Beer has a rich, varied history and is an important part of different cultures around the world.
Beer isn’t just a pastime classic. It was a way of life. It was even part of the beginning of civilization thousands of years ago.
Find out the history of one of the best drinks for a chilly night below!
How Beer Began
Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt
Beer is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages around. It’s actually as old as civilization itself! How’s that for ancient history?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the first beers ever consumed. The most widely believed story of beer’s origins dates back to 5, 000 years ago [R]. Archaeologists found a beerstone jug in Godin Tepe, [R] in the central Zagros Mountains of Iran, in 1992.
But recently, this finding is being disputed. Beers could be older. Much older.
In 2018, researchers and historians discovered that beer might be much older than that. The oldest known record of consumption is anywhere from 11,700 to 13,700 years old [R].
With this discovery, historians now believe that beer spurred the rise of the agricultural era [R]. Historians used to believe agriculture came about because ancient civilizations needed to make bread.
Now, they think that ancient civilizations wanted to plant more cereal and barley to brew with.
Ancient civilizations consume barley beer as part of social gatherings. These feasts fostered creativity. Some would say that beer led to the rise of politics [R].
Fast forward to 1800 BCE, in Mesopotamia. One of the earliest written histories of barley beer is that of a Sumerian poem worshiping Ninkasi, the goddess of beer. They even wrote a brewing recipe by the Sumerians [R].
Later on, in ancient Egypt, beer became an important part of Egyptian society. Beer was not just a pastime. It was nutrition, refreshment, and reward [R].
Beer was very well-loved by the ancient Egyptians that they hated one Queen, Cleopatra VII, for implementing a beer tax [R].
Beer found its way to ancient Greece, where it wasn’t well-loved. The Greeks preferred wine and considered ales inferior, a corrupted, effeminate beverage [R]. Philosophers of ancient Greece encouraged moderation when drinking alcohol.
There are records of brewing in China. Researchers found several artifacts throughout China, which they believed were used to make beer. These artifacts date back to 7, 000 BC [R].
While the Mesopotamians made their brews with cereal and barley, the ancient Chinese made theirs with grapes, honey, and rice. Rice beer, or Lao Li, was offered to the gods and the dead.
Ancient Chinese brews tasted more like starch and grain, with a little sourness and fruity flavor profiles. Ancient brews didn’t use hops, not just in China, but also in Europe.
Because ancient brews don’t use hops, they taste different from a lot of today’s drinks [R].
After the Han Dynasty, huángjiǔ, or yellow wine, became more popular. The Chinese didn’t drink as much beer anymore until foreign trade partners introduced brewing facilities in China.
The Rise of Modern Beer
In the Middle Ages, practically everyone drank beer from servants to women. Beer wasn’t just a nighttime beverage either. Medieval Europeans drank their brews for breakfast. [R]
Beer production was a cottage industry. Families made ales for their own personal consumption in the comfort of their own homes.
This all changed when mass production of brews began from an unlikely group of people.
The Benedictine Monks [R] are responsible for the development of modern beer brewing methods. These monks made and served beer for pilgrims and travelers. The monks had a vow of hospitality, so it made sense they wanted to improve on ways to make beer.
Ales were safer to drink than water in the Middle Ages, which made it a better choice to serve to visitors.
And the monks themselves also drank beer. Monks drank beer during Lent, as they were fasting. Beer was the perfect fasting drink because it provided more calories than water. This was how beer got its name, “liquid bread.”
Monks are important for the development of beer as we know it today. They introduced regulations and even developed the use of hops in brewing.
Hops weren’t around just for flavoring. The monks discovered that hops were an important preservative which helped increase the shelf life of beer. It took some time to get the recipe right, though.
Finally, in the year 1200, brewers in Bremen, Germany discovered exactly how many hops to add to keep beer shelf-stable for six months. These brews, which didn’t spoil as quickly, were then being shipped all over Europe [R].
To date, the monks still make some of the best beer in the world. Westverlen 12, a Belgian beer, is one of the best beers in the world today. Westverlen 12, made by the Westverlen Brewery, is still being sold now.
