"The Holy Libation of Sincerity":
The History of Beer
EMG Beer Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, explores the glorious history of, arguably, the world’s oldest beverage apart from water: beer. The journey starts 18,000 years ago and continues through Ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, the American revolution, and points in between.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
"The Holy Libation of Sincerity": The History of Beer
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper but the peck of pepper Peter Piper picked was not pickled pepper. It was crappy pepper.
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi Everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to “EAT MY GLOBE: A Podcast About Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.”
And, in today’s episode, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite beverages. A beverage that author, Milan Kundera, calls the holy libation of sincerity. A beverage that is an immediate requirement on any return to my home land of Great Britain. A beverage that is my go-to drink to slake my thirst on my travels around the globe, and a beverage that is my favorite tipple when I am spending an afternoon in the kitchen, recipe testing or preparing meals for my lovely wife.
So, on today’s episode of Eat My Globe, we’re going to talk about the history of that most glorious of drinks, beer.
[Beer opening and pouring sound]
In 2013, as I traveled around the United States researching my recent book FED, WHITE & BLUE, I received an invitation to head to the town of Edmonds in Washington state, to create a beer with a small craft brewing operation called, “The American Brewing Co.” Along with their head brewer, who bore the most wonderfully brewer like of names, Skip Marsden, we came up with an ESB or Extra Strong Bitter, which we named “Fed, White & Brew” in honor of my impending book. I was rather proud of that beer, and even more so when, later that year, we were awarded a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival. No small feat as the event featured thousands of different brews – 4,809 in 2013 – and only awarded 252 medals over 84 categories.
This small achievement only served to confirm my undying love for what that profound street philosopher Homer Simpson once called “good ol’ trustworthy beer.” And, I am not alone. According to the data site Statista, on last count, the world consumed nearly 400 billion liters of beer every year, which towers over other alcoholic beverages such as wine and spirits, which offer up a relatively tiny 25 billion liters and 23 billion liters respectively.
So, when it comes to the volume consumed of alcoholic beverages, beer is very obviously in a league of its own. However, there is more to beer than just the amount of it we consume, as I hope this slightly longer episode of Eat My Globe will prove.
Apart from water, and perhaps milk, of course, beer is the oldest beverage consumed by humans. Indeed, there are some experts who would go so far as to say that the desire to brew was one of the major contributing factors in the formations of the first communities. And, we shall see, beer is a beverage that is consumed with enthusiasm in every corner of the globe, apart from those, of course, where it might be precluded for religious reasons.
Before we head back in time to discover the origins of beer, and to see just how it became so popular, why don’t we do what I always like to do at the beginning of each episode of Eat My Globe. Let’s define just exactly what it is we are talking about.
The Oxford Dictionaries define beer as,
“An alcoholic drink made from yeast-fermented malt flavoured with hops.”
And, Merriam-Webster calls it,
“An alcoholic beverage usually made from malted cereal grain (such as barley), flavored with hops, and brewed by slow fermentation.”
In effect, what these definitions show is that despite all the different styles of beer we might be familiar with today – the Great American Beer Festival lists 102 styles excluding subcategories in some cases, and a glimpse at www.craftbeer.com lists eighty – all beer is pretty much made by the same process, with only changes to, and treatment of, ingredients helping to create the wide varieties that might be available at your local craft beer bar.
We don’t really have the time in this episode to go into the depth of the whole process of beer making. However, I do think it’s worthwhile giving a brief overview, as that process may have become more scientific over the centuries but has otherwise remained unchanged and can therefore offer up evidence of how beer making originated.
Apart from when flavors are added during the process, beer is made from just four ingredients. A cereal – most often barley – water, yeast and hops. After harvest, the grains are allowed to “malt.” This malting process – traditionally on a malting floor in a brewery, but now more often in a malting machine – is designed to allow the grains to sprout and to isolate the starch enzymes. The grains then go through a process known as “mashing,” where they’re soaked in hot water to break down the grains so that those starch enzymes begin to release their sugars which can be turned into alcohol. The water, now known as “wort,” is then drained off and is boiled with hops – first used as a natural preservative but which also adds flavor and body to the drink. It is then allowed to cool and then fermented with the addition of yeast or being left open to the natural yeast in the environment. It can be stored until ready for storage in bottles, barrels or cans, where it will become carbonated by the pressure from Carbon Dioxide produced by the yeast. And that’s about it. A relatively straightforward process but one that can be nuanced in infinite number of ways by the attentions of a master brewer.
