Raise Your Glass to the Craziest Facts About the History of Beer

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 10:01:15 PM ET
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Beer is one of the simple joys in life. It's affordable, refreshing and nothing tastes better when you're unwinding from a long day.

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But where does the drink come from, and how has it come to be such an internationally beloved beverage? There's certainly more than meets the taste buds when it comes to the storied history of a drink that never seems to go out of style.

Accessible to All

Though we've found ways to complicate and switch up the formulata over the years, when it comes down to it, the basic ingredients in beer remain the same. Barley, hops, yeast and water come together. Then, through a little sciencey magic, voilá! You've got a brew.

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The question of how beer came to be has stumped historians for centuries. While we may not know the exact origin, we do know that because grains could be grown more widely and easily than grapes, beer quickly became a much more popular and accessible drink than wine.

One Ancient Beer Recipe Is 9000 Years Old

The oldest known beer recipe of all time dates back 9000 years. The beer is thought to have been developed in the neolithic Chinese village of Jiahu. Biomolecular archeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern used excavated pottery jars to put together the recipe.

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The original recipe included ingredients such as rice, honey, grapes and berries. Delaware brewery Dogfish Head seized the opportunity and developed their very own version of the historic brew called Chateau Jiahu. When you crack open a bottle, you can tell everyone you know that you've tried 9000-year-old beer.

Bow Down to Beer

Have a passion for brewing? Well, that excitement is nothing compared to the level of importance beer held in Ancient Mesopotamia. They even had a Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi, who had her very own hymn.

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It served as both a song of worship and a recipe. Recorded in approximately 1800 BCE, historians believe the recipe itself dates even further back than that. Not only was beer-brewing considered a sacred activity, the beverage itself was seen as the drink of the Gods.

Sediment-Free Sipping

Straws may be on the outs these days, but their existence dates back much further than you probably realize. Plastic straws may be a relatively recent invention, but the straws themselves can be traced all the way back to Mesopotamia.

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In the same era when Ninkasi was being worshipped, Sumerians (and Babylonians and Egyptians, for that matter), realized they needed a way to avoid sipping down the sediment that settled at the bottom of a beer glass. Thus, the straw was invented. It was crafted out of either mercury or gold, depending on your social status.

Beer Helped Make the Pyramids

Whether you've been lucky enough to see this wonder of the ancient world or not, there's no doubt that you’re familiar with the Egyptian pyramids. Have you ever wondered how the structure was built without the assistance of modern building technology? The answer is simple: beer.

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Ok, maybe not that simple. But historians have discovered that the beverage was used as a medicine, currency, and reward while the pyramids were being built. It kept the builders' bellies full and also served as a reward after a hard day's work.

Historically, Beer Helped Civilizations Survive and Explore The Globe

Can you imagine having beer with breakfast, lunch and dinner? While it may seem odd to consider cracking open a cold one as your go-to beverage all day long, before sanitation was widely understood, beer was seen as a safer option than water.

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On ships where it was next to impossible to keep clean water aboard, sailors were expected to keep themselves hydrated with a jug or two of the fermented beverage. The bottom line? If it weren't for beer, we may never have been able to explore the world.

Women Got the Job Done

We may associate beer and brewing with men these days, but when you go further back in the history of the drink, it was actually ladies who did all of the beer-making. As early as Babylonian times and up through when the Pilgrims settled in America, women were the primary brewsters — the female equivalent of brewers.

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When industrialization of beer production began, women were pushed away from making and selling beer. However, home-brewing continued and became an even more common practice during Prohibition.

Beer Baptisms Were a Thing

Medieval times were full of all sorts of unusual practices by today’s standards, and sometimes, they of course involved beer. In the 13th century , for instance, there were actual baptisms performed with beer rather than water. Can you believe it?

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Occurring mostly in a region of Norway where access to water was limited, the practice was common enough that Pope Gregory IX had to take a stand against it, declaring beer baptisms invalid. To be fair, it is a waste of otherwise drinkable beer.

Beer Can Help In Childbirth

Child birth has never been an easy undertaking, but in medieval times, it was especially dangerous and difficult due to the lack of modern medicine, sanitation, or understanding of biology.

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The best type of medicine they had access to? You guessed it: beer. Midwives would administer a special type of beer called groaning ale as soon as contractions would start. Once the baby was born, it was even a practice to dunk the newborn in ale. Due to the lack of sanitized water, this method of cleansing likely saved countless new lives.

Happy Accident

It's no secret that some of the best inventions were discovered by accident. If you're a fan of lagers rather than ales, you have a mistake made by medieval Germans to thank. Up until that point, all the beers enjoyed across the world were simple ales.

