Beer is the oldest recorded recipe in the world. The ancient Egyptians first documented the brewing process on papyrus scrolls around 5,000 B.C. These first beers were brewed with things like dates, pomegranates, and other indigenous herbs, and were probably quite harsh by today’s standards. The Egyptians used beer for religious ceremonies, with the Pharaoh directing the brewing schedule and distribution to the masses. You could call the Pharaohs the first “brewmasters” (or you could call the current brewmasters Pharaohs if you like).Before the Egyptians, the primitive cultures of Mesopotamia are believed to have been the first brewers, though they didn’t bother to write anything down (this was around 10,000 B.C.!). All they left behind were malted barley scraps and bowls with beer like residue (and they called themselves brewers!). This residue was probably the remnants of a grain porridge that had fermented naturally with wild yeast, imparting an intoxicating effect to the consumer, who, therefore, repeated the process.
Beer eventually made its way from the Middle East across the Mediterranean to Europe, where it became an integral part of life. This was especially true in Northern Europe where abundant barley crops provided ample raw ingredients for brewers. Beer was valued both for its nutritional value and because it was a safe alternative to drinking water, many sources of which had become contaminated with human waste.
It was during the early Middle Ages that what we think of as modern beer was born. Brewers had been using malted barley as the main source of fermentable sugar for hundreds of years, but the use of hops as a bittering and flavoring agent did not become common until around the twelfth century. Before that time, many different herbs and spices were used to balance the sweet malt flavors in beer; everything from spruce boughs to dried flowers to bitter roots had found their way into brew kettles. Around 1150, however, German monks began commonly using wild hops in beer and the ingredient quickly caught on. Brewers found that hops added a very pleasing, thirst quenching bitterness and, as an added benefit, the hops acted as a natural preservative extending the life of their beers.
Monks were very much the preeminent brewers of the Middle Ages, with virtually every monastery having a brewery on site. Historians credit monks with many brewing innovations beyond the introduction of hops, including the idea of lagering, or cold storing, beer to improve flavor. Even in modern times the monastic brewing tradition holds, with a number of Belgian monasteries ranking today among the greatest breweries in the world.
Along with Northern European countries like Germany and Belgium, the British Isles too, became a brewing center. Many styles of beer familiar to drinkers today have their roots in Britain; pale ales, porters, and stouts have been brewed in England and Ireland for hundreds of years. Beer has been such an integral part of British life that the British army issued daily beer rations to each soldier, and, when the British Empire occupied half of the civilized world, the Royal Navy delivered beer to troops in even the furthest corners of the Empire. In fact, a very popular style of beer today, India Pale Ale, developed out of the need to ship beer from England to far-away outposts of the Empire in places like India and Burma without it going stale or sour. British brewers discovered that a beer with higher alcohol and extra hops-both of which act as natural preservatives lasted longer and could survive the long journey to the other side of the globe.
Beer arrived in the New World with the first European colonists. According to the journals of the Pilgrims, the reason they landed at Plymouth Rock was that they were out of beer and needed to make more. Indeed, the first permanent structure they built was a brewery. And Americans have been brewing ever since. Both New York and Philadelphia were early brewing centers in America: New York City alone had 42 breweries in 1810.
Almost all early American beers were based on the English-style ales the colonists were familiar with. That began to change, though, in the mid-1800s as wave after wave of new immigrants came from Northern and Central Europe, bringing with them a taste for a new style of beer had taken hold on the Continent: Pilsner-style lagers typical of Germany and the Czech Republic. Very quickly, these pale, hoppy, clean tasting beersreplaced the darker, heavier ales that had typified American beer in the previous centuries.
Increasing demand for lager beer and the influx of millions of immigrants drove American beer production to new highs in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But then along came a period of great trouble-Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to consume alcoholic beverages in the U.S.A. Small regional breweries and brewpubs lost a major source of revenue, and went out of business. Some breweries survived by making malt extracts (sugar), ice cream, and soda. After Prohibition was repealed (1933), the U.S. was in a major depression, making it harder for breweries to rebound from the 13 years of madness. Brand loyalty had been eroded, and people’s pockets were picked clean. Beers that became popular from these situations were the ones that expanded during Prohibition and could thus mass-produce cheap beer (Budweiser, Schlitz). As their sales grew, so did their ability to make their beer cheaper.
This trend continued until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Before Prohibition, there were over 2000 small breweries in the U.S.; by 1983, there were only a few hundred. In fact, the Tied House Law (a law that makes it illegal for breweries to sell their beverages on premise) was in effect until the late 1970’s. Since then, various legal exceptions have been passed. Now, almost all 50 states have permitted the regulated establishment of brewpubs.