If you are a beer lover, you may be surprised to know that our ancestors were probably drinking a rudimentary version of beer thousands of years ago. In fact, the oldest recorded recipe in existence is for….beer! The next time you sit down to enjoy a glass of beer with friends knowing the history of beer will make for a great topic of conversation. Or, will at least be great filler for when someone brings up politics or football.
How Old Is Beer?
According to Patrick McGovern, an archeologist and world-renowned expert on ancient, fermented beverages, (he’s done some really cool beers with the help of Sam C. from Dogfish Head - such as Pangea) the oldest known barley beer dates to 3800 B.C.E. and is from Iran’s Zagros Mountains – although there is evidence that points to the consumption of beer dating back as far as 18,000 years ago! One of the first written recipes for beer was found in a 3800-year-old poem, essentially an ode to brewing that was etched into clay tablets. Found in ancient Sumer (modern day Iraq), the “Hymn to Ninkasi” outlines the steps for brewing beer while celebrating the Sumerian goddess of beer. Ninkasi was described as “the one who waters the malt set on the ground … you are the one who bakes the bappir-malt in the great oven…. You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar … the waves rise, the waves fall.” The poem goes on the say that Ninkasi is the one who “pours the fragrant beer in the lahtan-vessel, which is like the Tigris and Euphrates joined.”
That’s right, the ancients were drinking beer over 5,000 years ago. The Babylonians had at least 20 different recipes for beer which were immortalized in Hammurabi’s infamous laws. Not surprisingly, those recipes included some pretty questionable ingredients, including things like olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadowsweet, mugwort, and carrots along with the occasional hallucinogen like hemp and poppy. The ancient Egyptians liked their beer as well. In fact, Egyptian Pharaohs were buried with vats of brew and the workers who built the pyramids were essentially paid in beer. Ironically, given our cultural views on alcohol today, one of the reasons beer was such a popular drink was that it was safer to drink than water.
Although the Greeks and Romans preferred wine, as they ventured out into modern day Europe, they found peoples drinking beer once again. The Celts and Germans were extremely adept at brewing beer – and exceptionally good at enjoying the fruits of their labors. By the 5th century C.E., even the Catholic monasteries in western Europe had working breweries.
Beer Brewing Booms
During the Dark Ages (about 500-1000 C.E.) there were few changes to the art of brewing beer, except for within the monasteries. By around 800 C.E. monks were operating breweries that resembled a modern-day operation, complete with malting facilities, mashing vessels, fermentation areas, and trained workers. Several centuries later, the use of hops transferred the art of beer making in Europe. Using hops to make beer meant that beer could be kept longer. That, in turn, meant breweries could make more beer and store the surplus instead of having to drink what was brewed immediately. Shortly thereafter, laws were promulgated to ensure the “purity” of the beer produced, culminating in the famous Reinheitsgebot of 1516, Germany’s much vaunted “Beer Purity Law.”
When the colonists landed in America, they set up breweries right away. In the words of the English Quaker John Fenwick who was one of the first arrivals to the New World, his fellow settlers “straightaway busied themselves in erecting breweries for manufacturing beer for common drink.” Americans myself included, have had a fascination for beer brewing and an insatiable appetite for beer drinking ever since.