perceived the sprouted malt as rotted grain and loathed the drink the conquered Egyptians brewed from it.
Plutarch, in the 2nd Century AD, explains that “flour is a sort of liminal food, no longer a cereal and not yet bread, and in fact is in a way dead, having been ground, and no longer able to germinate.” It is quite possible that beer was often considered a drink inferior to wine, consumed by the ‘wretched’ barbarians (non-Hellenic races – Thracians, Phrygians, Scythians, Persians) precisely because the process of fermentation was misunderstood and because wine was thought to be unaffected by the ‘corrupting’ power of yeast.
In Plato’s last work Laws, the Athenian Stranger suggests that the climate of places determines whether better or worse men will be born there, and that the type of food produced in a place affects the bodies as well as the souls of men for good or evil. Where grapes were not as abundant, wine would have to be made from other fruits or even from cereals, and drunk by men who were, therefore, inferior in some justifiable way.
The beer-drinking populace of Egypt however, couldn’t care less. Beer remained pivotal to the Egyptian economy and Egypt was soon exporting it to various parts of the Empire, most likely through Phoenicians (yes, the race that has made a good percentage of our globe literate).
Egypt became a Roman colony three centuries later. The Romans, like the Greeks before them, were not fans of beer in particular. They, too, preferred wine. Emperor Julian (who ruled from AD 361 to 363) jocularly wrote in a poem that there were in a sense two Dionysi (Dionysus- Greek deity of wine, born of Zeus and Semele), one a wine god and one a beer god:
Who and from where are you, Dionysus? Since, by the true Bacchus,
I do not recognize you; I know only the son of Zeus. While he smells
like nectar, you smell like a billy-goat [or spelt]. Can it be then that
the Celts because of a lack of grapes made you from cereals?
Therefore one should call you Demetrius [that is, born of Demeter or born of two mothers], not Dionysus, rather wheat-born [than fire-born] and
Bromus [that is, oats], not Bromius [that is, roarer of the thunder].
This poem is regularly cited as the epitome of the negative view of beer in Greco-Roman antiquity, mocking the, well, effeminate qualities of beer-drinkers. Beer drinking continued and flourished however, on the outskirts of the Empire. As Roman conquests swallowed lands across Europe, the captured people, several of whom were beer-drinkers primarily, became new citizens of the Empire and carried on their tradition of beer drinking within the ever-advancing walls of Rome.
Hand Of God
The Roman Catholic Church, at the advent of Christianity, did not take a favourable view of beer either; it too considered wine as the superior beverage. But Christianity progressively shunned the paganism of the Greek classics upon which the Romans based their sense of identity and the Roman love for wine no longer retained its mythological basis. Distinction between Christians and Pagans dominated social structure, not Roman and barbarian.
In its quest for expansion, Christianity aspired to be inclusive and barbarians and their preferred beverage were no longer stigmatised. Indeed, the mighty Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD and recorded evidence of any scathing attacks on beer after the 6th century AD is rather scarce.
Europeans’ opinion of beer seemed to have evolve over the course of the next few centuries thanks in no small part to monasticism. Monks and monasteries transformed the Christianity of the ancient world into the Christianity of the Middle Ages. The earliest template for monastic life was provided by the writings of a certain St Benedict of Nursia that roughly translate as – ‘The Rule’. At the core was the golden rule of ora et labora– pray and work. An auxiliary to this rule was another rule that required all monks to exist without financial assistance from the outside world, only by the work of their own hands.
Brewing beer and selling it to the local community became an easy way for the monks to sustain the monastery, while supporting their own needs and providing hospitality to weary travellers. The universal rule of St Benedict, as discussed in the synod of Aachen in 816 AD, was to be followed by all monasteries, and renovations for monastic breweries if necessary, were authorised for compliance with the new regulations for brewing.
The monastery at St Gall, in present day Switzerland, began the first commercial operation of beer-brewing in Europe under this new directive. Three types of beer were brewed – one for distinguished guests/patrons, one for the monks and one for pilgrims and paupers. Monks also started experimenting with different types of beers, creating unique recipes and documenting them.
