The brewing of beer is an ancient craft, believed by many archeologists to be over 10,000 years old. The first domesticated grains were wheat and barley, with archeological evidence of these crops first being grown in Mesopotamia around 7000 BC. Beer making, as it depends primarily on these grains, surely made its entrance to human history shortly after the domestication of these important food crops. The first beer could have been accidentally produced. Stored grain, becoming wet, could have fermented naturally, producing beer.
Egyptian tomb hieroglyphics contain scenes of beer making from as early as 2400 BC. The Egyptians used barley cakes, made by partly germinating the grain, crushing and mixing it with water and drying it in the sun. The extract from these dried cakes was fermented by natural means in fermenting vessels, producing a type of beer.
Since beer was a popular beverage among our ancestors, techniques improved over time. The basic principles of brewing were developed in the Middle East and gradually spread to Europe. In the first Century BC Roman Pliny reported that the north Europeans - the Saxons, Celts, and Nordic and Germanic tribes drank ale. Indeed, many of the brewing terms used today are of Germanic origin. And the history of beer in Europe was largely written by these hardy folk.
Beer making was kept alive as a craft by monasteries during the Middle Ages. By now techniques had improved further. Nettles were used to flavor the beer, giving it a tart flavor and aroma. The grain was heated over open wood fires. This resulted in the final product having a very dark color, and smoky taste.
Germans started using hops, a relative of the nettle, to flavor beer around 1300. Hops were imported into England, but met with much resistance. Acceptance in England was slow among many, and as late as 1512 a churchman forbade the use of the "wicked pernicious weed, hops" in the brewing of ale.
In England, colleges brewed their own ale. This was continued through the 14th century. After this time the practice gradually went away, by mid 18th century only four remained. Queens College in Oxford brewed continuously for 600 years, until World War II.
The Germans around 1420 developed a bottom fermenting yeast, which produced a beer which would store for longer periods than the previous beers. As beer making was primarily a winter occupation, and the beer was stored using ice procured from lakes, rivers, and ponds during the winter, this was an important development. The German word "lagern", meaning, "to store" caused these beers to be called "lagers". This is the primary type of beer drank in Germany and US today. English ales are still produced using top fermenting yeast.
The 19th century saw a general increase in scientific study and advancement. These new technologies launched the Industrial Revolution, which touched every aspect of life, including beer making. Heated rotating bins were developed to improve drying the malt, producing a lighter, golden beer. Refrigeration enabled the brewing process to be scheduled year round, instead of seasonal production. This also allowed beer to be shipped greater distances. A direct result of this is the existence of the larger brewers today shipping their product all over the world.
Very important was the research of Louis Pasteur in the 1860’s. Previous to Pasteur, it was believed that fermentation was caused by organisms created spontaneously in the fermenting brew. He proved that yeast were the creatures responsible for fermentation, and that they, along with other organisms, were present in the air to which the fermenting brew was exposed. The other organisms sometimes contaminated the fermenting brew, causing it to go bad. With this knowledge, brewers could now isolate the best yeast cultures and have more control over the brewing process.
Brewing has become very big business. During the late 1970’s the large brewers in the US bought out or forced out of business many smaller, regional breweries, resulting in less variety in beer types available. By the 1990’s, in response to consumer demand, smaller microbreweries and brewpubs began operations, producing handcrafted local brews on a smaller scale, mimicking the small alehouses of long ago.
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