The fact that the process of making beer has remained more or less unchanged, does provide us with opportunities to make an educated guess when brewing first began to take place, even if as I say so often on Eat My Globe, it may be impossible to find one “big bang” moment.
It is believed that the origins of brewing coincide with the period when communities were formed for the purposes of cereal agriculture of grains, such as barley, wheat, rice and maize. The probability is, like so many of the great moments in food history, the first brewing was accidental and a result of grains being malted to make them become more palatable, which had a side result of producing a liquid which soon began to develop a popularity in its own right, and an industry to support its production rather than just to be a happy accident of bread making.
There are inevitably disagreements as to exactly what point in human development beer began making in earnest. Dr. Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, offers up evidence from Wadi Kubbaniya – a site in Upper Egypt – that shows the grinding of grains some 18,000 years ago, and that he says possibly indicates a brewing process. While more recently, researchers from Stanford University found evidence at Raqefet Cave, near the modern city of Haifa, Israel, that suggests that brewing was taking place nearly 13,000 years ago, a date which they argue puts brewing beer ahead of bread making in the food history timeline.
The argument which came first – bread or beer – may prove impossible to reach a firm conclusion about. But, what is certain is that by around 4000 B.C.E., brewing had become established in a number of different civilizations around the globe, including the Chinese, Jewish, and Babylonian cultures.
Brewing was also immensely important in Sumerian cultures located in Greater Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. In the early 1990s, archaeologists discovered chemical traces of beer in the fragments of a jar dating back as far as 3500 B.C.E. in the town of Godin Tepe.
A recipe from 1800 B.C.E. and featured in The Hymn to Ninkasi, a poem of praise to the protector goddess of beer and all alcohol, offers up the process by which beer was being made. It’s quite a long poem, but a very beautiful one, so I hope you don’t mind if I share it and quote some of it with you here.
Here it goes. *ahem*
“You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing with honey wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (...)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of] a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of] a large collector vat.
When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.”
Apart from being a rather lovely poem, what The Hymn of Ninkansi shows is just how important beer was in Sumerian culture. We know that by the time this poem was written down, the Sumerians were producing many different styles of beer, which were nearly always brewed by women.
And, for those of you who like those little facts that we like to share on Eat My Globe that you can use to bore people with at dinner parties, the Sumerians were also responsible for the development of the drinking straw, which they created to aid the drinking of unfiltered beer, which was more similar to a liquid gruel than the beer we know today.
Beer was also immensely important in Ancient Egyptian culture, where it is believed to have arrived through the process of trade with the Sumerians. So rooted in the Egyptian culture did beer become, that they were regarded by others as the masters of brewing, often ahead of its originators in Mesopotamia. And, they are credited with creating a lighter brew than those produced by the Sumerians, a drink that is probably closer to the sort of beer that we are familiar with today.
And, as with the Sumerians, beer was considered to be a gift of the gods in Ancient Egypt and plays a part in many of their religious myths and stories, most famously one known as the Destruction of Mankind. In this myth, Ra – the god of the sun and creator god – sends Sekhmet – goddess of war and who destroys the enemies of Ra – to earth to destroy mankind for its sin but when he changes his mind, he is unable to recall Sekhmet because of her bloodlust. Ra orders a large quantity of beer to be dyed red, and Sekhmet, believing it to be blood, downs it all and falls asleep, only to waken as Hathor, a more gentle god. This story was celebrated every year in the Tekh Festival, or Festival of Drunkenness where beer – known as Zythos – or its consumption were meant to lower inhibitions and bring people closer to the gods.
In more everyday life too, beer was of great importance to the Ancient Egyptians, and was drunk by men, women and children. It also became a form of payment. Records of payment to workers in places such as Giza – where they were given three rations of beer a day – are often now cited as proof that the great buildings of Egypt were built by paid workers rather than slaves. Beer was also considered to be of medical benefit. The boiling of the water to create the wort made it safer than many other water sources that were often subjected to animal waste, and many medications included beer in their recipes or were prescribed to be taken with beer.