In the early 1100s, Abbess Hildegrad of Bingen wrote a text, the Physica Sacra, where she mentioned the use of the hop plant as particularly useful to prevent the spoilage of drink. Up until this point, European monasteries, like all contemporary brew-houses, flavored their beer with ‘gruit’- a combination of various local herbs and spices, typical to a given geographical area. Rulers of these Christian lands exacted a ‘flavouring tax’-the Grutrecht, from breweries, on behalf of the Catholic Church and brewing beer without the local gruit was outlawed. The beer of every region, therefore, had a characteristic flavour but was primarily brewed for local consumption.
The addition of hops to beer, when it was discovered, cut the sweet taste of the malted barley with a thirst-quenching bitterness and made possible preservation, and transportation of beer over distances, previously unthinkable. The agreeable flavouring afforded by the addition of hops meant, however, that brewers did not require gruit or needed much less of it. The authorities prohibited the use of hops in beer to risk losing valuable revenue; consequently, the widespread use of hops in beer brewing was not seen until the 14thcentury when commercial breweries grew in importance.
The Age of Discovery, that began around the late 14th century, ushered in economic growth through increased trade at a scale never seen before. Expansion of towns catering to larger populations meant that the demand for everyone’s beloved refreshment also increased dramatically. Taverns and inns catering to travellers needed to stock more than they ever had. Addition of hops to beer meant that beer could be made in much larger quantities and stored for longer periods of time. It was no longer necessary to drink beer within days of production. Commercial-scale breweries started around several parts of Europe, and with them came government taxes and regulations. The role of monasteries as the beating heart of European beer production, would change forever.
Local rulers wanted to impose taxes on beer itself, to make up for revenue lost on the ‘gruit’ but the local parishes to which the monasteries were affiliated were exempt from any such taxation. The authorities were eagerly inclined to encourage commercial breweries that they could tax as they pleased. The Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe in the early 16th century eliminated Catholic monasteries from the region along with their beer production, and commercial breweries rapidly filled the void. The final blow to monastic beer brewing was dealt by imperialist expansion under Napolean Bonaparte, which saw many monasteries and their breweries demolished or abandoned by the end of the 18th century.
Women had been the primary custodians of brewing processes over centuries. Owing to the similarities in the methods of baking bread and brewing beer, this daily chore was always entrusted to the ladies of the house. Such home brewing operations evolved in ancient Sumer and Egypt, into small business for hostesses who operated taverns or drinking houses, which would double up as brothels where beer would be sold by the glass before other services were offered!
Even much later, in Catholic Europe, right until the turn of the 1st millennium AD, beer brewing remained a largely work-from-home job, so to speak, dominated by the fairer sex, offering women the only opportunity to earn an honest income, as it was the only enterprise which did not involve a large upfront investment and could be done by single and married women alike.
The rising demand for beer and the need to meet it quickly disadvantaged women who up until this point had been home-brewers for generations. The inconsistent and low output of home-brewed beer was unacceptable. Any scaling-up of operations required large capital investment that the alewives simply could not afford.
The exclusive chore of women since Sumerian times, men of commerce, who could both finance and run larger operations, would soon effect a hostile take-over. The setting up of commercial operations and the subsequent formation of brewers’ guilds excluded all women from membership. Women were slowly but surely relegated to the role of mere employees in the brewing business, one that men had no business brewing trouble in.
Brexit, in Reverse
The male-dominated European industry of beer production soon spread to England, where unhopped English ale was still the drink of choice and beer production was still mostly the domain of women. The Black Plague of 1345-1350 that ravaged the island nation, however, changed all that. The demand for ale increased several fold, especially because of an increased awareness of the contamination of water sources. Diets improved. The small output of female managed house-hold operations that supplied beer to pre-plague England simply could not keep pace. In order to increase and sustain production to meet the swelling demand, the larger breweries in England were compelled to accept the obvious benefits of hopped European beer in terms of taste and shelf-life, hopped beer supplanted traditional unhopped English ale by the 1500s and industrial-scale brewing began across the country. England had been invaded.
Back in Bavaria, in the year 1553, Duke Albrecht V, with the noble intention of protecting his people from spoiled beer, made brewing of beer in the summer months unlawful by Royal decree. In accordance with this new rule, the last beer of the season would have to be brewed in late spring, and would somehow need to last at least until autumn. To protect their beer from spoilage by the summer heat, brewers began fermenting it in underground caves dug deep in the hillsides, in ice, hand-cut from frozen lakes in winter. With the passing months, the beer and the yeast fermenting it changed.