The Westverlen Brewery is a 182-year-old institution founded by the Trappist monks of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Belgium [R].
“Real Beer” and the Purity Law
Beer was practically the same as water for medieval Germans. It offered the same hydration benefits as water, while also being safer to consume and more hygienic. This was before they invented sewage systems.
For something as widely consumed as beer, there’s bound to be a few scumbags. These scammers would add many additions to their brew, including hallucinogenic plants like todays CBD. They would then sell these brews at a premium.
Because of these scams, and a wheat shortage, the Bavarian authorities came up with the Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot).
The Reinheitsgebot states that brewers can only use three ingredients, and three ingredients only: barley, hops, and water.
Some modern restatement of the Reinheisgebot include yeast as part of four key ingredients, but for some brewers, yeast is a staple for brewing than it is an “ingredient.”
The Reinheitsgebot endures until this very day. If you open a truly German brew, you’ll find that the ingredients and brewing methods follow the Reinheitsgebot.
Beer in England
It’s impossible to talk about the history of beer without talking about the ales of England. Along with Germany and the Low Countries of Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland are part of what we call the Beer Belt of Europe [R].
Beer was a very popular drink of choice in the English Middle Ages. Just like in Medieval Germany, the Medieval English treated beer as a staple drink [R], and beer was drunk with all of their meals.
The English opposed hopped beers when they became popular elsewhere in Europe. To the English, a real ale should only have liquor, malt, and yeast.
Attitudes changed, though, and soon enough, the English embraced hopped beers. Thus, the porter was born and the porter vs stout debate has begun.
Porters are a well-hopped brew. The English drank porters as early as the 14th century. It is dark in appearance thanks to the use of brown malt.
The porter got its name because it was the drink of choice with street and river porters and other laborers of the time.
The porter is the first beer that didn’t need aging in taverns. Unlike most brews, it is possible to produce porters on a large scale.
England is home to many of today’s most popular brews. The India Pale Ale (IPA) is one very popular style developed in England. IPAs were meant for delivery to the British Empire in the East [R].
The British Empire needed an ale that would survive the six-month journey to India, which had a warmer climate. With a few developments, the India Pale Ale was born.
IPA never really took off in India, but Americans revived it later on when microbreweries took off.
Women as Brewsters
Remember the beer goddess Ninkasi?
Because of this ancient Sumerian myth, many people attribute the invention of beer to women. And since brewing is a kitchen activity, women were the ones who made ales in ancient times.
Before the 1500s, women were the ones who made ales. “Alewife” is the name given to women brewsters. Brewing beer was a cottage industry in England, too, and so they also considered it “women’s work,” much like other household activities [R].
They soon replaced alewives with taverns. The church believed alewives to be evil tricksters and witches. Because of all these comparisons of alewives to witches, and the change in attitude from a family drink to a social one, less and fewer women made ale.
Taverns, run by men, soon replaced alewives.
Women still continued brewing privately in their own homes for consumption. But when beer was marketed as a “manly drink,” women stopped brewing.
The Temperance Movement and The Prohibition
The Temperance Movement marked the beginning of a change of attitudes towards alcohol. What was once a harmless beverage was soon an enemy.
The Temperance Movement began in the Industrial Revolution when business owners needed sober laborers to operate heavy machinery.
However, only a select handful of thinkers and doctors pushed for abstinence from alcoholic drinks and the movement never became popular until late into the 1800s.
Despite beer’s significance in medieval Christianity, Evangelical Christians popularized the Temperance Movement in the late 1800s.
During World War I, politicians wanted to conserve funds for the War, and their advocacy for a ban on alcohol gave additional momentum to the Temperance Movement.
This all came to a head when the Volstead Act, which amended the United States Constitution, came into effect on January 16, 1920 [R]. The Volstead Act, or the Eighteenth Amendment, is the reason for what we now know as the Prohibition Era and lasted from 1920 to 1933.