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When the Germans chose to store their brews in the icy Alps, though, their beer began fermenting from the bottom. The process was helped along by yeast that had made its way to the region from Bohemia. This method, though accidental, created a beer that lasted much longer.

The Beer Purity Law Has Lasted

It's a rare occurrence that a law lasts hundreds of years through the development and destruction of civilizations, but a 1516 one has done just that. Put in place by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, the Reinheitsgebot, also known as the "Beer Purity Law", forbids brewers from including anything but barley, hops, water and yeast in their recipes.

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The law was designed to protect consumers from being cheated and preserve the use of wheat for bread. In 1987, the law was finally loosened, but many breweries across Germany still choose to follow it.

Lack of Beer Was Why the Pilgrims Stopped at Plymouth Rock

Knowing how important beer was on long voyages, it comes as no surprise that the famous voyage made by the earliest Americans on the Mayflower was stopped short when the barrels ran dry. Originally planning to coast all the way to Virginia, the captain of the ship decided to set down their anchor early when they ran out of beer.

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Getting off at Plymouth Rock, the pilgrims happened upon Squanto, a Native American who spoke English as a result of being kidnapped by an earlier English explorer. One of the earliest European settlements in North America was started, and all thanks to a little beer (or lack thereof). Who would have thought?

Liquid Bread

In 17th century Germany, monks created a thick, malty beer that became the first of the doppelbock variety, so called because of its potency compared to a regular bock. The monks refused to eat anything solid during Lent, but beer provided a convenient loophole. According to a saying from the time, "Liquid bread won’t break the fast.

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The high-proof beer contained many calories and served the monks well. Since then, Germany’s Paulaner beer company has continued to make and improve upon the same beer in the form of its Salvator ("savior") beer.

Hop It Up: The Origins of the IPA

If you like your beer hoppier than most, chances are you’d like an Indian pale ale (IPA). The beer was first invented in 1790 by George Hogeson of the Bow Brewery, whose goal was to create a beer that could survive the long journey from Britain to India.

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With more hops, a higher alcohol content and a method called dry-hopping, the beer was equipped to make it all the way across two oceans. The barrels were even primed with sugar so that the beer continued to ferment as the journey was underway.

Wasted Washington

Turns out that the greatest of Founding Fathers, George Washington, was a bit of a beer fanatic. A personal notebook of his from 1757 was discovered containing a recipe for a "small beer". That is, a beer with low alcohol content that could be easily made by soldiers.

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Once the French and Indian War was over and Washington was a bit more of an established figure in the colonies, his passion for beer making continued. In fact, his estate, Mount Vernon, became a rather large-scale brewery.

Guinness Brewing Started With a Really Long Lease

In 1759, Arthur Guinness took a leap of faith and leased an out-of-repair brewery at St. James Gate in Dublin, Ireland. He put £100 down and was charged £45 per year. The twist? The lease he signed was no shorter than 9,000 years long.

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It turned out that the risk paid off, as you could probably predict given that Guinness is now a household name. By 1833, it was the largest brewery in Ireland, and in the 1880's, it became the largest brewery in the world. 261 years down, 8739 to go.

A Brewing Flood Proved Deadly

Even in your worst nightmares, you probably haven't pictured your life ending in a literal flood of beer. For eight people in 1814 London, however, this is exactly how they met their hopsy fate. Turns out that swimming in a pool of beer isn't so fun.

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After a rupture in a massive beer vat occurred in the Meux and Company Brewery, the domino effect of all domino effects occurred, causing 388,000 gallons of beer to spill into the streets. Two houses collapsed along with the wall of a nearby pub. Tragically, the lives of eight women and children were taken as well.

Beer Led to the Discovery of Pasteurization

Louis Pasteur, the scientist who discovered bacteria and invented the pasteurization process, would've gotten nowhere in his research if it weren't for beer. Noticing that beer went bad under certain conditions, Pasteur concluded that bacteria was the culprit.

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From there, he grew to understand the significance that fermentation had in brewing and even became the first person to notice that yeast was an integral part of the process. Sanitization and the dangers of bacteria were soon widely understood, and from there, the standards for preparing and preserving food changed forever.

Home-Brewing Was Illegal for a Long Time

Speaking of home-brewing, though the practice has existed in the United States in some form since the country was first founded, it wasn't always legal. Starting with Prohibition in 1919 and all the way up until 1978, any sort of at-home beer making was strictly forbidden.

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In 1978, President Jimmy Carter officially repealed the law and put a new one in place that allowed home-brewers to produce up to 200 gallons of the drink tax-free. Other regulations are still in place on a state-by-state basis.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Yuengling

The Prohibition era shook things up for alcohol producers all across the country who suddenly were out of a job. While some distributors threw in the towel, others chose to do some strategic rebranding.

