Beer holds a special place in human culture and has done throughout many ages. It is one of the oldest known beverages and has been celebrated for millennia. With its simple recipe of easy to find and cheap raw ingredients, brewing has a long tradition in many different cultures and countries. Each culture contributes their own unique style of beer which gives us the bewildering diversity we enjoy today.
From the beginning….
In Neolithic times, humans moved away from their nomadic existence, instead of foraging for food they began to cultivate their own by growing crops. Along with fruits, vegetables and herbs, grains were a staple crop of these new farming practices. All of the base ingredients for beer was brought together in abundance for the first time; water, grain and naturally occurring wild yeasts… It was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened and the first brews came into existence.
Nobody really knows exactly when brewing began or whether it was discovered by serendipity or invented by some ancient super-genius. What we do know is the earliest discovered evidence of brewing dates back to over 7000 years ago. Chemical analysis on pottery fragments found in what is now Iran proved that the original vessel had once been used for the production of beer. It is thought that brewing began earlier than this but until new evidence is unearthed there is currently a hole in our historical knowledge. Sometime between 10000+ and around 7000 years ago, the first primitive beers were made. Be it for pleasure or necessity, over time this strange new fermented juice was replicated and improved upon.
Of course, the beer back then was very different to the polished and delicious tasting examples of beer we know today. Ancient Sumerian drawings show us that early beers were a sludgy consistency and needed to be drunk through a straw to filter out the lumps. The beer can’t have tasted too bad as they enjoyed it enough to honour it with their own goddess of beer, Ninkasi. As centuries passed, both new technology and better understanding of the brewing process lead to greater improvements in the resulting beer. The science behind this new knowledge may not have been understood at the time but as brewing became more widespread, so improvements in brewing techniques were discovered and passed along.
By the Middle Ages, beers looked much more like what we enjoy today. Thankfully, lumpy beer was a thing of the past. Brewing was a common house hold task for women. Unlike today where brewing is often considered to be a male dominated endeavour, before the industrialisation of brewing, women were the master brewers. Surplus beer either brewed in small home breweries or on a larger scale in monasteries would be sold in market. Eventually the first ale houses ‘pubs’ began to appear in Britain. It was also in the Middle Ages that Hops was first used in beer. Previously a mix of herbs called Gruit provided a bittering balance and flavouring to the otherwise sweet and malty beers. However, beer brewed with Gruit lacked the preservative qualities of hops and would spoil sooner. Over time hops became the favourite method of flavouring and preserving beer, a tradition that continues to this day.
The Industrial Revolution brought about the next seismic shift in the history of beer. Brewing moved away from small scale and domestic and into mechanised mass production. As we see with most things, when production is scaled up, quality inevitably takes a turn for the worse. Mass produced beer since the Industrial Revolution tend to use inferior ingredients to maximise profits and consequently beers gradually became less flavoursome and less diverse. An unfortunate development that still continues to this day with many of the industrially produced Lagers we find on our supermarket shelves.
Despite this detrimental effect to beer quality, the Industrial Revolution did bring some positive changes in the form of new technology. The introduction of thermometers, hydrometers and other equipment allowed much greater control over the brewing process so brewers gained more control over the quality of the resulting beer. Advancements in the roasting of malt lead to the creation of pale malt. This opened the door for a whole raft of new beer styles. Pale Ales and other lighter coloured beers wouldn’t exist without this development. Also research into the function of yeast by Louis Pasteur in 1847 led to the identifying of specific yeast strains which greatly improved the efficiency of the brewing process. This knowledge also led to the identifying of lager yeast strains and this lighter fresher style of beer now dominates the global market in terms of sales volume.
This trend for cheaply produced and flavourless beer continued until 1971 until the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed in the UK. Run by beer enthusiasts who wanted more than just bland beers, they began to educate the public on the virtues of traditional richly flavoured artisinal beers. At the same time across the pond in the US, another craft beer movement began. Supermarket shelves in the US where also dominated by light drab uninteresting beers but the fight-back came in the form of homebrewers who started to create their own brewing companies. Locally produced full-flavoured beers started to become fashionable in the US and today, they have over 5000 craft breweries and the number continues to grow. Craft breweries emulating these new hop driven and quality orientated beers are now popping up all across the UK and Europe and the new wave craft beer scene was born.