The History 0f Beer

Between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, some humans discontinued their nomadic hunting and gathering and settled down to farm. Grain was the first domesticated crop that started that farming process.

The oldest proven records of brewing are about 6,000 years old and refer to the Sumerians.  Sumeria lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers including Southern Mesopotamia and the ancient cities of Babylon and Ur.  It is said that the Sumerians discovered the fermentation process by chance.  No one knows today exactly how this occurred, but it could be that a piece of bread or grain became wet and a short time later, it began to ferment and a inebriating pulp resulted.  A seal around 4,000 years old is a Sumerian “Hymn to Ninkasi”, the goddess of brewing.  This “hymn” is also a recipe for making beer. A description of the making of beer on this ancient engraving in the Sumerian language is the earliest account of what is easily recognized as barley, followed by a pictograph of bread being baked, crumbled into water to form a mash, and then made into a drink that is recorded as having made people feel “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful.” It could be that baked bread was a convenient method of storing and transporting a resource for making beer.  The Sumerians were able to repeat this process and are assumed to be he first civilized culture to brew beer. They had discovered a “divine drink” which certainly was a gift from the gods.

From the Gilgamesh Epic, written in the 3rd millennium B.C., we learn that not only bread but also beer was very important. This epic is recognized as one of the first great works of world literature. Ancient oral sagas from the beginning of human history were recorded in writing for the first time. The Gilgamesh Epic describes the evolution from primitive man to “cultured man”.

“Enkidu, a shaggy, unkempt, almost bestial primitive man, who ate grass and could milk wild animals, wanted to test his strength against Gilgamesh, the demigod-like sovereign. Taking no chances, Gilgamesh sent a (prostitute) to Enkidu to learn of his strengths and weaknesses. Enkidu enjoyed a week with her, during which she taught him of civilization.  Enkidu knew not what bread was nor how one ate it. He had also not learned to drink beer. The (prostitute) opened her mouth and spoke to Enkidu: ‘Eat the bread now, O Enkidu, as it belongs to life. Drink also beer, as it is the custom of the land.’ Enkidu drank seven cups of beer and his heart soared. In this condition he washed himself and became a human being. ”

The Babylonians became the rulers of Mesopotamia after the Sumerian empire collapsed during the 2nd millennium bc.  Their culture was derived from that of the Sumerians, and as a consequence of this, they also mastered the art of brewing beer. Today we know that the Babylonians new how to brew 20 different types of beer.

In ancient times beer was cloudy and unfiltered. The “drinking straws” were used to avoid getting the brewing residue, which was very bitter, in the mouth.  Beer from Babylon was exported and distributed as far away as Egypt.  Hammurabi, an important Babylonian King, decreed the oldest known collection of laws. One of these laws established a daily beer ration. This ration was dependent on the social standing of the individual, a normal worker received 2 liters, civil servants 3 liters, administrators and high priests 5 liters per day. In these ancient times beer was often not sold, but used as barter.

The Egyptians carried on the tradition of beer brewing. They also used unbaked bread dough for making beer and added dates to the brew to improve the taste. The importance of beer brewing in ancient Egypt can be seen from the fact that the scribes created an extra hieroglyph for “brewer”.

Although beer as we know it had its origins in Mesopotamia, fermented beverages of some sort or another were produced in various forms around the world. For example, Chang is a Tibetan beer and Chicha is a corn beer and kumis is a drink produced from fermented camel milk. The word beer comes from the Latin word bibere, meaning “to drink”, and the Spanish word cerveza originates from the Greek goddess of agriculture, Ceres.

After Egypt was succeeded by the Greeks and Romans, beer continued to be brewed. Plinius reported of the popularity of beer in the Mediterranean area before wine took hold. In Rome, wine became ambrosia from the god Bacchus. Beer was only brewed in the outer areas of the Roman Empire where wine was difficult to obtain. For the Romans beer was considered a barbarian drink. The oldest proof that beer was brewed on German soil, comes from around 800 B.C. in the early Hallstatt Period, where beer amphora found near the present day city of Kulmbach have been dated back to this time.  As Tacitus, who first wrote about the ancient Germans or  Teutons, put it like this: “To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine”.  Beer of that era could not be stored, was cloudy and produced almost no foam. Early civilizations found the mood-altering properties of beer supernatural, and intoxication was considered divine. Beer, it was thought, must contain a spirit or god, since drinking the liquid so possessed the spirit of the drinker. The ancient Germans regarded beer not only a sacrifice to the gods but they, as in Egypt, also brewed beer for their own enjoyment. For example, in the Finnish poetic saga Kalewala, 400 verses are devoted to beer but only 200 were needed for the creation of the earth. According to the Edda, the great Nordic epic, wine was reserved for the gods, beer belonged to mortals and mead to inhabitants of the realm of the dead.

