The History of Beer
As one of the oldest and most popular drinks in human history, beer has been lauded by philosophers like Plato, presidents like Abraham Lincoln, and even priests like Martin Luther. The creation and consumption of beer has given rise to an entire culture centered around the drink’s celebration. The history of beer charts the history of the human race itself, from the earliest days of agriculture, to its status as a drink for baseball games and repealing constitutional amendments.
Developing a Taste for Beer
Historians are divided as to when and where the first recognizable form of beer was invented. To some, the earliest fermented beverages were most likely cultivated around the time that cereal agriculture (wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley, oats, etc.) was developed, around 12,000 years ago. Tribes based on the hunter-gatherer model adapted to the new crop-based reality, and settlements and civilizations grew around farming staples. Perhaps unintentionally, perhaps experimentally, these humans discovered the secret of fermentation, the process by which yeasts (microscopic single-celled organisms that are the active ingredient in all alcoholic beverages) consume sugar, leaving behind carbon dioxide and ethanol, the only potable form of alcohol.
The ethanol tastes good and makes drinkers feel good, but some scientists theorize that even before modern humans evolved, our primate ancestors were drawn to the powerful scent of rotting fruit (a byproduct of fermentation) and enjoyed the pleasant buzz they got from consuming it. Over millions of years of evolution, human beings (homo sapiens) developed with an evolutionary wiring to seek out the post-fermentation ethanol; not only because it tastes good and feels good but because ethanol has antiseptic qualities that boosted the otherwise weak immune systems of pre-human primates.
‘Beer Gave Us Civilization’
The earliest form of beer that we might recognize today was the barley beer that was made in the Middle East, about 5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day parts of Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey). The Sumerian civilization even honored “Ninkasi,” the goddess of beer, and for critical reasons; the beer brewed by the Sumerians was rich in nutrients to the point where the beverage was a cornerstone of the Sumerian diet and much safer to drink than the contaminated waters of the rivers and canals that ran through the region. So important was beer to the Sumerians that they composed a “Hymn to Ninkasi,” a poem that actually serves as a recipe for beer. The fact that the Sumerians didn’t die out as a result of drinking impure water is a similarly important one for the human race; Mesopotamia is widely considered the birthplace of civilization, where social development and organization was in place long before the ancient Romans and Greeks arose.
The New York Times expounds on this, saying “beer gave us civilization.” Not only did the drink bring agricultural societies into being and provide a healthier alternative to water, beer “suppressed the rigid social codes that kept our clans alive and safe.” Beer was used to make peace, to bond with strangers (and sexual partners), and, critically, to help early humans break free from the imperative to stay with the biological and social herd. Without the behaviorally lubricating effects of beer, some hatchets may never have been buried and some deals may never have been made; wars may have been lost and treaties never signed. From the Mediterranean to Mexico, farmers used local crops to brew beer, which became significant cultural mainstays on opposite sides of the world.
Beer, a Necessity of Life
Beer was such a commodity in the ancient world that it was part of the rations given out to the slaves who built the pyramids. Archaeologists have discovered “industrial-scale breweries” in their Egyptian excavations, which were used to supply the labor force that erected the Great Pyramid of Giza in 2560 BC. Slaves received 10 loaves of bread and some beer; people higher up the hierarchy were given hundreds of loaves of bread, and “many jugs of beer a day.” As with other historical civilizations, the Ancient Egyptian race flourished when agriculture was developed along the Nile, one of the longest rivers in the world and the primary source of water for Egypt.
The Atlantic notes that the beer in Ancient Egypt was created and distributed “almost entirely by women.” In explaining how women are becoming more involved in the alcohol industry in modern-day America, The Atlantic notes that the 4,500-year history of women and beer is coming full circle. When the North American continent was settled, it was women who were the family brewers, using the plentiful crops of corn, oats, and wheats to craft rich beers. The early American settlers helped themselves to large amounts of beer, which provided a nutritional (and more savory) break from the salted, smoked, or dried meat that was the staple of the day.
Even at weddings, beer was brewed and sold, the proceedings from the sales going to the bride (the so-called “bride-ale,” which may have evolved into the word “bridal” to encompass all things to do with the bride on her wedding day). There was evening a “groaning beer,” meant to help midwives and mothers (and fathers) after the stress of delivering a baby in the colonial era.
As American society moved away from farms and into factories, beer brewing similarly left the privacy of the individual home and became a mass-produced commercial product (one run entirely by men). The relatively recent trend of women working in the beer industry (either as brewers, bartenders, or executives) represents one of the ways that the gender gap in alcohol consumption trends is closing.
Beer and Politics
Beer might have even played a role in the genders being historically closer. The drink was used to break down social structures (especially rigid ones), and it broadened cognitive and creative horizons. It induced people to collaborate with one another, and even decisions of state were deliberated over with the aid of beer (and then double-checked when sober). In other cultures, the process was reversed.