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As America's first brewery, Yuengling knew a thing or two about running a business, so when alcohol became illegal, they decided to turn their expertise to a different industry — ice cream. Even after Prohibition ended, Yuengling continued to sell their ice cream through 1985. In 2014, it was even reintroduced to the market.

Record-Setting Beer

Ever made the connection between The Guinness Book of World Records and Guinness the beer? If not, you may be surprised to know that the former developed from the latter. In 1951, the managing director of Guinness at the time, Sir Hugh Beaver, thought up the idea for the book of records on a hunting trip.

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Over drinks, Beaver and some friends got into a debate about what the fastest game bird was in Europe. Wanting to set the record straight for that argument and all the rest of its kind, the Guinness Book of World Records was born.

Beer's Surging Numbers

Beer has been a popular drink for pretty much as long as human history can be tracked. In fact, it's the third most popular beverage on Earth, preceded only by water and tea. However, it's only been in the last 30 or so years that new breweries have been cropping up in crazy numbers.

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In 1983, there were 47 licensed breweries in the United States. By 2017, there were no fewer than 8,863. That's a pretty unprecedented jump in numbers. One thing's for certain — you won't be starved for choice when you make a trip to the grocery store.

Beer Spas Can Actually Make Sense

It may have been declared unholy to perform baptisms with beer, but it turns out that beer baths may actually be a great idea. This ancient tradition from the Czech Republic and elsewhere is now offered at various spas across Europe, this unusual method of relaxation could be just what you need.

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Certain compounds in beer called polyphenols have proven to be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative and so much more. Why not give it a go? You can even sip a pint while bathing in it.

Lone Star Beer Drinkers

Texas is a unique place in so many ways — there's no denying that. Maybe one of the oddest facts about the Lone Star State is that there's a town that has a goat elected as their mayor. Yep, you read that right. And not just any goat, but a beer-drinking goat.

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In the 1980s, what began as a joke became all too real when Clay Henry, a goat, was elected mayor of Lajitas, Texas. Though Clay Henry is no longer with us, currently, Clay Henry III is filling the position. Visitors flock from all around to meet the famous elected official.

A Shipwreck Contained Drinkably Aged Beers

In 2010, divers located a shipwreck off the coast of Finland. Inside were three perfectly preserved bottles of beer. Scientists have dated the shipwreck to between 1800 and 1830, meaning that those bottles of beer are approximately 200 years old.

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The craziest part? The beer is drinkable. Four professional beer tasters were hired to sample the drink in an effort to recreate the recipe. While the beer is safe to drink, it's not exactly delicious. Tasters have described it as "burnt" and "quite acidic".

Rule of Thumb May Actually Be About Beer

Every phrase we use in common conversation came from somewhere, but some origin stories are harder to track down than others. One popular explanation for the phrase "rule of thumb" was that it had to do with a law about domestic abuse.

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However, what's much more likely is that the phrase came from beer-making. The thumb was used as a form of gauging the heat in a vat as the beer brewed. That's certainly a much more innocent origin and hopefully the correct one.

Beer Makes Traps for Snails

Ever had an outbreak of pesky slugs or snails in your garden? Well, it turns out humans aren't the only species that are beer fans. Though it's not a fail-safe method, many gardening experts recommending setting beer traps for those not-so-welcome little friends.

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Filling a small container and setting it on the ground in the affected area should attract a slug or two. The main catch is that it only works for slugs and snails in a small surrounding radius, so you may need to do several traps to really get the job done.

Beer Can Help Your Hair

Speaking of non-drinking uses of the world's third-favorite beverage, have you ever heard of beer hair products? It may sound like it would just leave your hair sticky and smelly, but there are actually a lot of great benefits to it.

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There's a mineral found in beer, silica, which volumizes and thickens hair. There are lots of other minerals found in beer as well, such as copper, magnesium and iron. These minerals can repair hair, lead to faster hair growth and provide deep conditioning.

Beer Vocabulary

There are hoards upon hoards of beer fanatics these days, so it's not too surprising that our vocabulary has grown to match it. If you deem yourself to be a beer enthusiast, you better start using the proper term — cerevisaphile.

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Even if you’re not a beer expert, you may be well-versed in the dread that occurs when the beer has all run out. And guess what? There's a word for that too. Cenosillicaphobia is the formal term for the fear of an empty beer glass.

How the First American Brewery Was Established

When the colonies were first established, there was one thing missing: an adept brewer for this new population. Without someone to take care of all of the people's beer needs, the product was actually shipped all the way from England for the new colonists.

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Tired of this impractical set up, a full page wanted ad was placed in a London newspaper requesting that an experienced brewer come over to join the ranks of colonists. Several people ended up making the trip, and thus the first American brewery was established.