If the brewing of beer was so important to the Ancient Egyptians, there are those who argue it was significantly less so to the Ancient Greeks. The argument being that citizens believed wine was a more suitable drink and that beer was for “barbarians.” For example, in his work, Anabasis, historian Xenophon refers to a drink he encountered when billeting with a community in what is now Armenia after a long march.
“There were stores within of wheat and barley and vegetables, and wine made from barley in great big bowls; the grains of barley malt lay floating in the beverage up to the lip of the vessel, and reeds lay in them, some longer, some shorter, without joints; when you were thirsty you must take one of these into your mouth, and suck. The beverage without admixture of water was very strong, and of a delicious flavour to certain palates, but the taste must be acquired.”
It is unlikely, in my opinion, that the Ancient Greeks did not make or drink beer at all. Indeed, researchers have recently found two potential Bronze Age breweries in Greece when these preserved sites revealed sprouted cereal grains, which strongly suggests beer making. However, there is no doubt that when it came to a drink of choice, beer would pale into significance when compared to wine.
The same would be true of our friends in Ancient Rome, who also preferred wine to beer, again believing the latter to be an unworthy drink fit only for barbarians. In fact, in around 300 C.E., Emperor Julian – often known as Julian the Apostate – wrote a poem about wine, in which he could not avoid adding a disparaging dig at beer.
“On wine made from barley
WHO art thou and whence, O Dionysus? By the true Bacchus I recognize thee not; I know only the son of Zeus. He smells of nectar, but you smell of goat. Truly it was in their lack of grapes that the Celts brewed thee from corn-ears. So we should call thee Demetrius, not Dionysus, wheat-born not fire-born, barley god not boisterous god.”
And Roman historian Tacitus refers to beer as,
“To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine.”
That’s not to say again that the Ancient Romans did not brew beer. They did. In his book The Barbarian’s Revenge: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe, Max Nelson gives a really terrific discussion not only of the impact on wine consumption with the expansion of the Roman empire, but also the increased familiarity Romans had with beer as they expanded into territories where beer drinking was already well established and where colder climates made grape cultivation more challenging. These included civilizations such as the Egyptians, who we’ve already discussed, and also those in the Iberian Peninsular – modern day Spain and Portugal. Most importantly for our beer related discussions, it also included the Germans.
The Germans – a term coined by Julius Caesar for tribes in Northern Europe – were, as we saw in the quote from Tacitus, already a community that enjoyed beer and resisted the Roman influence – including wine drinking – in their struggles with the Roman Empire.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, the pressures to follow Roman ways began to fall by the wayside, and despite a love of wine having developed in places such as Gaul – a region that includes modern day France and parts of modern day Belgium, Italy and Germany – beer drinking began to re-emerge. As the German tribes began to migrate across Europe, they took with them their love for beer and their increasingly sophisticated brewing techniques. And, it is from the Germans that many believe the name of beer actually originates, Bier, being an extension of the Latin word biber, which means “to drink.”
There is evidence of beer being brewed in the territory of the Germans from as early as 800 B.C.E., and, like their predecessors in Mesopotamia and Egypt, this was usually under the supervision of women. Originally, brewing tended to be a home-based affair, where beer was produced to supplement the needs of the family.
However, the spread of Christianity brought with it an increasing number of religious institutions such as abbeys and monasteries. These monasteries soon began to also become centers for brewing. In part, this was because one of the key requirements of a monastic order was to be self-sufficient and the sale of such items as cheese, honey and beer were an important source of revenue. And, in part, this is because one of the other remits of the monastic life was to offer hospitality to travelers in a clean and safe environment. Beer, as we have seen previously, provided a safer source of hydration than potentially contaminated water.
The earliest plans we have of such breweries come from 820 C.E. and are in the Monastery of St. Gall in what is now Switzerland. The plans show that it had three breweries within its walls producing three beers. One for guests of the monastery, one for beer to be distributed to pilgrims and the poor, and one producing beer for consumption by the monks themselves. It might surprise some that the monks would consume alcohol. However, like everybody else, they had a need for safe hydration.
