A brief history of beer

Beer is a drink that’s popular the world over, but have you ever wondered about the origins of your favourite tipple?  You may be surprised to know that beer has a history that goes back many millennia, and its evolution into the drink that we are familiar with began about 4000 BC.

As soon as man started to cultivate cereal, beer began to be produced. Ancient Sumerian tribes in Mesopotamia seem to be the earliest beer producers on record, about 6000 years ago, based on archaeological evidence and ancient tablets from the time. Nobody really knows how they created the first beer – many historians suggest that it might have been an accidental discovery based on spontaneous natural fermentation of a cereal crop, but however it happenned, we’re forever in their debt! Early beer, however, was very cloudy and full of sediment, and there is evidence of people using reed ‘straws’ to drink it, to avoid the large amounts of sludge. Nice.

The Sumerians even had a goddess of brewing, and the first known beer recipe is from a poem to the goddess Ninkasi. References to beer have been discovered in ancent texts down the ages from that time on, most notably in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is amongst the earliest known recorded works of literature.

It is assumed that beer was simultaneously ‘invented’ in many areas of the world – there is evidence of the existence of a beer-like substance about 6000 years ago in ancient China, and in European Neolithic culture around 3000 B.C., as well as in many other parts of the world. It was a favourite drink of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and following the Egyptians, the Greeks carried on the tradition and beer continued to be an important part of the diet in ancient Greece.

Although the Romans preferred wine to beer, and beer came to be considered a drink for ‘barbarians’ at that time, the brewing tradition survived and the popularity of beer grew enormously during the rise of Christianity, with monks getting in on the act and beginning to brew beer initially for their own use, and later for sale.

Beer production developed significantly over the medieval period.  In fact during the middle ages it was probably drunk by many in preference to the local water, which was often fairly gruesome and contained all sorts of nasties!  It grew into the drink that we know and love with the addition of hops, beginning in the 9th century – prior to that it was flavoured with all sorts of strange herbs and flavourings.  Hops also helped to preserve the beer, paving the way for greater commercialisation.  By the 13th century the production of hopped beer had been perfected in Germany and large scale export was possible.

In the 18th century, the Industrual Revolution and the development of the steam engine, thermometer and hydrometer meant that the brewing process could be made much more efficient and streamlined, and mass production could begin.  The final piece of the puzzle was fitted after Louis Pasteur discovered the fermentation properties of yeast in the mid 19th century.

The modern brewing industry is one dominated by large multinational organisations, but there are also many thousands of independent smaller breweries and microbreweries.  Most breweries now produce many different types of beer, and the popularity of ‘real ale’ is ever-increasing in the UK.  Real ale is a term coined by CAMRA in the 1970s, and describes an unfiltered beer where the yeast is allowed to remain, and so the fermentation process continues until the beer is served.  In addition, real ale must be served without the aid of added carbon dioxide.

Beer has come on a long journey since its origins many thousands of years ago, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to the ancient Sumerians for the varied and much-loved drink we can find all across the globe today.


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