Some states were less accepting of the Prohibition than others, though. America’s so-called “Liquor Center,” New York City, were slow to adopt legislative bans on alcohol.
Even when the Prohibition was already in effect, alcohol drinking was still rampant in New York City. Underground bars, called “speakeasies,” sold alcohol in secret.
New York speakeasies were especially popular with writers like Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, and F. Scott Fitzgerald [K].
Beer Production Today
Brewing in Europe’s Beer Belt is still tied to tradition. Breweries in the area still make beer using techniques and recipes from long ago.
It’s a different story in America, which didn’t have a brewing legacy until the Dutch brought ales over during the Age of Exploration [R]. American breweries used many of the techniques that their European conquerors and trade partners did, until the Prohibition.
After the Repeal of the Prohibition, some breweries were in worse positions, and consolidation of breweries began [R]. Big breweries took over most of beer production in the United States and made beer weaker than their counterparts pre-Prohibition.
The ale? The “three-two.”
“Three-two” is a relic of the Prohibition. Back then, retailers were not allowed to sell drinks stronger than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). To this day, there are still breweries making 3.2 beer, but that market segment is drying up [R]
After the Prohibition, beer was never the same… Until now.
The Rise of Microbreweries
Microbreweries in America
An unusual thing is happening in America’s history of beer.
Between 2008 and 2016, breweries increased in number and doubled its workforce. What was once an industry dominated by huge conglomerates is now slowly being replaced with American microbreweries [R].
The craft beer movement might be responsible for the rise of microbreweries. Consumers these days want better tasting beers with fuller flavors, much closer to what one might get in Germany.
European brewers largely ignored beers like the IPA, but these are becoming more popular with the microbrewery wave.
Now, some of the best-tasting IPAs are distinctly American, so much that it even got its own name: the American IPA.
Microbreweries, A Worldwide Phenomenon
Microbreweries aren’t just an American phenomenon. Craft brews are not a worldwide sensation.
The Chinese are now developing a taste for craft beer. Large breweries like CR Snow, the makers of Snow Beer, and Tsingtao Brewery, which made of Tsingtao Beer, usually dominated China, the biggest alcohol market in the world. [R].
Chinese craft brewpubs once catered to ex-pats who needed decent drinks in China. These days, more and more Chinese look for craft brews [R].
Besides brewpubs, more and more home brewing associations are popping up in China [R].
An unlikely region is cashing in on the microbrewing trend: Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia took to beer relatively late. The first breweries emerged around the 1900s, except for the La Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel in the Philippines, which was founded only a few years earlier in 1890. This was the first brewery in Southeast Asia [R].
Southeast Asians rely mostly on brews made by large breweries and conglomerates. Some of these include Angkor Brewery of Cambodia, which makes Angkor Beer, and Boom Rawd Brewery of Thailand, which brews Singha.
Heineken Asia Pacific in Singapore, which brews Tiger Beer, and San Miguel Brewery, which makes San Miguel Pale Pilsen, are some of the biggest breweries in the region.
Lately, though, craft brewing is booming in the region [R], and Vietnam and Thailand are taking charge.
In Thailand, where microbrewing is illegal [R], there are over 200 underground microbrewers sneakily making drinks across the country.
In Vietnam, foreigners are importing craft brew culture. To date, there are 28 microbreweries and 43 brewpubs currently operating.
The Philippines is no slouch, either. The Philippines now has 60 microbreweries in operation. Even Cambodia is catching up. From two micro-pubs, there are now 12 across Cambodia [R].
Even Latin America is taking part in the microbrewery revolution, with sales growing anywhere from 20% to 40% per year [R].
The history of beer is far from over, and the wave of microbreweries is one example of how there’s more to discover about the world’s favorite alcoholic drink [R].
So while you kick back, relax, and enjoy your brew, maybe you want to send a little thank you to all the people, and the cultures, that made your drink possible.
Lead marketer, brewer, dad, and husband. Pretty much an all-round awesome guy. I’ve been homebrewing for +20 yrs, an aspiring pro-brewer and micro brewery owner!