Beer has been around since the dawn of civilization. Cereal grain cultivation occurred for at least the last 9,000 years and brewing probably soon followed suit. No one knows how or exactly where it all started. Well, the ones that did are long dead and took their secrets with them to the grave anyway. But it’s not hard to imagine some grain getting wet, wild yeast going to town, locals drinking this heavenly concoction, and wild ancient hijinks ensuing.
Through chemical analysis of really old jars found near Iran, we now know that beer is at least 7000 years old. A thousand years later, those rascally Sumerians in Mesopotamia left a tablet behind depicting peeps drinking from a communal bowl of brew through reed straws. Also, around 3,900 years ago, the Sumerians left us with the first known beer recipe in a sweet poem to their patron brewing goddess, Ninkasi.
Egyptian Pharaohs enjoyed suds way back in 3000 BC, including King Tut himself. The Babylonians brewed over twenty different types of beer and in 2100 BC their king, Hammurabi, decided to install tavern keeping regulations in his famous codes of law. Plato put it best: “He was a wise man who invented beer.”
Hops weren’t used back then though. Beer was made up of grain, water, yeast and sometimes gruit- a generic name for an old-timey combination of herbs, plants, berries, and spices used for flavoring and making the elixir more palatable. Spruce needles, mouth-watering mugwort, juniper berries, cinnamon, cardamom, heather, nutmeg, and ginger etc. were all utilized by gruit artists. Fruit was also commonly used. So yeah, beer’s been around awhile. Many archaeologists even maintain that beer was a significant factor for the formation and development of civilization.
The Hop Age
Around 822 AD hops appeared in writings by a Carolingian Abbott monk, and again in 1067 by popular writer Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Not only were these flowers flavorful but their bitterness helped offset the sweet malt. Hops are also anti-bacterial and, along with the alcohol, helped preserve the beer. The Germans perfected the use of hops by the 13th century and, by the 15th century, were widely popular throughout Europe. Around the 13th century it is believed hops replaced gruit for the most part. Then, in the 19th century, English brewers upped the hopping rate and developed India Pale Ales for the long journey to Colonial India.
Brewing in America
It’s been told one of the reasons Columbus landed at Plymouth Rock is that they ran out of beer. Soon they realized barley didn’t grow well so corn was used instead. Many of our founding fathers brewed beer including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and of course Sam Adams. Small breweries began to dot the landscape and reached a high point in the late 1800’s. German immigrants began producing a lighter lager that became popular and along with advances in transportation (rail) allowed mass distribution of lager.
In 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act, which made the alcohol illegal. While some breweries were able to switch to manufacturing other products, most (including nearly all small breweries) were lost. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, mass transit, marketing, and consumer taste brought about the further rise and domination of lighter lager beers. By 1978 there were only 89 breweries in the US, in 1873 there were 4,131.
Rise of Micro (Craft) Beer
Consumer tastes began to change in the 1970’s and along with the legalization of homebrewing in 1978 by Jimmy Carter gave rise to more breweries and flavorful beers. Breweries began to pop up throughout the 1980’s and really began to gain momentum in the 1990’s. Currently craft beer is huge and US breweries have topped the 3,000 mark.