A Brief History of Beer
The origins of beer are so ancient that they predate written language, the establishment of cities and even the invention of the wheel by up to several thousand years. It was long believed that the world’s first beer was brewed in China around 7,000 BCE, but an archaeological site recently identified in Israel has pushed the earliest known beer back as far as 11,000 BCE. Interestingly, this site places the first beer before both the earliest known bread and the first known cultivation of grains by humans. This fact has led some archaeologists to speculate that it may have been a desire for beer rather than a need for food that first prompted ancient humans to develop agriculture.
Thousands of years after it was first created, beer was a ubiquitous drink throughout the major civilizations of the ancient world. In Egypt, beer was a dietary staple of such importance that it was believed to have been created by the god Osiris himself. Ancient Mesopotamian civilizations also relied on beer as a major component of their diets, and an ancient Sumerian tablet dating to approximately 3,300 BCE suggests that it may even have been used as a currency for paying workers their wages prior to the invention of standard money. Beer was known, made and consumed in ancient Greece and Rome, though wine is believed to have been the beverage of choice. The Romans did, however, make one extremely important contribution to the history of beer, as the Latin word “bibere,” which means “to drink,” is the root word from which the modern English word “beer” is derived.
During the Middle Ages, a major development took place in the making of beer. While large-scale brewing had existed to some extent in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Rome, most European beer was still made in small batches by farming families. Beginning in the 5th century, though, monasteries throughout Europe began making their own beer using precise and highly systematized brewing methods. As one of the only educated classes in Europe at the time, monks kept records of their brewing enterprises and curated specific recipes which they gradually improved through continuous trial and error. Among the improvements these monks hit on was the addition of hops to the malt, creating for the first time a beer that would be familiar to modern drinkers.
After the end of the Middle Ages, nations that had seen extensive monastic brewing remained the dominant forces in the making of beer. While Germany, Belgium and the modern Czech Republic were arguably the most important continental brewing regions, Britain had also developed a strong tradition of manufacturing and consuming beer. With the rise of the British Empire, that tradition would spread to locations as far away as India, Australia and the American colonies. The need to ship beers over long distances during this time period also led to the creation of entirely new types of beer that were better suited to long-term storage and transportation. Some styles that were developed for this purpose remain popular to this day, including India pale ales and Russian imperial stouts.
In America, English-style beers remained a staple both before and after the Revolutionary War. A major shift, however, took place as increasing numbers of German immigrants arrived in America throughout the 19th century. These new arrivals brought with them the German tradition of brewing lagers, a style of beer which slowly overtook the ales, stouts and porters that had been popular among the descendants of English colonists.
The 19th and 20th centuries would also see great advances in commercial beer production. Throughout this period, German immigrants founded huge numbers of breweries in cities throughout the United States. Though many of these breweries were small and sold their products locally, a handful grew into massive businesses that were capable of selling beer nationwide and even internationally. As with many other industries of the time, the brewing industry benefited from technological developments that made it possible to make beer at scales never before imagined.
Very recently, the beer industry has entered a new chapter of its history. Today, craft beers made by small breweries are taking a prominent place in the market as consumers broaden their horizons and search for new flavors and styles. As of April 2019, craft beers made up about 24 percent of the American beer market. While almost unimaginably different from the earliest beers found in Israel and China, these craft brews mark the latest development in a history that stretches back to the very dawn of human civilization.