History of Beer

Where did it all start?

Earthenware pots, some dating back as far as 7,000 years ago have been found to contain a liquid based on grain. In Iraq – between Euphrates and Tigris – beer was made by Sumerians (who drank beer through straws) from lightly baked barley bread and drunk at a “house of beer”.

Beer was also used as a medicine – possibly as many as 1 in 7 prescriptions contained “beer”.

It can also been shown that 5,000 years ago the Chinese brewed a beer they called Kui.

Clay tablets, said to be 4,000 years old, have been found which indicate that brewing was a specialist profession – and that master brewers were women, which was true until breweries became commercialised in the 17th centaury. Women brewers in Babylon around 2,500 BC were also Priestesses.

About 2,100 BC, Hammuabi, the 6th King of Babylon, regulated the sale of beer in taverns. These regulations covered items such as short measuring by landlords. The penalties were serious – for short measures the guilty landlords were put to death by drowning.

An Oak coffin used to bury a woman was found dating back to 1500 BC. In the coffin was a birch vessel containing evidence of wheat, honey, berries and a beer spice. This spice was still used long after the introduction of hops.

It is understood that the Egyptians taught the Greeks to brew. The Greeks didn’t take to this new product easerily. This reaction was not unexpected as beer rivalled the large and profitable Greek wine industry. Misinformation was spread in an attempt to discredit this new drink - some Greek physicians saying that beer caused leprosy. However, not all Greeks were like this - Sophocles suggesting a daily diet of bread, meat, green vegetables and beer (zythos).

Inevitably the Greeks taught the Romans who in themselves had a thriving wine industry. The Romans initially used hops as a vegetable, eating the shoots. They took the hop to Britain as a food rather than an ingredient for beer.

As grain cultivation spread from Middle East to Central and then Western Europe – so beer followed.

The other important factor during this period is the spread of Christianity. Monks became the hoteliers provided food, drink and shelter for travellers. Hence the Monks began to develop and brew their own beers in their monasteries.

In Medieval times women took over the duties of brewing from the monks. Women were the cooks of the house and as such extended their role from preparing food to brewing beer. As families started up taverns so “home-brew” was sold to local people. As few people could read or write at this time, a chequered flag was used to indicate that ale and beer could be purchased.

Beer was important dietary component – so short measures and bad beer dealt with very strictly. Beer was also used for trading and tax payments.

The ale in Britain was malt (made from barley or other grain), yeast and water. At the start of 15th centaury beer from Flanders began to find its way to Britain through the armed forces that had been fighting in the Lowlands. This Flanders beer was heavy in hops and by the end of 15th centaury the bitter hopped beer had completely replaced the sweeter ale.

As demand increased during the 17th Centaury brewing became more commercial – moving out of the homes and into central production units giving birth to the brewing companies. The introduction of hops preserved the beers for longer, enabling them to be transported over greater distances.

As for the Americas, it is believed that Christopher Columbus took European beer with him only to find that the native Indians were brewing their own beer out of corn and black birch sap.