The History Of Beer and Homebrewing: Then and Now

Mar 2020 | Last modified: November 14, 2023 | 11 min read | By David Scott

midieval people drinking beer

He was a wise man who invented beer.” — Plato

I love beer. You are reading about the history of beer and homebrewing because you presumably love beer too. And we are not alone. One out of every three alcoholic drinks served in the world is beer. And now, more and more of it is made by both professional craft brewers and homebrewers alike.

But where did it all come from? Beer has been enjoyed by many cultures around the world since early recorded history.

The History of Beer and Homebrewing

Beer is one of the oldest drinks ever made by man. It is believed that in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq, Iran, Syria and parts of Turkey) that beer was first brewed. This was sometime between 10,000 and 5,000 B.C.E.! It was also widely considered to be safer and healthier to drink than water because microorganisms were boiled out.

Also, it contained nutrients that other drinks at the time did not have. However, there is no written proof of when beer was actually first brewed as the Mesopotamians weren’t much for writing everything down.

But do you know who took very good notes? The ancient Egyptians. They were the firs tot write down their recipe for beer. In fact, their beer recipe is the oldest recorded recipe of anything, food or beverage, in the world! Beer in ancient Egypt would not taste like any of your favorites as it was primarily made up of pomegranates, dates, and local herbs. Apparently, it was quite harsh.

Beer was used in religious ceremonies and everyone drank it: the pharaoh Tutankhamun enjoyed it, as did his servants, and all adults, and even children consumed.

The ancient Sumerians worshiped beer, sort of. Their god Ninkasi was the goddess of beer and one of the poems about her, written around 1,800 B.C.E., included a recipe for beer. While many poems can be considered intoxicating, that particular one could actually get you drunk!

The Egyptians and Sumerians utilized a method for filtering out sediment: the straw. The straw was not used during the brewing process, but during the drinking process. Straws at the time were made of reeds or gold, depending on the social status of the drinker.

Meanwhile, in China they were developing and brewing their own beer using millet, barley, a grain known as Job’s tears, and tubers. Historians believe that barley was introduced to central China primarily for making beer.

When the Babylonians conquered Sumer, they were quick to embrace the superior beer-making skills of the Sumerians. The Babylonian king, Hammurabi, even categorized beer into 20 different varieties.

As the Greek empire expanded, initially they continued to prefer their wine over beer. Eventually even they included beer in their diet. The Greek writer Sophocles said that the best diet consists of bread, meats, vegetables and BEER.

Middle Ages: Beer Comes To Europe

Beer eventually made its way to Europe and it thrived, mostly due to the abundance of grain. Brewing was primarily done by monks and it stayed in or close to the monastery until the advancement of copper which allowed for larger vessels to brew.

Breweries were built at a larger size and for more consumers. These brewers created malting facilities, mashing vessels, and fermentation areas. Coopers made barrels for storage, and trained staffers worked the brewery.

Monks at the monastery of St. Gallen in Switzerland build the first full-scale brewing operation in Europe in the early 800s. For next few centuries most beer was brewed at monasteries.

In the early 1100s, a big change in beer happened… at a nunnery.

Hildegard von Bingen, who established the Benedictine nunnery of Rupertsberg in what is now Germany, wrote a number of books including Physica Sacra.

In this natural history text she described the hop as a particularly useful plant, one that was excellent for physical health and preserved all sorts of drinks. And this changed beer forever.

Barley and Hops

The mix of barley and hops, as we now know very well, makes for excellent beer.

Beer in the region grew. By the 1300s, Hamburg was the epicenter with nearly 500 breweries. Beer had spread across Europe. Because hops had preservative effects, that meant that beer could keep longer. Now beer could be made in larger quantities and stored.

Some of these early breweries are still in existence today. Nearly 1,000 years ago Benedictine monks created the Royal Bavarian State Brewery, which still operates under the name Weihenstephaner, located outside of Munich. They claim to be the oldest continually working brewery.

In the 1400s hopped beer moved to England. While many resisted this new invention, and the upper class still preferred wine from the Roman and Norman times, by the 1500s hopped beer took over.

At this time all brews were ales. Germans began storing beer in the caves of the Alps, which accidentally cultured bottom-fermenting yeasts instead of top-fermenting. This storage created a different type of beer. And the German word meaning “to store?” “Lager.”

Beer Arrives In The Colonies

Europeans may have brought barley to North America, but beer was already here. For centuries native peoples were drinking their own fermented brew, made up mostly of corn, birch sap, and water.

The colonists in Virginia also made corn ale, starting in 1587. By the early 1600s those same colonists were already hiring more brewers to keep up with demand. Later that century breweries popped up in Manhattan, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania territories.

In 1774 Robert Smith opened a brewery in Pennsylvania. It would remain in operation, under one name or another, for over 200 years, closing in 1986.

The Industrial Revolution: Beer For The Masses

In the 19th Century there were many technological advances in every industry, and brewing was no exception.

The invention of the thermometer in 1760 and Hydrometer in 1770 allowed brewers to increase productivity. And of course, in 1857 Louis Pasteur discovered of yeast’s role in fermentation which allowed brewers to develop various methods to prevent the souring of beer by microorganisms.

At this time the first commercial brewery opened in the United States, in Chicago. William Lill and Company pumped out 600 barrels of ale in its first year of production.