Indeed, some civilizations used beer primarily for political purposes. The Natufian culture, which existed between 12,500 and 9500 BC in the Eastern Mediterranean hosted “the earliest feasts in human history,” and the beer they brewed was one of the essential ingredients (along with bread and meat). Archaeologists believe that the Natufians used beer to foster alliances and seal strategic marriage pacts. The sense of social cohesion brought about by enjoying good beer and good food cultivated a healthy sense of competition, and it created the infrastructure for regulating loans and debts, and a general adherence to rules (both written and unwritten).
The author of a study on the impact of beer on the development of agriculture and politics told the History channel that how the Natufians used beer was a sign of a complex society at work in one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world.
Civilization’s Favorite Drink
Across the world and throughout time (a history stretching so far back that it will be impossible to fully trace), “beer rapidly took hold as one of civilization’s favorite, and safest, ways to drink,” according to VinePair. As time passed, different cultures made their beers in different ways. The Babylonian beer was so thick and full of grain, people had to use straws;
This was done to prevent price competition with bakers, who also used wheat and rye in their products, and to keep those crops affordable. There were also cultural and religious implications in the purity law, speaking to how important beer was across different parts of German society and even into modern times; as recently as 2015, the German press wondered if contemporary versions of the Reinheitsgebot laws were holding German beers back from competing with those in Belgium and America.
Hop beers have also come a long way. In Ancient Egypt, brewers stabilized and flavored their beer with wild herbs, dates, and olive oil; in Europe, the cultivation of beer involved a mix of herbs and spices. It was only in the first millennium AD that hops (climbing vines with the tendrils removed) were added to give beer more balance and depth. Over the years, hops had graduated from simply supporting the other ingredients in beer, to being in the “starring role in the beer ensemble,” with some brewers experimenting with different combinations and flavors of hops to satisfy every palette.
Anthropology Now points out that beer was so important to indigenous societies around the world that many communities considered beer a food and not simply a beverage (let alone a recreational one). The health benefits of moderate beer consumption bear this out; beer adds to the necessary daily caloric intake, and it has more proteins, vitamins, and minerals than unleavened bread. The historically low alcohol content kills off bacteria. So vital is beer that even in typically famine- and drought-stricken regions of the world, like sub-Saharan Africa, as many as 25 percent of the grains grown there are used to process beer. Beer has been used as a symbol of wealth and social status, being offered as tribute to kings and leaders, and even today, exists anywhere on the spectrum from dietary staple to a luxury food.
Beyond antiquity, the scientific and industrial advancements of the Middle Ages were behind the creation of the most recognizable form of beer in the modern era. According to a book published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, beer rose to prominence “as both a product and an economic force in Europe,” touching every facet of public and private life. The fact that beer went from a do-it-yourself production that was a basic expectation of every household, to a “highly-regulated commercial enterprise […] overseen by government authorities” speaks to the extent to which it transformed life in Europe.
The History of Beer in America
Some historians refer to this as the beginning of American beer. Two years after the arrival, the first documented “help wanted” ad went up, seeking more brewers for the colony. The Mayflower carried beer with her when she made her historic transatlantic journey. As was the case with the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the American colonists used beer as a food staple, with the cultivation of grains, wheat, and barley to make the beer jumpstarting modern agriculture in America.
Beer flourished in the United States from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with even George Washington (as a young colonel) having his own recipe for a brew (one that was finally put to use in 2016, more than 260 years after Washington penned it). The first president was not the only Founding Father to have enjoyed beer; Thomas Jefferson had beer produced on his estate, in his own brew house. Samuel Adams, one of the architects of the American Republic, once owned and operated a commercial brewery. During the Revolutionary War, soldiers were rationed a quart of beer every day.
In 1789, James Madison (one of the Founding Fathers who would go on to be elected the fourth President of the United States) suggested that Congress place a duty tax on malt liquors, at 8 cents a barrel. The amount was low, Madison’s way of hoping to encourage the production of beer in every state. Eleven years later, beer had become an entrenched part of the American economy.
The Rise of Temperance
By 1880, there were 6.6 million barrels of beer being brewed across the country. By 1900, that number grew to 39.5 million and peaked at 59.5 million in 1910. For some people in the United States, that was 59.5 million too many. They watched, aghast, as the flourishing of beer and other alcohol led to drunken behavior and alcoholism. PBS explains that by 1830, the average American adult consumed almost seven gallons of pure alcohol every year, far more than contemporary drinking rates. Women particularly suffered as a result of this, since there were few (if any) laws protecting women’s legal rights, and what laws did exist rendered women completely dependent on their husbands, even if their husbands were violent alcoholics.
The movement coalesced around the Anti-Saloon League, one of the most lobbying organizations in American history. The ASL formed key alliances with any organizations that shared the goal of seeing a constitutional amendment that would criminalize the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol. Such was the ASL’s influence that members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and even the Ku Klux Klan and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, signed up. Some of the country’s most influential businessmen, like Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., also lent their support to the ASL.
