Beer is one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in the world, and according to archaeologists, it is also one of the oldest.
Evidence of beer production has been found in pottery that dates back roughly 7,000 years ago, which means that we were drinking beer around the same time that we decided to stop chasing after wild animals for food and started settling down into communities and growing our own crops. This may not entirely be a coincidence, as some archaeologist suggest that it was our desire for an easier way to make booze that led us to invent agriculture in the first place.
The earliest beers were fairly simple compared to many of the drinks we enjoy today. According to Sumerian cuneiform written on clay tablets, early brewers did little more than throw some mushed up bread into a jar and add water, allowing the natural fermentation process to take place over time. This resulted in a concoction that was more of a porridge than a drink, which gives a more literal spin on the phrase “drinking your meal.” Historians believe that this process was most likely discovered by accident with food that was unintentionally allowed to ferment.
Beer production eventually spread throughout the ancient world, either by trade, independent discovery, or both, and a number of localized variations sprang up based on the local grains that were available. Two of the most popular grains used in beer brewing were rye and barley, both of which are still commonly used to make beer today. Other ingredients also found their way into beer, including hops, which were used both for their bitter, citrusy flavor and their ability to preserve the beer for longer periods of time.
Beer continued to be a popular drink throughout the Middle Ages, although wine was more popular in some regions, particularly with the wealthy. It was during this time period that a number of Catholic monasteries began producing and selling their own beers to supplement their income. Some of these beers are still produced today, and in fact, the oldest continuously operated brewery in the world is believed to be Weihenstephan Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just north of Munich that has been producing beer for nearly 1,000 years.
Like many industries, beer production underwent a rapid changes during the Industrial Revolution, and for the first time it became possible to mass produce beer at scale around the world. This was caused not only by urbanization and the spread of industrial machinery, but also by advances in science, such as the invention of pasteurization by Louis Pasteur in 1864. This process kills bacteria in drinks such as beer, wine, and milk, which lowers the risk of disease and also prevents the drinks from spoiling and going sour. This meant that beer could be kept longer before drinking, which of course also meant that it could be safely transported longer distances.
Pasteur’s invention, as well as the rapid industrialization of the Western world, helped lay the groundwork for the creation of many of the major beer companies that formed in the mid-to-late 1800s, including Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller.
While beer production in the 20th century continued in Europe and other parts of the world much as it had for centuries, things changed in the US thanks to the 18th amendment, which marked the official start of Prohibition on January 16, 1920. With the sale of alcohol forbidden, thousands of breweries simply went out of business, but a few managed to barely survive by switching to other products. Anheuser-Busch was one such company, and it struggled through the Prohibition Era by selling products like yeast and malt extract.
Prohibition finally came to an end in 1933 when it was repealed by the 21st amendment, which to this day is still the only amendment in the US constitution to repeal a previous amendment.
Unfortunately, the effects of Prohibition had already taken a serious toll on the American beer industry, and for several decades the industry was dominated by only a few key players. That has finally changed in the last few years thanks to the recent craft brewery revolution, and according to statistics from the Brewers Association, the total number of breweries in the US has finally reached over 4,000, matching the diversity that was seen in the country in the years before Prohibition for the first time in nearly a century.
Today, beer continues to be an important part of human culture much as it has for thousands of years, and while the recipes may have changed over the years, the spirit of beer as a drink for the common man remains the same.