A Brief History of Beer
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. Weirdly enough, this was also unintentionally recreated at my last drunken party. 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. I’m guessing besides being funky, he was a wheat beer kind of guy. 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’s 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.
Today, mad ale scientists have a plethora of bittering and flavoring agents available to experiment with.
Hops are grown throughout the globe. Currently craft beer makers have an arsenal of over eighty different varieties to play with and new ones are developed each year. Each variety has a unique flavor and bitterness profile. The quantity added, and when they‘re thrown in, also has a dramatic effect on taste.
Spices are often used in seasonal beers. Nutmeg and cinnamon with Christmas brews and winter ales. Grains of paradise and lemon peel for summer beers, and apple pie spices are common for fall releases. Belgian Wits are traditionally spiced with coriander and orange peel. Numerous types of fruit, berries, chocolate, and even pumpkin are also popular ingredients.
Fruity and delicious Belgian Lambic is one of the oldest styles of beer known to man. Berry beers are usually thirst quenching summer offerings while pumpkin is obviously found most often in the fall. Chocolate warms the soul and is found in some tasty cold weather brews.
Craft brewers continue toward creative and extreme beers. Suds savants, such as Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione push the envelope with beer styles and ingredients. Sam also has a line of ancient suds he’s brought back from the dead. Samuel Adams has journeyed to the edge of brewing with such edgy beers as the much sought after Utopia, Triple Bock, and Infinium. They also sponsor Longshot, an annual homebrewing competition that fosters creativity.
Beer of the Future
It certainly doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict the future paths of beer. Maverick brew masters will continue to explore the outer limits with over-the-top specialty brews. More ancient recipes will be brought back to life and new styles will be born. Ale maestros will flex their creative muscles and experiment with new ingredients.