One species of yeast – lager yeast (lagern – ‘to store’ in German) dominated under the freezing temperatures of the tunnels and continued to ferment the beer while settling to the bottom of the vessel. The beer resulting from this process was lighter, clearer, smoother and lasted much longer than other beers. Bavarian beer would never be the same again.
Industrialised glass-making allowed the appeal of this light, straw-coloured beer to really shine through. The invention of mechanical refrigeration freed the brewers from any dependence on natural ice and Bavarian beer production could be expanded to any place on earth with a year-round supply of potable water, essentially wiping out less exotic ales from many places. England, Rhineland and even Belgium however were not too keen on globalising their product just yet and focussed their efforts on improving their product and domestic demand.
The Beer of Revenge
The growing popularity of German beer, particularly in neighbouring France where lager beers were taking over the market was, however, the cause of intense irritation for a certain gentleman named Louis Pasteur. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 had led to the capture of the French Emperor by the Germans. His only son, Jean-Baptiste had had to enlist and was gravely ill with typhoid.
As war reparations, Germany had subsumed Alsace and Lorraine, where hops were the primary crop and much of France’s own beer was produced. His obsessive hatred for Germany was only aggravated by the continued sale of Bavarian beer throughout much of France. To avenge the honour of his nation, Pasteur formulated a plan to destroy Germany’s principal export, by developing the world’s best beer in France – the beer of revenge. From this was born the process of pasteurisation that has made beer consumption safe for everyone worldwide.
Make America Great Again
In colonial America, rum and whisky were the most popular drinks. Even cider exceeded the English ale in popularity until early 19th century. Uncle Sam was never too high on the ale that the English settlers were so partial to (no pun unintended). The American beer scene blew-up concomitant with German immigration in the mid-19th century. German lagers, that they brought with them gained massive popularity with the locals but soon hit a roadblock, in another movement that was gaining momentum around the same time in 1840s America — the temperance movement.
Despite the best effort of German brewers, activists, mainly women (as so often) were pushing for state-level prohibition laws. Introduction of a new type of lager- the Bohemian Pilsner- made using partially malted light barley and Noble Saaz hops, which were clearer, lighter and blander than the Bavarian variant made American beer rather mellow tasting, just enough to stay on the right side of public judgement. For people who wanted to avoid the wrath of temperance activists, lighter beer became the obvious choice.
Anheuser-Busch introduced Budweiser in 1876, with rice adjuncts that made it milder still. Practicality and palatal preference both tilted popular choice in favour of lighter beers, especially in states where the anti-alcohol sentiment was fiercest.
Between 1917 and 1933 – the monstrosity of the Prohibition years – an entire generation of Americans was distanced from beer, most certainly the hearty, bold variety that was popular with their European cousins. When the Act was finally, mercifully repealed by the 21st Amendment, the Congress modified the Volstead Act to permit the manufacture of only non-intoxicating, mild beers with a maximum weight by volume percentage of four percent alcohol.
The new watered-down beer produced by American breweries was readily accepted by the public, who had lost or simply forgotten the taste of full-bodied beer. Laboratories that were commissioned to analyse the early post repeal beers reported that these beers were too hoppy, too heavy and too filling for consumers’ tastes. So commenced the further commercialization and ‘blandification’ of American beer, that went on for nearly 70 years, culminating into the bottle of Budweiser, Kingfisher and other big brands, which are other options to stock up on in case craft beers aren’t your thing.
Today, as the world moves back to craft beers and limited-edition drafts instead of commercial beers, the story of beer seems to have come full circle from the time the Sumerians and Egyptians made beer that couldn’t be transported too far.
The history of beer is as fascinating as the drink itself we believe. Do you agree? What was the biggest aha moment for you while reading this article? Let us know in the comments below.
What's Your Reaction?
Sneha is an avid reader and writer who quit her job to pursue her passion for writing. When she is not reading or writing, she can be found teaching kids, cooking or cuddled in her bed watching Netflix.