[A bunch of compassionate Silverbacks sent me the following article, because … well, to state it in its most simple terms, I am the guy who almost single-handedly saved Americans from another generation of bland, boring beers. But I’m not the type to brag. (I am, however, periodically delusional.) SB SM]
published in the Washington Post.
Sept. 19, 2023
Explore the evolution of beer, from Stone Age sludge to craft brews
Beer is so old that we don’t know how old it is.
Most of the earliest known cultures brewed it, and some scholars believe that it was the quest for beer, not bread, that motivated our hunter-gatherer ancestors to settle down and cultivate grain.
But ancient cave dwellers weren’t sitting around the fire quaffing crisp lagers and hazy IPAs. Archaeological evidence shows that beer took thousands of years to evolve into what we drink today.
Here’s a sampler flight of brews that represent important milestones and innovations.
Paleolithic mystery beer
POSSIBLE INGREDIENTS millet fruits spices herbs and grasses Who knows what else?
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Sour Tart Sweet Fruity Spicy Herbal
The first beer probably came from Africa, because that’s where the first people were, said Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the Penn Museum and a longtime authority on ancient fermented beverages.
Beer is basically fermented grain. First, moisture makes the grain sprout, priming its enzymes to transform starch into sugar. Yeast then converts the sugar into alcohol.
Humans would have discovered this process by happy accident, probably in many places around the world at different times: A pile of grain sat out in the rain and sun, some wild yeast latched onto its sugar, and a few days later — whoa! They learned to replicate the process, creating beer traditions nearly everywhere.
Although no evidence has been found of a Paleolithic African brew — “the Holy Grail of fermented beverages,” according to McGovern — he suspects it would have been made from wild millet or sorghum, grains long cultivated and used for beer in Africa, and flavored with whatever grew nearby.
DRINKING VESSEL The first beer mugs may have been made of animal skins or tightly woven grasses, McGovern said.
COLOR AND CLARITY Color? Who knows. But it would’ve been very cloudy, like all ancient beers, because filtration was tens of thousands of years in the future.
ISRAEL C. 11,000 B.C.
Stone Age gruel with a kick
POSSIBLE INGREDIENTS wheat barley dates
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Sour Sweet Bready
A waypoint between bread and beer is a kind of spiked porridge that would stretch any modern beer connoisseur’s definition of “chewy.”
A team of Stanford researchers found something like that in Israel in 2015 when they came across what may have been a 13,000-year-old beer-making operation in a burial cave near Haifa. It was used by the Natufian people, who were known to harvest and process wild grain.
In stone mortars carved into the cave’s bedrock floor, the team found traces of starch consistent with a very thick wheat-and-barley-based alcohol. Some scholars would like more evidence that beer and not bread was being made in that specific cave, because the tools and processes are similar.
But it makes sense that the Natufians would’ve been brewers, said Kirk French, who teaches Anthropology of Alcohol at Pennsylvania State University and was not involved in the Stanford study.
“They had grain for a long time,” French said. “If they weren’t making beer, it would be different than every other place in the world that has staple crops. If they had grain, they had alcohol.”
DRINKING VESSEL Li Liu, the Stanford professor whose team made the discovery, said Natufians may have drunk from wooden bowls.
COLOR AND CLARITY The beer probably would’ve been “light yellowish,” Liu said, with a texture like gruel.
CHINA C. 7000 B.C.
Neolithic grog mash-up
POSSIBLE INGREDIENTS rice grapes or hawthorn fruit honey
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Sour Tart Sweet Fruity Herbal
The first chemically confirmed evidence of a fermented beverage came from pottery found at the Neolithic settlement of Jiahu, and it must’ve been quite a taste sensation: rice beer, wine and honey mixed together.
The concoction was solid evidence that brewing dates at least to about the time nomadic people started to put down roots and develop agriculture, said McGovern, whose team analyzed residue from broken pottery and identified the beverage in 2004.
Since then, evidence of brewing has been found at several Chinese sites from a similar era. A Dartmouth team found traces of a more beer-forward brew in 9,000-year-old beer cups in Qiaotou that contained rice, a grain called Job’s tears and some kind of tuber.
DRINKING VESSEL Researchers found clay beer jars at Jiahu and drinking cups at Qiaotou.
MESOPOTAMIA AND EGYPTC. 3500 B.C.
Roasted barley paycheck beer
POSSIBLE INGREDIENTS barley emmer wheat a sweetener baked bread spices
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Sour Sweet Malty Bready
We know beer was a key part of daily life for ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians because they wrote about it. And their brews were a little closer to the stuff we drink today in some innovative ways: They roasted the grain to make dark beers, produced it in large breweries, and used barley, the most common ingredient in modern beers.
