Beer is one of the world's oldest beverages, with the history of beer dating back to the 6th millennium BC, and being recorded in the written history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The earliest Sumerian writings contain references to beer. A prayer to the goddess Ninkasi known as "The Hymn to Ninkasi" serves as both a prayer as well as a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a culture with few literate people.
As almost any substance containing carbohydrates, mainly sugar or starch, can naturally undergo fermentation, it is likely that beer-like beverages were independently invented among various cultures throughout the world. The invention of bread and beer has been argued to be responsible for humanity's ability to develop technology and build civilization. The earliest known chemical evidence of beer dates to circa 3500–3100 BC from the site of Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran.
Beer was known to Germanic and Celtic tribes in Europe as far back as 3000 BC, though was mainly brewed on a domestic scale.
Beer produced before the Industrial Revolution continued to be made and sold on a domestic scale, although by the 7th century AD beer was also being produced and sold by European monasteries. During the Industrial Revolution, the production of beer moved from artisanal manufacture to industrial manufacture, and domestic manufacture ceased to be significant by the end of the 19th century. The development of hydrometers and thermometers changed brewing by allowing the brewer more control of the process, and greater knowledge of the results.
Today, the brewing industry is a global business, consisting of several dominant multinational companies and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewpubs to regional breweries. More than 133 billion liters (35 billion gallons) are sold per year—producing total global revenues of $294.5 billion (£147.7 billion) in 2006.
As almost any cereal containing certain sugars can undergo spontaneous fermentation due to wild yeasts in the air, it is possible that beer-like beverages were independently developed throughout the world soon after a tribe or culture had domesticated cereal. Chemical tests of ancient pottery jars reveal that beer was produced about 7,000 years ago in what is today Iran, and was one of the first-known biological engineering tasks where the biological process of fermentation is used.
In Mesopotamia, the oldest evidence of beer is believed to be a 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet depicting people drinking a beverage through reed straws from a communal bowl. , A 3900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing, contains the oldest surviving beer recipe, describing the production of beer from barley via bread.
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground...
You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort...
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Beer is also mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the 'wild man' Enkidu is given beer to drink. "...he ate until he was full, drank seven pitchers of beer, his heart grew light, his face glowed and he sang out with joy."
Confirmed written evidence of ancient beer production in Armenia can be obtained from Xenophon in his work Anabasis (V century B.C.) when he was in one of the ancient Armenia villages in which he wrote (Book 4, V)
There were stores within of wheat and barley and vegetables, and wine made from barley in great big bowls; the grains of barley malt lay floating in the beverage up to the lip of the vessel, and reeds lay in them, some longer, some shorter, without joints; when you were thirsty you must take one of these into your mouth, and suck. The beverage without admixture of water was very strong, and of a delicious flavour to certain palates, but the taste must be acquired.
Beer became vital to all the grain-growing civilizations of Eurasian and North African antiquity, including Egypt — so much so that in 1868 James Death put forward a theory in The Beer of the Bible that the manna from heaven that God gave the Israelites was a bread-based, porridge-like beer called wusa. Knowledge of brewing was passed on to the Greeks. The Greeks then taught the Romans to brew. The Romans called their brew cerevisia, from the Celtic word for it.
Beer was very important to early Romans, but during the Roman Republic wine displaced beer as the preferred alcoholic beverage. Beer became a beverage considered fit only for barbarians; Tacitus wrote disparagingly of the beer brewed by the Germanic peoples of his day.
But from whichever it is made, whether from oats, barley or wheat, it harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath and ruins the teeth, it fills the stomach with bad fumes, and as a result anyone who drinks it along with wine becomes drunk quickly; but it does have the property of facilitating urination and makes one's flesh white and smooth.