Because of their religious beliefs that their work was to the honor of God, brewing beer – which entailed manual labor performed quietly and contemplatively, as well as producing a product that could financially sustain a monastery – was perfectly suitable for monastic life. Monastic orders began to create ways of producing beer of a consistently high quality. This included introducing regulations and sanitary practices in making beer. It is at this point that we also begin to see the addition of hops to the brewing process.
Previously to this, beers were flavored and made more bitter by the use of a collection of herbs known as a “gruit,” which traditionally had to contain three ingredients: Bog myrtle, Yarrow and Wild Rosemary, as well as other flavorings.
Hops had been viewed by the Romans as a food similar to asparagus – but more of a delicacy than something that was regularly eaten.
Pliny the Elder noted that hops could be found and grown in Upper Germany, in what became Germany, Alsace, Switzerland and Austria.
We believed that the first uses of hops in the brewing process began as a way to preserve beer so that it could be stored for longer. We now know that hops have a strong anti-bacterial property. And the first written records we have of hops being used in brewing comes from the writings of one Abbot Adalhard, from a monastery in Corbie in France.
In 822, the Abbot set down a series of statutes about how his religious institution should be run. Among these were the collecting of firewood and hops, which he specifically mentions is for the use in beer.
We do not know from these particular writings how the hops were to be used in the brewing process – as a preservative or simply as a flavoring agent – but most people at the time wrote about their dislike for bitterness, which taste was particularly true of hops, so it is likely at this time they were using hops as a preservative. However, by the middle of the 12th Century, we know that this was certainly one of their main uses.
In around 1147, German Christian mystic, philosopher and healer, Hildegard Von Bingen, had established her own religious institution in Rupertsberg. During her life, she wrote a number of important works, including 77 poems set to music she composed and two books on medicine and natural history. In her book, Physica, Chapter 61 is entitled, “De Hoppho” or “hops,” and she writes,
“Hops (hoppho) is a hot and dry herb, with a bit of moisture. It is not much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy. Nevertheless, its bitterness inhibits spoilage in beverages to which it is added, making them last longer.”
And so important did the use of hops become to the brewing process in certain areas that very soon strict regulations were put into place to stipulate what ingredients could be used to make beer. In part, these were to protect the public from shifting price rises, as beer was such an important part of the diet, and in part this was to safeguard them from adulteration of the ingredients at a time when substances such as soot or deadly nightshade were often added. There were early versions of such laws in places such as Augsburg in 1156, in Nuremberg in 1293, and in Munich in 1363. However, the most famous of these was issued on April 23rd 1516 by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria and his brother Duke Ludwig X.
These laws, which stipulated the price and ingredients of beer in Bavaria were known as the Reinheitsgebot – which literally means Purity requirement. The primary concern of this series of laws was one of health and safety, and included a price protection, the precluding of use of wheat in beer – as wheat was essential for making other nutritional staples, bread – and the banning of ingredients which included those used in gruit, which were considered poor quality and potentially harmful.
The Reinheitsgebot stated that beer should only be made of three ingredients: Water, Hops and Malt – also known as barley. There was no mention of yeast as an ingredient at this stage, which some argue is because there was little understanding at the time of the purpose of yeast. However, this seems to be a misunderstanding. In Bavaria at the time, there was a role in brewing known as the hefener whose particular role was to collect the residue yeast at the end of each fermentation. So the probable reason that yeast was originally included in the Reinheitsgebot is that fermentation came from a wild ingredient in the air, rather than an added ingredient. Yeast was added to the list of ingredients at a later date.
As Bavarian influence began to spread, so did the influence of these laws. An influence that continues to the present day when the Reinheitsgebot has protection by the European Union as a PGI or “Protected Geographical Indication.” It is a law that many Germans feel is something of a double-edged sword, as while it protects the purity and reputation of German beers, it can also be seen as a restraint on those who want to be more experimental with their beers.
If in Germany hops were soon a regulated part of the recipe of beer, in other parts of Europe, that was definitely not the case.
My own homeland of Great Britain is known for its love of beer. It’s a tradition that likely dates back to the time before the Roman invasion. There is archeological evidence of Roman soldiers availing themselves of local brews. The beers found in Britain were flavored with the “gruit” we discussed earlier and known as Ales. We may now think of Ales being a catch all for all non-lager style beers. However, in Britain, the term originally referred to a beer made without hops. They were described as both sweet, when made with honey, and bitter, when made with spices.