Beer brewing played an important role in daily lives. Beer was clearly so desired that it led nomadic groups into village life. Beer was considered a valuable (potable) foodstuff  and workers were often paid with jugs of beer.

A vitamin-rich porridge, used daily, beer is reported to have increased health and longevity and reduced disease and malnutrition. The self-medicating properties of alcohol-rich beer also eased the tensions and stresses of daily living in a hostile world. Those who drank thrived as the struggle of life wore on those less blessed.


 Until the Middle Ages, brewing and the baking of bread was exclusively the job of a woman. In fact, ancient laws stated that brewing vessels were a woman’s personal property. This began to change shortly before the end of the first millennium, when the monasteries  turned their attention to beer brewing. Perhaps one reason that beer brewing has become associated with monasteries (Holland and Belgium in particular) is that in ancient Babylon, women brewers were priestesses of the temple, thus connecting beer and religion for the first time.   As monasteries took over the brewing of beer, women’s involvement began to wane, and brewing became a male-dominated process. The monks were intensively concerned with making beer because they wanted a pleasant tasting, nutritious drink to serve with their meals, which could be lacking, especially during periods of  fasting. As the consumption of liquids was not considered to break the fast, beer was always permitted. The consumption of beer in the monasteries reached astounding levels. In many monasteries, historians report that each monk was allowed to imbibe 5 liters of beer per day.


We can see in many paintings of the period that the monks enjoyed their beer, nonetheless, after a short time they began to brew more than for their own consumption. Upon payment of a fee, the monks received the right to sell beer and with this many monasteries developed into well managed commercial enterprises. The beer was sold in monastery pubs. Because the monasteries actively promoted beer brewing, their beer was of high quality and popular. After the Reformation and the weakening of the church, brewing became the responsibility of the commercial brewer. These “entrepreneur” brewers often brewed under “Royal” license and supplied the rising merchant class. Because people were inclined to support local endeavors, the art of brewing developed and became a respected trade.


The local sovereigns introduced beer taxes which rapidly began to add to their wealth. As the monastery pubs did not have to pay these taxes because of their older, privileged brewery status, they adversely affected this new source of income and many were quickly closed by the dukes and princes. Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437) was the first emperor to issue such a decree. Even though many monastery breweries were closed by the rulers, we owe much to the monks for being the first to scientifically develop the brewers’ art. Monasteries had become the centers for brewing as a result of their already being the centers of learning and, as we know, because the local water supply was often contaminated, beer provided a safe drinking source and was promoted by the authorities. There was the low strength “everyday” beer and the higher alcohol beers brewed for special occasions.  In the weddings of ancient England, a special “bride’s ale” would be brewed for the bride by her family. The term “bride ale” became the present “bridal.” Throughout the Middle Ages, hops became widely used as a way to make beer refreshing and also as a natural preservative. In fact, in France and Germany, hops were documented as being cultivated in the ninth century. Hops are said to have first been used to flavor beer in Brabant monasteries in what is now Belgium. This explains the legend falsely attributing the creation of beer to the Brabant king Gambrinus.


“In life be I called Gambrinus, King of Flanders and Brabant. I have made malt from barley and first conceived of the brewing of beer. Hence, the brewers can say they have a king as master brewer.”


King Gambrinus is still revered today as the patron saint of beer. The use of hops in the making of beer started a “bitter” argument about the so-called Flavorings License (“Grutrecht” in old German). Grut was a mixture of all sorts of herbs used to flavor beer. The flavoring license was similar to a patent, allowing a brewery to produce its own flavoring mixture and became the legal basis for every brewery and ensured a monopoly position for the respective brew master. With the advent of hops as a flavoring, Grut was no longer necessary and therefore the monopoly position of the breweries were endangered. For this reason, the use of hops was often simply and forcibly forbidden. Among other things, juniper berries, sweet gale , blackthorn, aniseed, bay leaves, yarrow, thorn apple, gentian, rosemary, oak bark, wormwood, caraway seed, tansy, Saint-John’s-wort, spruce chips, pine roots and henbane (the hallucinogen Alkaloid is produced from henbane during the brewing process.) found their way into these mixtures. Some of these herbs were poisonous.  This could well be the reason that superstition played an important role around the brewing kettle. The main victims of this superstition were the Beer Witches.