Among the world’s first known writing samples, clay tablets that contain Sumerian cuneiform, are beer sales receipts and brewing instructions, the latter in a poem that celebrates Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of — you guessed it — beer. McGovern and organic chemist Rudolph H. Michel confirmed the earliest chemical proof of barley beer, dating to 3500 to 3100 B.C., in jars found in the Sumerian outpost of Godin Tepe, in what is now Iran.
Fermenting grain was simply a practical way to preserve grain between growing seasons for many ancient civilizations, and the beer that resulted was nutrient-dense.
Brewers made low-alcohol versions for children and for everyday hydration, and some workers were paid partially in beer. Laborers who built the pyramids of Giza, for instance, received more than 10 pints per day. But brewers also knew how to bump up the alcohol content for special occasions and medicinal purposes.
Beer was even a part of the afterlife, or at least Egyptians hoped so.
In the Penn Museum’s collection is a part of a priest’s burial chamber covered in hieroglyphic instructions for living visitors. The gist is, “I just want as much beer and bread and meat as you can possibly bring, for eternity,” said Mark Van Horn, a PhD student and one of the writers of the Penn Museum’s Ancient Alcohol tour.
Mesopotamian and Egyptian brews were still a long way from modern beers, though, in flavor and appearance.
Depictions of Sumerian beer-drinkers show people with reed straws sipping from communal knee-high pots. Van Horn said the beer that was made in those pots probably would’ve been chunky, with grain and soaked bread called bappir floating in it. The straws were probably for poking through or around a layer of yeast, spent grain, and other stuff that floated on the top to get to the good stuff underneath.
DRINKING VESSELThe tomb of Queen Puabi of Ur, a Sumerian city, contained a silver beer container and the gold-leaf shell that had once covered a reed straw.
COLOR AND CLARITY The queen’s beer could’ve been dark from the roasted grain with a little carbonation, but not foamy. An Egyptian brew, fermented in sealed jars, may have been the first effervescent beer
LATIN AMERICA C. 550 A.D.
First beer in the Americas
INGREDIENTS corn fruit spices all kinds of things
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Sour Tart Sweet Fruity Spicy Herbal
Chicha de jora, a fermented corn drink dear to many Latin American cultures, was the first known beer in the Americas.
We’re slotting this beer into our story at 550 A.D., the time period of the chicha-loving people of Tiwanaku in modern Bolivia in South America, but it could go just about anywhere in the timeline: There is evidence that chicha was made 7,000 years ago, it was a diet staple in the Andean region for thousands of years, and it is still common today.
Like most ancient beers, chicha was traditionally made by women, but the process was a little unusual. It was — and sometimes still is — made by chewing corn so that saliva releases the sugars and kick-starts fermentation. (Don’t worry, it gets cooked later.)
The original stuff was cloudy, yellow-orange and mealy or gritty with a little foam, said French, who re-creates a batch with one of his classes every year.
But now, just about anything goes, including leaving out the corn. Many regions make signature variations of chicha using different fruits, spices, flavors and even other grains, such as rice or quinoa. Some, such as Peruvian chicha morada, are nonalcoholic.
DRINKING VESSEL The Incas and their predecessors drank chicha from lacquered wooden tumblers called keros.
BAVARIA 770 A.D.
Hoppy Viking brew
INGREDIENTS barley hops
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Bitter Fruity Malty Spicy
We know that the ancestors of modern Bavarians were brewing by the Bronze Age, because traces of beer bread flavored with oak leaves, an ancient preservative, were found in a crock near Kasendorf that dates to 700 B.C.
Their descendants would transform the flavor and aroma of beer forever with a different preservative: hops, a relative of the cannabis plant.
European hops originated in the Georgian region of Eastern Europe and western Asia, said Martin Zarnkow, a master brewer, malter and researcher at the Research Center Weihenstephan for Brewing and Food Quality at the Technical University of Munich.
Zarnkow says he thinks it was the Vikings who were the first to add hops to beer. Evidence from relics found at a Viking settlement in northern Germany shows that they used hops for something, so it would make sense they used them to preserve the beer that they exported by sea.
For sure, Benedictine monks in Germany, Belgium and northeastern France were brewing with hops by the 9th century. The first written record of hops being used in beer is from a monastery in 822. Monasteries were great centers of brewing, in part because monks and nuns were among the few in the Dark Ages who could read and write, so they could document their recipes and techniques.
By the 14th century, beer made with hop flowers was common in much of Europe.
DRINKING VESSELAle from 700 B.C. was found in an amphora that resides at the Bavarian Brewery Museum at Kulmbacher Mönchshof in Germany.
COLOR AND CLARITY Head brewmaster Tobias Zollo at Weihenstephan, a brewery that dates to 1040, described the old brews as hazy and brown, sweeter and less bitter than many modern beers.