The use of hops in beer was written of in 822 by a Carolingian Abbot. Again in 1067 by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen: "If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops." Flavoring beer with hops was known at least since the 9th century, but was only gradually adopted because of difficulties in establishing the right proportions of ingredients. Before that gruit, a mix of various herbs, had been used, but did not have the same conserving properties as hops. Beer flavored without it was often spoiled soon after preparation and could not be exported. The only other alternative was to increase the alcohol content, which was rather expensive. Hopped beer was perfected in the towns of Germany by the 13th century, and the longer lasting beer, combined with standardized barrel sizes, allowed for large-scale export. The German towns also pioneered a new scale of operation and a level of professionalization. Previously beer had been brewed at home, but the production was now successfully replaced by medium-sized operations of about eight to ten people. This type of production spread to Holland in the 14th century and later to Flanders, Brabant and reached England by the late 15th century.
Laws to enforce the use of hops in beer were introduced in England in the 14th century, and later similar laws were introduced in other countries. In England, these laws led to peasant uprisings, since it was considered to spoil the taste, but these uprisings were brutally put down.
In Europe, beer largely remained a homemaker's activity, made in the home in medieval times. The oldest still operating commercial brewery is the Weihenstephan (Bavaria) abbey brewery, which obtained the brewing rights from the nearby town of Freising in 1040. By the 14th and 15th centuries, beermaking was gradually changing from a family-oriented activity to an artisan one, with pubs and monasteries brewing their own beer for mass consumption.
In 15th century England, an unhopped beer would have been known as an ale, while the use of hops would make it a beer. Hopped beer was imported to England from the Netherlands as early as 1400 in Winchester, and hops were being planted on the island by 1428. The popularity of hops was at first mixed — the Brewers Company of London went so far as to state "no hops, herbs, or other like thing be put into any ale or liquore wherof ale shall be made — but only liquor (water), malt, and yeast." However, by the 16th century, "ale" had come to refer to any strong beer, and all ales and beers were hopped.
In 1516, William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law), perhaps the oldest food regulation still in use through the 20th Century (the Reinheitsgebot passed formally from German law in 1987). The Gebot ordered that the ingredients of beer be restricted to water, barley, and hops; yeast was added to the list after Louis Pasteur's discovery in 1857. The Bavarian law was applied throughout Germany as part of the 1871 German unification as the German Empire under Otto von Bismarck, and has since been updated to reflect modern trends in beer brewing. To this day, the Gebot is considered a mark of purity in beers, although this is controversial.
Most beers until relatively recent times were top-fermented. Bottom-fermented beers were discovered by accident in the 16th century after beer was stored in cool caverns for long periods; they have since largely outpaced top-fermented beers in terms of volume.
Documented evidence and recently excavated tombs indicate that the Chinese brewed alcoholic beverages from both malted grain and grain converted by mold from prehistoric times, but that the malt conversion process was largely considered inefficienct in comparison with the use of molds specially cultivated on rice carrier (the resulting molded rice being called 酒麴 in Chinese and Koji in Japanese) to convert cooked rice into fermentable sugars, both in the amount of resulting fermentable sugars and the residual by products (the Chinese use the dregs left after fermenting the rice, called 酒糟, as a cooking ingredient in many dishes, frequently as an ingredient to sauces where Western dishes would use wine), because the rice undergoes starch conversion after being hulled and cooked, rather than whole and in husks like barley malt. Furthermore, the hop plant being unknown in East Asia, malt-based alcoholic beverages did not preserve well over time, and the use of malt in the production of alcoholic beverages gradually fell out of favor in China until disappearing from Chinese history by the end of the Tang Dynasty. The use of rice became dominant, such that wines from fruits of any type were historically all but unknown except as imports in China.
The production of alcoholic beverage from cooked rice converted by microbes continue to this day, and some classify such beverages (米酒mijiu in Chinese and Sake in Japanese) as beers since they are made from converted starch rather than fruit sugars. However, this is a debatable point, and such beverages are generally referred to as "rice wine" or "sake" which is really the generic Japanese word for all alcoholic beverages.