It is believed that hops first arrived in Britain in 870 C.E. where hops were found as cargo on a wooden boat that crossed the English channel. But they only began to be cultivated on a larger scale in Britain after they were introduced to the country by Flemish settlers around 1336 to 1453 during the French-English Hundred Years War. There was a certain ambivalence towards hops and beer made with hops in Britain, and there have even been those who claim that hops were actually banned during the time of Henry VIII. Whether or not Henry VIII really banned hops in brewing, there most definitely was an attempt to maintain a distinction between brewers of ales – using gruit – and brewers of beer – using hops, which had been introduced to the country by immigrants from the Low countries, now modern day Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. The two types of brewer were treated as very distinct categories and Henry VIII himself employed both an ale brewer and a hop brewer.
By the 1700s, however, tastes had changed, and the English had developed a preference for hopped beers, which began to lead to a process of development of new styles of beer.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, there are dozens of styles of beer, far too many to discuss in detail. But, I do think that it would be worth taking a moment to look at a couple of beers that still remain popular today to see how they had their start.
The first is my own particular favorite style of beer: the Porter.
While to this point, beer making had been very regional , the development of “Porter” beer was the first to develop a nationwide popularity. The most common story of its origins is that it was first produced by a brewer named Ralph Harwood of the Bell Brewery in Shoreditch, London in 1722. He was trying to replicate the beer that was made by publicans, who combined two or three different beers to create a drink made of ale, beer and “twopenny,” the latter being called two penny because the beer was brewed from the remnants of a stronger beer and that secondary brew cost two pence.
This combined concoction came to be known as the “entire butt.” It was very popular with the working classes, primarily porters, who loaded and unloaded cargo from ships. The street market workers, so colloquially began to carry the name “porter.” There is no real evidence to support this often told story, but what we do know is that by 1726, the beer was popular enough that it was commented on by a visitor to London, a Swiss traveler named Cesar de Sassure.
He wrote a number of letters back to his family about many aspects of his stay in London and, in one, he mentions,
“Another kind of beer is called porter, meaning carrier, because the greater quantity of this beer is consumed by the working classes. It is a thick and strong beverage, and the effect it produces, if drunk in excess, is the same as that of wine; this porter costs threepence a pot.”
Porters soon became a hugely successful choice of beer and were sold in varying levels of alcoholic volume, that ranged from “mild” beers to those which bore names such as “double porters” and “extra stout porters,” where “stout” referred to the strongest beer.
Now that last category will be of particular interest to those of you who are fond of a pint of Guinness – and, let’s be honest, who isn’t?
In 1759, Arthur Guinness opened his famous brewery at St. James Gate in Dublin. Initially, he only brewed ales and exported them to England starting in 1769. He started brewing porters in the 1770s. However, the porters soon became so successful that, in 1799, he gave up making ales altogether in favor of just making porters. Guinness made a range of porters including a “West India Porter,” that eventually became known as the Guinness “Foreign Extra Stout.” This gave birth to one of the most successful beers in history.
Another famous type of beer which became popular across the world and features very heavily on lists of favorite brews in the United States is the IPA. IPA stands for Indian Pale Ale, and there is often said to have originated from shipments of Pale Ales -- beers made predominantly with pale malt -- to British colonies in India that were beefed up with the addition of extra hops that not only stopped them spoiling on the long journey, but also produced a beer of greater depth. This is however something of a myth.
The reality is that all beers being sent to the territories overseen by the British East India Company were already being fortified with hops. The majority of these beers came from the small Bow Brewery, owned by George Hodgson, whose prices and credit terms made them particularly favorable to the Indian market. Primary among these was his “October” beer, which was a strong hoppy bitter that was brewed with pale malt and then aged for at least one year. So, the IPA was not really “invented” but became more of a style of “Pale Ales prepared for the India Market” that developed over the years.
Hodgson was also known for his inequitable business practices, which included flooding the market with cheaper alcohol to prevent competition, tightening credit terms and even sending beer in his own ships to cut out the middle man. The East India Company began to look for other sources of supply. They met with Samuel Allsop, a prominent brewer and beer exporter from the Midlands town of Burton.