By 1873 there are over 4,00 recognized breweries in just the United States alone. These breweries produced 9 million barrels of beer each year, combined. This represents a 50% production increase in only 6 years.

In 1912 another invention changed beer making forever. The introduction of brown bottles by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company in Milwaukee was quickly accepted worldwide, preventing harmful rays from destroying the quality and stability of beer.

Beer In The Modern Times

Beer production continued to grow and expand until two big events occurred: first, the temperance movement in the United States led to prohibition, banning alcohol entirely in 1919.

Second, the Great Depression which led to economic hardships felt all around the world. Of course, during hard times alcohol consumption remains steady but this was a big blow to smaller distributors.

That one-two punch of prohibition and economic hardship gave rise to breweries which could mass produce cheap beer. These breweries, including Budweiser and Schlitz, continued to expand when the economy recovered and took up much of the market in the middle of the 20th Century.

In 1935 another innovation changed the beer market: cans. Richmond, Virginia’s Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company, in partnership with the American Can Company, delivered 2,000 cans of Krueger’s Finest Beer and Krueger’s Cream Ale. While can technology took decades to perfect (Prohibition slowed that down even more) the response was overwhelmingly positive and fast.

Less than three months after the introduction of cans over 80 percent of distributors were delivering Krueger’s cans. Within two years the big brewers followed suit and over 200 million cans were made and sold. Over a decade later in Germany, kegs were introduced.

The 20th Century saw a dramatic shift in beer consumers. When the century began, most beer drinkers were men, specifically blue-collar workers, college students, and sports fans. By the end of the century beer was enjoyed by a much wider swath of humanity.

The 20th Century also saw an increase in the variety of beers being produced such as I.P.A.s, dry beers and light beers. By the end of the millennium, beer was produced nearly everywhere in the world, and restrictions on home and craft brewing were being lifted, allowing the average person to make beer again, just like it was when beer was invented.

Even Germany, the birthplace of modern beer, was starting to welcome the variety of beer from around the world. In 1993 the government officially relaxed the Reinheitsgebot law, allowing foreign brewers to once again sell their beer in Germany… for the first time since 1516!

History Of Craft Beer Brewing

Technically, much of the beer brewed before the Industrial era was craft brewing, small to mid-sized batches made by individual organizations, not big corporations.

It was a household skill expected of nearly all medieval women. Some women, known as alewives, would set up small alehouses on a part-time income. It was, at the time, one of the very few ways women could earn income on their own, giving them some measure of independence.

When the New World was settled by Dutch and English settlers, they brought European brew making skills with them. They found the climate, water, and soil perfect for making beer. By 1660 there were at least 26 small breweries in the colonies, and most bars served their own house brand.

We will never know for sure the name of the first craft brewer in America, but we are positive that our first president was one.

In a notebook that then general George Washington kept during the French and Indian war in 1757, there is a recipe for “small beer,” a low-alcohol (and low-quality) beer frequently made by soldiers. After the revolution President Washington had a successful brewery on his estate at Mount Vernon.

This wouldn’t be the last time craft beer would be associated with the White House. During the Carter administration his brother brewed Billy Beer and during the Obama Administration the White House chef took honey harvested from the garden set up by Michelle Obama to make White House Honey Ale and Honey Porter.

For a long time, it was illegal to brew at home in the United States. Starting with the passing of prohibition in 1919, federal laws prohibited or restricted homebrewing.

Even after prohibition was repealed, many of these laws stayed in affect from state to state. In 1978 President Carter did away with federal taxation on home brewers. A few months later the American Homebrewers Association was formed, and a few months later Colorado’s established the craft brewery Boulder Beer.

The First Microbrewery Of The Modern Era

In 1976 there was a big development in craft brewing. Jack McAuliffe, a retired U.S. Navy serviceman who toured the world (and drank a lot of beer) decided to establish his own brewery.

He returned home and founded New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California. While it only survived six years, most beer aficionados agree that New Albion was the first microbrewery of the modern era.

Also, the Tied House law was in effect until the late 1970s, which made illegal for breweries to sell their wares on premises. Once that was repealed it made it easier for craft and microbreweries to get their wares to the public. Washington became the first state to legalize brewpubs in 1982.

Montana would be the final state to legalize brewpubs, waiting until 1999.

Laws about home brewing varied from state to state and it wasn’t until 2013 when the last two states to prohibit home brewing, Alabama and Mississippi, finally legalized it.

The Microbrewery Explosion

Following Jack McAuliffe’s creation, the next decade saw the launch of dozens of new microbreweries. In 1984 there were 83 operating microbreweries and brewpubs in the nation.

A decade later there would be that many operating in California alone. By 1994 there were 537 breweries nationwide. By 2016 the number of craft breweries in the United States has exceeded 5,000, and by 2018 that number passed 7,000.

One of the great new trends in craft brewing is looking back and remembering the original craft brewers. In 1996 Tutankhamun Ale was brewed, which was a replica of ancient Egyptian beer. This beer was brewed with emmer wheat, which is an ancient grain.

Final Say

So there you have the history of beer and homebrewing. Over 5,000 years of brewing history comes full circle.

If you are interested in learning more about the homebrewing process and making your own beer, check our our beginners guide to homebrewing and get started brewing your own craft beer.

Happy Brewing!

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