Some Pacific island cultures ferment starch that has been converted to fermentable sugars by human saliva, similar to the chicha of South America . This practice is also used by many other tribes around the world, who either chew the grain and then spit it into the fermentation vessel or spit into a fermentation vessel containing cooked grain, which is then sealed up for the fermentation. Enzymes in the spittle convert the starch into fermentable sugars, which are fermented by wild yeast. Whether or not the resulting product can be called beer is sometimes disputed, since 1) as with Asian rice-based liquors, it does not involve malting, and 2) this method is often used with starches derived from sources other than grain, such as yams, taro, or other such root vegetables.
Some Taiwanese tribes have taken the process a step further by distilling the resulting alcoholic beverage, resulting in a clear liquor. However, as none of the Taiwanese tribes are known to have developed systems of writing, there is no way to document how far back this practice goes, or if the technique was brought from Mainland China by Han Chinese immigrants. Judging by the fact that this technique is usually found in tribes using millet (a grain native to northern China) as the ingredient, the latter seems much more likely.
Asia's first brewery was incorporated in 1855 (although it was established earlier) by Edward Dyer at Kasauli in the Himalayan Mountains in India under the name Dyer Breweries. The company still exists and is known as Mohan Meakin, today comprising a large group of companies across many industries.
Following significant improvements in the efficiency of the steam engine in 1765, industrialization of beer became a reality. Further innovations in the brewing process came about with the introduction of the thermometer in 1760 and hydrometer in 1770, which allowed brewers to increase efficiency and attenuation.
In general, none of these early malts would have been well shielded from the smoke involved in the kilning process, and consequently, early beers would have had a smoky component to their flavors; evidence indicates that maltsters and brewers constantly tried to minimize the smokiness of the finished beer.
Writers of the period describe the distinctive taste derived from wood-smoked malts, and the almost universal revulsion it engendered. The smoked beers and ales of the West Country were famous for being undrinkable - locals and the desperate excepted. This is from "Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors" (1700):
"In most parts of the West, their malt is so stenched with the Smoak of the Wood, with which 'tis dryed, that no Stranger can endure it, though the inhabitants, who are familiarized to it, can swallow it as the Hollanders do their thick Black Beer Brewed with Buck Wheat."
An even earlier reference to such malt was recorded by William Harrison, in his "Description of England", 1577:
"In some places it [malt] is dried at leisure with wood alone, or straw alone, in other with wood and straw together, but, of all, the straw-dried is the most excellent. For the wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke. Such also as use both indifferently do bark, cleave, and dry their wood in an oven, thereby to remove all moisture that should procure the fume..."
"London and Country Brewer" (1736) specified the varieties of "brown malt" popular in the city:
"Brown Malts are dryed with Straw, Wood and Fern, etc. The straw-dryed is the best, but the wood sort has a most unnatural Taste, that few can bear with, but the necessitous, and those that are accustomed to its strong smoaky tang; yet it is much used in some of the Western Parts of England, and many thousand Quarters of this malt has been formerly used in London for brewing the Butt-keeoing-beers with, and that because it sold for two shillings per Quarter cheaper than Straw-dryed Malt, nor was this Quality of the Wood-dryed Malt much regarded by some of its Brewers, for that its ill Taste is lost in nine or twelve Months, by the Age of the Beer, and the strength of the great Quantity of Hops that were used in its preservation."
The hydrometer transformed how beer was brewed. Before its introduction beers were brewed from a single malt: brown beers from brown malt, amber beers from amber malt, pale beers from pale malt. Using the hydrometer, brewers could calculate the yield from different malts. They observed that pale malt, though more expensive, yielded far more fermentable material than cheaper malts. For example, brown malt (used for Porter) gave 54 pounds of extract per quarter, whilst pale malt gave 80 pounds. Once this was known, brewers switched to using mostly pale malt for all beers supplemented with a small quantity of highly-coloured malt to achieve the correct colour for darker beers.
The invention of the drum roaster in 1817 by Daniel Wheeler allowed for the creation of very dark, roasted malts, contributing to the flavour of porters and stouts. Its development was prompted by a British law of 1816 forbidding the use of any ingredients other than malt and hops. Porter brewers, employing a predominantly pale malt grist, urgently needed a legal colourant. Wheeler's patent malt was the solution.
