Some would say that the only proper way to start the weekend is with a beer on Friday afternoon. Whether that’s true or not depends on your own particular appetites. One thing that is undeniable, however, is that the concept of weekends, even that of modern society, can be traced back to a pot of beer.
It sounds like a marketing hook, but there is growing evidence that people first created settlements to make beer. Our appetite for the brew stood strong over the ages: beer is now the most popular alcoholic drink in the world, and the third-most-popular overall (after water and tea).
So we’re drinking it, our whole family line has been drinking it, and it might have made our species as a whole give up on wandering and commit (to agriculture) — which is no mean feat. Let’s take a look at how the frothy, bitter brew fared over the millennia.
Table of contents
How it all began
The earliest evidence we have found of beer-making comes from around 13,000 years ago from a site located near Haifa, Israel. This took the form of beer and alcohol residue preserved in pottery in local tombs.
So, awesome — that’s how we got beer. People were busy sowing fields, making bread, and cooking up alcohol, right? Well, yes, but also no. You see, at the time, people hadn’t really discovered agriculture yet. They did make bread and beer from grains they would harvest in the wild.
Now, this seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse, doesn’t it? But why would you settle down in a permanent city, thus limiting your access to resources? Nomads can move towards what they want; settled people can only rely on local resources, which are limited — especially if you don’t yet know how to plant and grow the food you need.
Brewing beer is one explanation. The process requires containers such as pottery or vats dug into the ground and the processing of relatively large amounts of grain — which don’t really mix with a nomadic lifestyle. These early brewers, known as the Natufians, didn’t produce large quantities of beer. It was likely used for religious and ceremonial purposes, and was pretty different from the drink as we know it today; it resembled a “porridge or thin gruel” in consistency, and relied on airborne yeasts for fermentation, meaning it was probably light in alcohol content.
We must keep in mind that virtually all industrial pursuits, including beer-making, were severely hampered by the absence of agriculture during this time. Agriculture allows for part of the population to provide food for everyone else, in addition to generating a nice little surplus. Because of this, people who aren’t directly involved in growing food can specialize — they become shoe-makers, or midwives, priests, or kings.
Both the surplus grain and specialized workers are indispensable for beer-making. You need people to grow grains, people to process them, other people to produce the tools needed, and so on. The brew wouldn’t really take off until people learned how to grow food where they lived.
As our know-how improved, the drink became more widespread. Both the ancient Egyptians and Chinese brewed it, although it often included ingredients we don’t associate with beer today, including fruit.
It was mostly used for religious or ceremonial purposes in both of these countries; in the case of Egypt, the Pharaohs themselves handled the distribution of beer to the commoners. During the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC), beer was made from cooked loaves of bread and had dates and honey mixed in for flavor. These added sugars also helped produce a more alcoholic drink, and the Egyptians knew how to isolate and use special yeast for the fermentation process (as opposed to the wild, air-borne yeasts of yore). In the New Kingdom (1550-712 BC), wheat was used instead, although fruits and herbs were still used to flavor the drink. It evolved from the porridge-like substance it had been in the past and was filtered before storing, often underground, to ferment.
The advent of filtering, underground storage for fermentation, and the use of specialized brewers’ yeast in the process helped bring ancient beer one step closer to what it is today.
But beer wouldn’t truly come to resemble that of today until it found its way from the Middle East into Europe during the early Middle Ages. The colder climate here, especially that in Northern Europe, was ideal for growing barley, the main ingredient in modern beer. The drink was also rich in nutrients and calories, making it very popular. And, during the Middle Ages, water was easy to come by but clean, safe drinking water was a very precious resource. The fermentation process and alcohol content made beer one of the safest ways people could stay hydrated.
It’s worth noting that during the Middle Ages, most beers were much weaker than the ones we drink today. This was especially true for those that the commoners could afford.
A hop of faith
During this time, hops were first mixed into beer. They’re the key flavoring ingredient in today’s beer, imparting its aroma and bitterness to the drink.
Before this, all manner of plants were added to control the taste of the brew. Everything from dried flowers and roots to herbs and spices were used. But around 1150, German monks began using wild hops to flavor theirs — and then stuck with it. The idea quickly spread around; either people found the aroma pleasing, or they did it for the benefits (hops act as a natural preservative in beer).
In medieval Europe, monks enjoyed relative power, peace, prosperity, and high levels of education compared to commoners. Wine is especially important in Christian customs, so most monasteries also had their own breweries. Thus, they were the main source of improvements on the brewing process, developing ideas such as lagering (storing beer in cold spaces to allow it to ferment and mature its taste).
This tradition is still alive today, with monasteries in Belgium being especially renowned for their beers.
Britain had another large part to play in the history of beer, mainly through diversification. The British were huge fans of beer, but they also eventually got their hands on something no other Europeans had: half the world.
The wealth of beer styles today is in no small part the product of empire. Beer played a huge part in British culture, with soldiers being issued daily rations of the drink. Redcoats made their way to all the corners of the Earth, and so too had their beer. It was ferried by the shipload to supply thirsty soldiers.
This gave Britain first access to resources, ingredients, and know-how that other beer-drinking countries didn’t have. It also made brewing more profitable, encouraging investment and development. Colonization also forced advancements in beer-making. India Pale Ale, for example, is a very popular style of beer today — it was only developed because the crown needed a beer that wouldn’t spoil on very long voyages in the hot, humid climates of Southeast Asia.
There has never been more beer in the world, nor have there ever been so many options.
Most beer produced outside of the USA today is pasteurized to ensure it’s safe to drink. Pasteurization involves heating a liquid, generally under 100 °C (212 °F), which helps inactivate the microorganisms that lead to spoilage. This process was already in wide use for beers by the 1870s. Louis Pasteur, the inventor of this process, reportedly wanted to use it to make French beer better tasting.
The pottery and casks of old have given way to metal vats for fermentation and glass bottles for distribution. The color of these bottles isn’t random. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight will degrade beer, altering its flavor. Tinted glass filters out enough of this UV radiation to keep the beer fresh. Before World War 2, brown glass was ubiquitous; a shortage during the conflict, however, made producers seek for alternatives, which is why we also have green-tinted beer bottles today.
The rise of the craft beer brewery, small breweries that rely more on the personality of their drinks, rather than volume and quality like traditional breweries, is one of the latest developments in the field. Craft brewers use a much wider range of ingredients, preparation methods, and apply tweaks to the filtration and pasteurization process to make beers that stand out through their aroma and taste. As with all decentralization movements, this will make beers less uniform, but will push the boundaries of the craft as we know it today.
In the short to mid-term future, however, we’re likely to see a shrinkage of the craft beer sector. Breweries have sprung up all over the place, but they’re all competing for the same consumer base. Given these tough times, especially, competition will be driving part of them out of business.
How about the long-term future, then? Well, if I’d have to hazard a guess, I’d say the next big evolutionary step for beer will be space travel. Just like the British invented new beers and distribution methods to keep soldiers supplied around the world, we’ll have to think up ways to get beer to orbit, and how to brew it so it doesn’t spoil. Alternatively, we may even decide to brew it in space altogether — a literal drink out of this world.
Beer has been with humanity for a very long time now. Whichever way our story goes in the future, this drink will probably remain a part of it.