And it’s worth stopping for a moment to have a brief discussion about Burton or Burton Upon Trent to give it its full proper name. As this small town in the East Staffordshire region of England is one that has a long and illustrious place in the history of brewing. Brewing in Burton can be dated back to the 11th century at Burton Abbey. By 1780, the town of 25,000 inhabitants boasted thirteen common brewers and produced almost 10,000 barrels out of the 20,000 barrels exported from the port of Hull.
The primary reason Burton became so renowned in brewing was because of the quality of its water, which was very high in calcium and magnesium salts. This made it very suitable for brewing. So suitable that other brewing areas actually tried – and some still do – to recreate the water from the area by adding gypsum to their own supply in a process that has become known as “Burtonization.”
The building of the Trent and Mersey Canalgave the brewers of Burton access to the sea via the bustling port of Hull. Through this, they developed a significant trade in beer with the Baltic States and with Russia. In fact, Catherine the Great was said to have been fond of a Burton Ale or three.
However, when the Russians began to impose heavy taxation on imported beers during the Napoleonic wars, it forced the Burton breweries to look back to the home market and other export markets to fill up the coffers, and this proved the perfect time for them to collaborate with the East India Company on a beer to compete with Hodgson’s.
The beer Burton brewers made for the East India Company was a success and it was not long before a number of other companies began to make “Ales for the Indian Market.” By 1835, the term Indian Pale Ale had become a recognized category.
IPAs help lead us on to the next part of our story: how beer moved from being primarily a European tipple to one that is now popular around the world. Of course, initially this global popularity would have involved, as it did in India, sales of beers for the ex-pat market, but would later see the development of imported and locally produced beers that would be more suited to the climates in which they were consumed. This was also helped by the development in refrigeration techniques that meant that beer could be produced throughout the year, not just in cooler months, and anywhere in the world. And, perhaps, the place where we can see this most of all, is of course, the United States of America.
It would be a mistake to believe that the native people of North America had no exposure to beer or alcohol until the arrival of European settlers. Indeed, recent archeological evidence shows that Pueblo natives in New Mexico were producing a week style of beer called, “Tiswin,” that was made from corn.
However, it would be fair to argue that it was certainly with the first settlers that beer began to be produced on a larger scale. In fact, while the first colonists in Virginia brought with them supplies of beer which arrived in 1607, by 1609, they were already posting “help wanted” ads in the homeland looking for “skilled brewers.” This reflects the importance of beer in the daily nutrition of the colonists. As we have seen before in Europe, water was considered unsafe to drink and beer – particularly a weak beer – was a safer option because of the boiling of the water and provided a perfect way to hydrate and take on the nutritional benefit of grains. Famously, in 1620, Christopher Jones, the Ship Master of the Mayflower, decided to set his passengers ashore at Cape Cod – they had originally been heading to Virginia, but had gone someway adrift – because the rations on the ship, particularly the supplies of beer, were running low.
When the colonists did not have the ingredients to make into beer, they became adept at using whatever they could find to make their daily ale. As an amateur poet from Massachusetts wrote to a friend in England,
“If barley be wanting to make into malt
We must be contented and think it no fault;
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins, and parsnips and walnut-tree chips…..”
In 1612, two colonists, Adrian Block and Hans Christiansen, opened the first commercial brewery in the New World, which was located at what is now lower Manhattan.
The founding fathers of the United States were famously fond of their brewed beverages. The first president of the United States, George Washington was particularly fond of Porter and even added a recipe for “small beer” to an entry in his notebook.
“Take a large Siffer [Sifter] full of Bran Hops to your Taste. Boil these 3 hours then strain out 30 Gall[ons] into a cooler, put in 3 Gall[ons] Molasses while the Beer is Scalding hot, or rather draw the Melasses into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. Let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t if the Weather is very Cold cover it with a Blank[et] & let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask–leave the bung open till it is almost don[e] Working–Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.”
