Home brewing has a history that dates back millennia. Beer is one of the earliest alcoholic beverages created as humans began to settle down and cultivate grains.
An archaeological discovery of a Sumerian tablet revealed a poem that is almost 4,000 years old, mentioning the oldest-known recipe for beer in Western civilization. The history of home brewing indicates that beer, along with mead, rice wines, and fruit wines, developed into a thick and consistent liquid.
Home Brewing in Ancient Times
Ancient home brewing was a DIY craft that was handed down through generations via oral traditions. The natural fermentation of carbohydrates like barley, wheat, and bread produced a pleasant beverage.
The first documented craft beer, however, was brewed by the ancient Chinese around 7000 B.C. This beer was known as kui and its ingredients included grapes, rice, honey, and hawthorn fruits.
In ancient China, beer was mainly used for ancestral worship and other rituals during the Shang, Xia, and Zhou dynasties. After the third century Han Dynasty, the brewing of modern beer faded until it was reintroduced at the end of the 19th century.
The Sumerians started the homebrewing revolution with their recipes, while the Egyptians enhanced the brew, making it lighter and smoother. They even consumed beer using specially made glasses.
Ancient Greeks and Romans were famous for their preference for grape wine, but they also enjoyed beer.
During the Viking Age, mead was the beverage used to celebrate the gods and was favored by the upper classes. Beer, on the other hand, was commonly consumed by ordinary people as an everyday accompaniment to meals and in social gatherings.
Homebrewing thrived during the Medieval period, with the first breweries in Europe sprouting from this practice. Beer and ale became popular as a safe and sterile drink, sometimes even considered safer than water. It also served as a nutritional supplement to compensate for the poor diets of common people.
English brewers preferred ale and used a boiling process before fermentation, distinguishing their methods from elsewhere. This led to better preservation and taste, depending on the brew.
Germans implemented strict laws governing what qualified as beer and what did not. They introduced the Reinheitsgebot, a medieval food safety precaution that specified the ingredients of beer: water, barley, hops, and later, yeast—nothing else.
In 1516, Munich’s Duke Wilhelm IV decreed this law, as unethical brewers were adding harmful substances like poisonous roots, sawdust, and even soot to the liquid during fermentation. Hence, Germany’s brewing history is known for its stringent standards, thanks to these medieval “purity laws.”
The Industrial Revolution and Home Brewing
The Industrial Revolution brought home brewing into the hands of individuals, moving it away from monasteries and commercial breweries.
Early industrial-era brewing techniques used open fires with limited temperature control, resulting in a smoky taste in the final product.
The invention of steam engines in the 1800s, along with thermometers, hydrometers, and later electricity, provided brewers with better control over the brewing process. This resulted in the production of finer liquids and beers, such as pale and amber ales, without the unpleasant smoky taste.