Beer – it's over 10,000 years old, deities have been worshipped in its name, it sustained generations when water was too riddled with bacteria to drink, and to this day it remains a global success. Throughout the centuries, humanity has followed one common thread – its love of beer!
Why Beer Matters
Beer is the fermented, alcoholic, wonderful product that we get after the combination of water, malt, hops and yeast.
Recipes will vary. Some will be hop-heavy, some will include fruits or spices – and some ancient beers didn’t even include hops! But nowadays, no matter the final product, the key ingredients for beer remain the same: water, malt, hops and yeast.
With a history that dates back further than most archaeological finds, it’s no wonder that beer is a crowd favorite wherever you go. It is produced all across the world, its varieties and possibilities seem endless, and it is currently undergoing a bit of a revolution as the craft beer trend sweeps the globe, offering new and exciting brews and stirring up the industry.
Love of beer has gone hand in hand with human existence for millennia, but our relationship to the beverage has shifted and changed. Today we don’t rely on beer as our source of hydration as we once did when our water sources weren’t reliable. And it’s hard to imagine receiving your hard-earned wages in the form of beer today.
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It’s also unlikely any more poems will be written detailing the recipe – although in our modern world, the brilliance of beer ads may be our version of an ode such as Hymn to Ninkasi once was. This 3800-year-old poem from ancient Sumer explains the process of brewing and celebrates the goddess of beer!
Today we have microbreweries experimenting with wild fermentation from yeast in the air, we have cicerones who like sommeliers receive certification after undergoing rigorous training and testing, and we have a powerhouse of a global industry producing the brews we so love to knock back.
So here’s everything you need to know about how the same grains that give us bread and whiskey are turned into beer!
A Little Bit of Beer History
How beer came to be is one of the big questions that historians and archaeologists have been working to answer. We will probably never know exactly how our ancestors created beer.
It is thought to have been invented in the time of the very early agrarian societies – of which we don’t have much evidence.
The most concrete evidence so far points to the invention of beer in ancient China and Mesopotamia, roughly about 10,000 to 7,000 years ago. These were thought to be some of the first hunter-gatherers to start settling down and planting crops of grains – the very early agrarian societies.
The invention of beer was most likely impossible before as a good and reliable supply of grain is needed to make beer – and this could only have happened alongside at least some agriculture.
The most likely scenario is that some bread or grain got wet and underwent fermentation due to yeast in the air – a process that craft breweries are trying to emulate today through wild fermentation!
By the time of the Babylonians, evidence shows different varieties of beer were already in existence and the beverage had become woven into the fabric of society – archaeological finds tell us that the Babylonian beer was so thick with grain that it was drunk through a straw!
The ancient Egyptians valued beer just as much and drank it for nutrition as well as for intoxication, and had medical uses for it! They also had deities associated with beer. Around the world, different cultures developed beer independently using the various grains available to them.
Women played a massive part in the production of beer as it was thought to be more of a food than a beverage, and female brewers were often also priestesses to the beer deities. Monasteries and convents were heavily involved in brewing for finances and for use in religious ceremonies.
Over time the production of beer was able to drastically improve and become much more thorough, detail-oriented and simply better tasting thanks to improvements in technology and refinement of the brewing process.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century gave us the tools to brew much more efficiently, giving rise to the mainstream beer industry that reaches across the world today with mass production and exportation.
In much more recent history (about the last 30 years) the craft beer trend has seen a new generation of brewers experimenting with flavors and brewing methods, resurrecting long lost recipes of the ancient world, and providing interesting and exciting alternatives to the traditional European-style lagers that have dominated the market since beer went globally mainstream!
How Beer is Made
To make beer, the following ingredients are needed: water, malt, hops and yeast. These ingredients undergo a series of processes before they can become what we know as beer – these processes are called brewing.
Brewing requires doing as much as possible to regulate how all the ingredients interact. The brewer can control certain parts of the process, such as selecting the very best ingredients for the beer they’re looking to produce and maintaining the correct temperatures.
But there are elements beyond the brewer’s control that are likely to impact the final product. The environment plays a big role, including the environment where the ingredients were found, and the environment where the brewery is located.
The Brewing Process
The first step of the process involves gathering a source of starch (more often than not, a grain – although other ingredients like buckwheat can be used!) that is allowed to partially germinate (i.e., it is malted) and then dried.
The higher the starch content of a grain, the more sugar there is for the yeast to eat later in the process – which essentially means that more beer can be created!
Grains can be mixed, with the base malt responsible for providing the fermentable sugars and a smaller portion of the total grain consisting of some other grain that can help build the flavor profile a brewer is trying to achieve.
The malted grains are added to water alongside heat, to help the grain to convert its starch into fermentable sugars. The resulting liquid is called mash.
The mash is then filtered to remove any solids.
After the mash is filtered (a process called lautering), the remaining liquid is boiled and what the brewer is left with is called wort.
Hops can be introduced at different times in the boiling process depending on the flavor profile the brewer is after.
Hops add bitterness, flavors and stability so they play a big role in the final product, with flavors ranging from bitter to floral.
Ancient beers did not include hops so the flavor wasn’t always the most palatable!
Once the wort is good to go it is cooled then yeast is added to allow for fermentation to occur, turning those fermentable sugars into alcohol!
Usually after about four to eight weeks of conditioning (a period of maturation), the beer is good to go! It finds its way into our hands in glass bottles, cans or kegs!
The Different Types of Beer
While you’ve undoubtedly come across a myriad of different beers in your life, the easiest way to categorize beer is into two main types: ales and lagers (then there are the many styles this encompasses, such as amber ale, IPA, pilsner…), although you can find hybrids as well.
The beer industry is constantly expanding, innovating and changing, with new brewers challenging the traditional guidelines!
The main difference between ales and lagers is a result of the introduction of yeast – how the beer was fermented will decide which type it is.
Ales are top fermented, meaning the yeast is applied to the top of the wort, at a higher temperature, for a shorter amount of time than lagers.
This generally creates a stronger flavored beer. Ales are our ancient beers, with the invention of lagers happening much later.
Lagers are bottom fermented, meaning the yeast is applied to the bottom of the wort, at a much lower temperature than ales, and for a longer amount of time as the reaction takes a bit longer to occur.
The resulting beer is crisper and less pronounced in flavor than ales.
Now that you know how your beer came to life, the most important thing to do is go out and drink one – in fact, drink many!
The proponents of the craft beer industry have been experimenting with new and ancient styles, translating their passion into sophisticated, exciting, and even challenging brews that are unique and premium in quality.
The culture of beer drinking is shifting towards a focus on drinking beer for the flavor and the craftsmanship of the beverage, so get out there and celebrate the continued evolution of this ancient drop!
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|Ivana Rnjak is a Production Researcher and Content Writer at Typsy. A waitress and bartender in a previous life, Ivana is an aspiring academic with an unwavering love of brunch – no matter what Anthony Bourdain says!|