GERMANY C. 1400
INGREDIENTS barley hops
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Bitter Spicy Crisp
For most of history, all beer was technically ale, because it was fermented at room temperature primarily by a yeast that rose to the top, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. (No yeasts were completely pure until 1883, said Mathias Hutzler, a microbiologist and colleague of Zarnkow’s who studies brewing yeast history.)
By the end of the Middle Ages, a mysterious hybrid type of yeast in Bavaria was doing something different: It sank to the bottom and fermented in cool temperatures. It took weeks or months instead of days, and it produced a lighter, milder-tasting beer that was easy to drink and didn’t spoil nearly as quickly as ale.
Brewers called the style “lager,” from the German word meaning “to store,” and they created what is now the world’s most popular style of beer. Like ales, lagers can be light or dark depending on how the grain malt is roasted. The early ones had a smoky, spicy flavor but not a lot of carbonation.
The yeast that makes lager was later dubbed S. pastorianus for Louis Pasteur, who in 1857 figured out how fermentation works.
DRINKING VESSELGerman beer tankards originated about the same time as lager, with lids to keep out flies that were thought to spread disease.
COLOR AND CLARITYLagers probably were the first clear beers.
ENGLAND 1600S – 1700S
Home brews in a New World
INGREDIENTS barley hops
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Sour Sweet Bitter Fruity Malty
British brewing goes back at least to the 1st century and probably earlier. Shortly after English colonists settled in Jamestown in 1607, they started importing — and soon, home-brewing — English ale. (Within a few years, Dutch immigrants began the first U.S. commercial brewery in what is now New York.)
Beer was “liquid bread” to the early American colonists, said Frank Clark, master of historic foodways at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Clark said everyone drank beer as a cornerstone of their diet. First, it was English ale. Then thick porters, which originated in London in the 1700s, became popular with the working class on both sides of the pond.
English ales were — and are — less bitter and skunky than modern American porters and ales thanks to different hops, Clark said. The porter back then, aged in oak barrels, also was more sour than current ones, in part because of bacteria that infiltrated the yeast they used.
Clark said he is amused by the recent infatuation with sour beers, because 18th-century brewers did everything they could — which wasn’t a lot — to keep bacteria from spoiling, or souring, their beer.
DRINKING VESSEL Settlers sipped fine ale from dainty glasses and chugged porters from leather tankards called blackjacks.
COLOR AND CLARITY Ales were lighter and more effervescent than dark, muddy porters, said Clark, who brewed both beers in these animations.
Pre-Civil War ‘small beer’
molasses wheat bran hops spices
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE
Sweet Malty Herbal
The first predominantly U.S. beer was a molasses “small beer,” which exploded in popularity in the mid-18th century after trade relations with Caribbean countries made the sticky refined sugar cheap and easy to import, Clark said. Another type of small beer — so named because of its low alcohol content, typically 2 to 4 percent — was made by reusing grain from a previous brew.
People of all social classes drank some version of molasses beer — even George Washington. It was sometimes flavored with creative ingredients, such as sassafras, ginger, coriander or cayenne.
DRINKING VESSEL Pewter mugs held everyday small beer.
COLOR AND CLARITYThe look would’ve varied, but Clark tried a version that was light brown and cloudy and said it tasted “pretty beerlike.”
1965 – PRESENT
Big Beer vs. funky microbrews
INGREDIENTS grain hops anything goes
POSSIBLE FLAVOR PROFILE Sour Tart Sweet Bitter Fruity Malty Spicy Crisp Bready Herbal
In the mid-1800s, German, Austrian and Czech immigrants built an enormous lager industry in northern and midwestern U.S. cities such as Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
Tech innovations — such as mechanical refrigeration, the mercury thermometer, and the hydrometer, which measured alcohol content — helped them standardize their products. New railroads let them transport around the country. In the mid-1900s, the metal can became a de facto symbol of Big Beer.
Then came a microbrew rebellion that was started by a Maytag and propelled by Jimmy Carter.
Fritz Maytag, from the washing machine family, bought and rejuvenated a struggling historic San Francisco brewery in 1965 and profitably produced Anchor Steam — a crossover between lager and ale — and other old-style beers.
Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, said that by revitalizing historic styles using traditional techniques and authentic ingredients, Maytag “showed a model of what a new generation of American beer could look like.”
For a while, not a lot of others built on that model.
Soon, hobbyists-turned-entrepreneurs opened start-up microbreweries, including two on the coasts that would grow into early craft powerhouses: Sierra Nevada in the west and Sam Adams in the east.
“Once those two blew up, everybody East and West coast just started jumping in line, and everybody wanted to do it,” French said. As of 2022, there were 9,709 U.S. breweries.
In July, Anchor Brewing closed, but Maytag’s spirit and tradition lives on with every oddly flavored, bizarrely named quaff in neighborhood brewpubs across the country.
DRINKING VESSEL Until recently, cans symbolized Big Beer, and craft brewers rarely used them.