The 18th Amendment
The League also made good use of World War I; beer in the United States had long been popularized by German immigrants, and most of the breweries in the country were owned and operated by German-Americans. Although the American people were overwhelmingly in support of remaining neutral and isolated from the fighting in Europe, the news that the German Empire was willing to help Mexico reclaim lost territory that now belonged to the United States, and German U-boats sinking American ships in the North Atlantic Ocean, swiftly turned public opinion against the German Empire and, particularly, German immigrants and German-Americans living in the United States. The Anti-Saloon League presented their opposition to beer as a patriotic act, one that would defend the values of the United States against the aggression across the Atlantic.
According to PBS, “most politicians dared not defy the ASL.” When the constitutional amendment to ban alcohol was finally put forward in 1917, it was easily passed through both houses of Congress and all states in the country at the time in only 13 months. On January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment (popularly known as Prohibition) went into effect, and the United States became a “dry” country. Beer, the drink that sustained some of the oldest civilizations of the human race, was illegal.
While many breweries reluctantly complied with the directive to produce nothing more than “near beer,” others changed their businesses entirely, manufacturing everything from ice cream to pottery. Some, however, fought back. A number of breweries started making malt extract, starch- or grain-based sweeteners. The extract was advertised as a cooking product and sold with explicit instructions on how to make bread “light and perfectly browned.” This was to help people frustrated with Prohibition (of which there were many) make their own beer at home. Despite breweries being raised by federal agents for creating the malt extract, a court eventually passed a ruling that declared the extract to be legal; therefore, citizens were legally allowed to make as much “bread” as they desired.
A Good Time for a Beer
The malt extract anecdote speaks to the deep unpopularity and limitations of Prohibition; once it went into effect, it became universally and immediately ignored by the public, politicians, and police alike. While the responsibility of enforcing the law fell to federal authorities, local police turned a blind eye to the distribution of illegal beer, whether it was carried out by well-meaning citizens or organized crime rings. Despite alcohol-related crimes dropping in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 18th Amendment (and the Volstead Act that carried it out), Prohibition carried a much heftier price tag than anyone imagined; without alcohol to tax, the federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue (equivalent to almost $200 billion today) while costing the government $300 million in law enforcement overhead. The lucrative and thriving black market empowered the Sicilian mafia to tighten their grip on America’s underworld, and unemployment skyrocketed because of the impact on the service industry.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned on a platform of repealing the 18th Amendment, that promise carried him to a resounding victory over Herbert Hoover, the same man who had ushered in the Prohibition era as a “noble experiment.” When the dust of the 1932 presidential elections had settled, Roosevelt carried 42 of the country’s 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet joined the union).
Today, beer is big business. In America, total annual sales were approximately $100 billion in 2014, adding $252.6 billion to the country’s economy through the addition of 1.75 million jobs that pay up to $78.6 billion. Fortune magazine notes that more and more craft breweries are opening, pointing to the 700 that went into operation from 2014 to 2015 (with 1,755 more being planned). Notwithstanding the best efforts of Prohibitionists, beer has become a firmly entrenched business and culture, and it is very unlikely that there will ever be another movement to remove it from the mainstream. The president and CEO of the Beer Industry noted that “beer truly serves America.”
In the same way that beer was the catalyst for economics and trade in the ancient world, beer is bringing a similar benefit to the 21st century. CNBC writes of how “America’s No. 1 small business got to $10 million brewing beer in Hawaii,” with the Maui Brewing Company expected to pass $20 million in sales by the end of 2017. In May 2017, the brewery was presented with the “National Small Business Persons of the Year” award by the Small Business Administration, with the Vice President of the United States in attendance.
Beer has come a long way in its history; from being the reason why human colonies grew around agriculture, to brokering peace and fostering relations, to being banished from the public sphere as part of a “noble experiment.” But perhaps nothing says more about the present and future of beer than the Vice President of the United States presenting an award to a brewing company a little more than 100 years after the federal government criminalized the entire alcohol industry. After surviving history and Prohibition, it is unlikely that anything will ever dethrone beer ever again.
 “25 Quotes About Beer from the Famous Drinkers Who Loved It Best.” (March 2014). First We Feast. Accessed May 11, 2017.
 “How the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis Explains Our Taste for Liquor.” (December 2016). The Atlantic. Accessed May 11, 2017.
 “Women and Beer: A 4,500-Year History Is Coming Full Circle.” (November 2013). The Atlantic. Accessed May 12, 2017.
 “Did Beer Spur the Rise of Agriculture and Politics?” (February 2012). The History Channel. Accessed May 13, 2017.
 “Over Beers, No Apologies, but Plans to Have Lunch.” (July 2009). The New York Times. Accessed May 15, 2017.
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 “Beer through the Ages: The Role of Beer in Shaping Our Past and Current Worlds.” (September 2014). Anthropology Now. Accessed May 12, 2017.
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 “Here’s How Massive the American Beer Industry Has Become.” (August 2015). Fortune. Accessed May 14, 2017.
 “How America’s No. 1 Small Business Got to $10 Million Brewing Beer in Hawaii.” (May 2017). CNBC. Accessed May 15, 2017.