During the conflict with Britain, the passion of the founding fathers for the dark beer of England might have been compromising. So, one enterprising gentleman known as Robert Hare – whose father had been an English brewer – decided to manufacture his own version of porter in Philadelphia. It immediately became a huge hit and John Adams even mentions it in a letter to his wife, Abigail. On September the 29th 1774,
“I drink no Cyder, but feast upon Phyladelphia Beer, and Porter. A Gentleman, one Mr. Hare, has lately set up in this City a Manufactory of Porter, as good as any that comes from London. I pray We may introduce it into the Massachusetts. It agrees with me, infinitely better than Punch, Wine, or Cyder, or any other Spirituous Liquor.”
By 1810, by which time the population of the Unites States had risen to just over 7 million people, there were 132 breweries operating and producing 5,754,000 gallons of beer. By 1850, when the population had topped 23 million, there were 431 breweries producing around 23,267,730 gallons of beer.
Between 1830 and 1850, the majority of new arrivals to the US consisted of Irish and German immigrants. German immigration to the US increased during the 1848 revolutions in Europe. The displaced Germans fled to America and many brought with them their brewing skills and different styles of lager to the British beers that had been so popular to that date.
In 1840, John Wagner introduced the first lager style beer from his brewery in Philadelphia, and later, lager breweries had opened up in cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee – including still well-known names Schlitz and Pabst – and also in Cincinnati, where I recently toured the ruins of the old underground caves where German immigrants brewed beer in the Over The Rhine neighborhood.
By the turn of the 20th Century, there were nearly 1300 breweries in the United States, producing nearly 2 billion gallons of beer a year. And then, in 1920, came Prohibition.
I have talked about Prohibition or the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in a previous episode – one that deals with the history of gin. But, it is worth noting again the impact these series of laws had on what was a thriving industry. Many breweries simply disappeared, while others – some of which are still with us today – employed a number of strategies to survive.
Brewers such as Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling used their storage facilities and refrigerated trucks to become purveyors of ice cream, which Yuengling kept going until 1985. Meanwhile, Pabst began to make and sell cheese. Others, such as, Schell’s Brewing Company, Saranac Brewery and the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, survived by making soft drinks and low alcoholic “near beers.” Schlitz, Miller and Pabst started making malt extract to attract bakers and cooks.
Ten years into the Prohibition era, 85 percent of American breweries failed to survive. One year after Prohibition’s repeal, only 714 breweries reopened. Of those that did reopen, many found the change in the market too hard to navigate. Amongst the biggest changes was the introduction of canned beer in 1935 by the Kreuger Brewing Company of Newark, NJ. Canned beer was an immediate success and began to have an impact not just on how beer was drunk, but also on where. Whereas previously beer had been primarily served in draft form in a glass, or in bottles, the can offered a new level of convenience that soon became popular.
After World War II, breweries that could not afford the cost of installing canning plants soon fell by the wayside leaving behind some of the once powerful local breweries. By 1979, only 44 breweries remained, whose often bland and homogenous offerings defined American brewing in the post-World War II years.
In 1976, however, that all began to change. Jack McAulliffe returned from a tour of duty with the navy in Europe, during which he had discovered a passion for full bodied ales. He could not find anything similar on his return home, so he decided to make them himself. The result was the opening of The New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California, which is generally considered to be the first microbrewery to open in the United States, and for many, the starting point of the current craft beer boom. That brewery was short lived – although it has since been resurrected – but Jack and his brewery’s influence was enormous and from the roots of a strong homebrewing tradition, the beginning of the craft industry began to emerge.
And emerge it has. In 1980, there were only 8 microbreweries in the United States. In 2018, there are about 6,000 and the number is rising every day. We are now seeing the emergence of new roles in the hospitality industry, such as the Cicerone program, the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier.
Which seems like the perfect point for me to head off and have a pint. I hope you will join me and while you sip on a nice cold one, I hope you will think of the Ancient Sumerians and their reed straws, the Ancient Egyptians and their festivals of drunkenness, the monks of Germany and Northern Europe, Hildergard of Bingen and her requirement to use hops, Arthur Guinness and his Extra Stout Porter, Robert Hare and his American Porter that fueled the revolution, and Jack McAuliffe, who started the craft beer explosion.
The next round’s on me. *ahem* I have been told to say that is not a legally binding statement.
See you next week.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
[liquid pouring and swallowing sound]
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would particularly like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Chair of that Department, and Thabisile Griffin for their help with this episode. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva both for her help with the research and in the preparations of transcripts.
Published Date: May 6, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.