Prior to Prohibition, there were thousands of breweries in the United States, mostly brewing heavier beers than modern US beer drinkers are used to. Beginning in 1920, most of these breweries went out of business, although some converted to soft drinks and other businesses. Bootlegged beer was often watered down to increase profits, beginning a trend, still on-going today, of the American palate preferring weaker beers. Consolidation of breweries and the application of industrial quality control standards have led to the mass-production and the mass-marketing of huge quantities of light lagers. Advertising became supreme, and bigger companies fared better in that market. The decades after World War II saw a huge consolidation of the American brewing industry: brewing companies would buy their rivals solely for their customers and distribution systems, shutting down their brewing operations. Smaller breweries, including microbreweries or craft brewers and imports have become more abundant since the mid 80's. By 1997 there were more breweries operating in the United States than in all of Germany. As of 2007, there are 1390 regional craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in the United States.
Many European nations have unbroken brewing traditions dating back to the earliest historical records. Beer is an especially important drink in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Ireland , and the UK, with nations such as France, the Scandinavian countries, the Czech Republic, and others having strong and unique brewing traditions with their own history, characteristic brewing methods, and styles of beer.
Unlike in many parts of the world, there is a significant market in Europe (the UK in particular) for beer containing live yeast. These unfiltered, unpasteurised brews are awkward to look after compared to the commonly sold dead beers: live beer quality can suffer with poor care, but many people prefer the taste of a good live beer to a dead one. While beer is usually matured for relatively short times (a few weeks to a few months) compared to wine, some of the stronger so-called real ales have been found to develop character and flavour over the course of as much as several decades.
In some parts of the world, breweries that had begun as a family business by Germans or other European émigrés grew into large companies, often passing into hands with more concern for profits than traditions of quality, resulting in a degradation of the product.
In 1953, New Zealander Morton W. Coutts developed the technique of continuous fermentation. Coutts patented his process which involves beer flowing through sealed tanks, fermenting under pressure, and never coming into contact with the atmosphere, even when bottled. His process is used by Guinness. Marston's Brewery in Burton on Trent, on the other hand, still uses open wooden Burton Union sets for fermentation in order to maintain the quality and flavour of its beers, while Belgium's lambic brewers go so far as to expose their brews to outside air in order to pick up the natural wild yeasts which ferment the wort. Traditional brewing techniques protect the beer from oxidation by maintaining a carbon dioxide blanket over the wort as it ferments into beer.
Modern breweries now brew many different types of beer, ranging from ancient styles such as the spontaneously-fermented lambics of Belgium; the lagers, dark beers, wheat beers and more of Germany; the UK's stouts, milds, pale ales, bitters, golden ale and new modern American creations such as Chili Beer, Cream Ale, and Double India Pale Ales which may have abv over 20%. Traditional brewing techniques are still very widely used for the sake of maintaining the quality of the final product which suffers if brewed using the more efficient industrial processes which have been developed in modern times.
Today, the brewing industry is a huge global business, consisting of several multinational companies, and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewpubs to regional breweries. Advances in refrigeration, international and transcontinental shipping, marketing and commerce have resulted in an international marketplace, where the consumer has literally hundreds of choices between various styles of local, regional, national and foreign beers.
The Finnish epic Kalevala, collected in written form in the 19th century but based on oral traditions many centuries old, devotes more lines to the origin of beer and brewing than it does to the origin of mankind.
According to Czech legend, deity Radegast, god of hospitality, invented beer.
In Egyptian mythology, the immense blood-lust of the fierce lioness goddess Sekhmet was only sated after she was tricked into consuming an extremely large amount of red-coloured beer: she became so drunk that she gave up slaughter altogether and became docile.
In Norse mythology the sea god Ægir , Ran his wife, and their nine daughters brewed ale (or mead) for the gods. In the Lokasenna, it is told that Ægir would host a party where all the gods would drink beer he brewed for them. He made this in a giant kettle that Thor had brought. The cups in Ægir's hall were always full, magically refilling themselves when emptied. Ægir had two servants in his hall to assist him, Eldir [Fire-Kindler] and Fimafeng [Handy].