Because things often went wrong with the beer brewing which nobody could explain with the body of beer brewing knowledge available in early times, the guilty parties were often sought in the mystical realm. Many wondrous herbs and cult objects still surrounded brewing kettles into the late middle ages. Superstition went so far that brewing failures were blamed on “brew witches” or “beer witches”.
The last known burning of a “brew witch” took place in 1591. The end of this superstitious era came when the use of hops caught on. Even though often forbidden at first, this practice prevailed in the long run. For one thing, the beer became less perishable and the brewing process more stable because of hops. Things didn’t go wrong as often and fewer witches had to be hunted.  

With the use of hops the beer revealed its “clear character”. Beer began to closely resemble the modern product range, both in taste and appearance. In order to guarantee a high level of reliability, quality and consistency, the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm IV, proclaimed the German Beer Purity Law in 1516. This decree established for the first time that only barley (later malted barley), hops and pure water could be used to brew beer.


Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm IV


The use of yeast was not yet known at that time. The success of the fermentation process was left to chance, as the brewers unknowingly relied on yeast particles in the air. Today this Beer Purity Law is the oldest still valid food law in the world. In the eyes of the European Union, however, this law was inhibitive to competition. Now, as a result of the EU ruling, beer may be imported into Germany which was not brewed in accordance with the Beer Purity Law, as long as this fact is clearly stated. The German brewers still abide by their centuries-old tradition. Of course the Beer Purity Law had its predecessors. A regulation promulgated in 1493 by the Duke of Bayers-Landshut, for example, stated that:


“Herewith shall beer brewers and others not use anything other than malt, hops and water. These same brewers also shall not add anything when serving or otherwise handling beer, upon penalty to body and chattels.”

Together with the quality improvement, the distribution and export of beer also increased. The worldwide export was carried out by the Hansa of the Hanseatic League fame. As time passed, export took on an ever increasing role. Regular brewing centers developed. In the 14th century Bremen was the primary beer supplier for many countries. Hamburg also developed into one of these brewing centers. In 1500 there were 600 breweries in Hamburg alone. The Hansa even exported beer to far away India. In the small middle German and Maerkish (Brandenburg) communities of this period, breweries were the most important financial contributors to the local economy. Other German beer centers were Brunswick and Einbeck. Bok beer was first created in Einbeck and became a favorite of a Bavarian duke.

The Industrial Revolution started to take their effect on beer at the beginning of the 19th century. Two extremely important inventions revolutionized beer brewing. The first was James Watt’s steam engine and the second invention was artificial cooling by Carl von Linde. It had long been known that the making of good beer required certain temperatures. Some of these temperatures occurred naturally only in winter. From the time of von Linde’s invention on, brewing was a year round enterprise..

Beer in modern times.

Considerable scientific research took place in breweries in the 19th century. A famous work from 1876 by Louis Pasteur was “Etudes sur la Biere” (“Studies Concerning Beer”) where he revealed his knowledge of micro-organisms.  This basic knowledge is still indispensable today, not only in the production of beverages, but also in medicine and biology.  (Everyone knows the word “pasteurized”)

Another pioneering discovery in beer brewing was the work of Christian Hansen. The Danish scientist, Christian Hansen, successfully isolated a single yeast cell and induced it to reproduce on an artificial culture medium. With the resulting yeast propagation methods, the purity of the fermenting process has been improved and beer taste repeatable.

Beer and its price have always been of extreme importance to German consumers. The consequences a beer price increase can bring with it were shown in 1888 in Munich when the Salvator battle took place, as citizens violently rebelled against such a price increase.

Wooden barrels have been almost completely replaced by metal barrels for most pub trade. In 1964 metal kegs were introduced in Germany. Firstly, cleaning and filling was much simpler. Secondly, tapping and closing off was much easier for the bar personnel. This was a big hit with pub and restaurant owners.

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