The Early Days
The ancient Chinese produced the first beer, called Kui, in 7000 BC. However, the Sumerians and Babylonians likely knew about beer 3,000 years before them. Surprisingly, most brewery owners were women. According to clay tablets, beer was also a well-respected craft in ancient Persia at least 7,000 years ago.
The first chemically confirmed barley beer was made at Godin Tepe in the Central Zagros Mountains of Iran somewhere between 3500 and 3100 BC. Syrian priestesses from the ancient city of Elba produced a range of beers dating back to 2500 BC, including specific types brewed for religious ceremonies.
Ancient Egypt strictly controlled brewing because they used it as an offering to the gods or as medicine. Interestingly, the Egyptians taught the Greeks about beer production. Beer was also popular in Ancient Rome until wine became the favored drink.
The primary reason for the popularity of beer in ancient times was the uncertainty of water quality. There were clear indications that drinking such water often led to the development of diseases like cholera, and beer was a significant part of prevention.
Beer In Mesopotamia
Beer was a part of the daily diet of ancient Mesopotamians, and many myths, paintings, and poems showed both humans and gods enjoying this beverage. They used a special straw to drink a thick, porridge-like brew.
The Sumerians believed that the gods gave them this drink as a gift to promote happiness and well-being. They had different words to describe beer, including:
In the beginning, women produced beer at home from twice-baked barley bread called Bippar or by the priestesses of Ninkasi. The Alulu beer receipt from Ur in 2050 BC provided evidence of commercialized brewing at that time.
Mesopotamian beer production significantly increased under Babylonian rule. They had laws regarding brewing, including famous paragraphs 108 to 110 of the Code of Hammurabi.
The Babylonians brewed various types of beer, classified into 20 different categories based on their characteristics. Over time, this beverage became a regular product in commodity trade with Egypt.
Beer In Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptians had Tenenit, a goddess of beer closely associated with Meskhenet, the goddess of childbirth. Its name is derived from the Egyptian word Tenemu, which meant beer. According to their legend, the great god Osiris himself taught humans how to brew beer. In the beginning, women brewed it, but men took over the business later on.
Heqet (Hecht), a honey-flavored brew, was the most popular type in Egypt. Beer was often used as compensation for labor, and it is known that the Giza workers received three beer rations a day.
Queen Cleopatra VII lost much of her popularity because she implemented the first-ever tax on beer. Egyptians considered this drink to be medicine and prepared more than 100 remedies with it as an ingredient. Therefore, they felt the tax was unjust.
Beer In Ancient Greece And Rome
The Greeks adopted the craft of brewing from the Egyptians. Even the Greek word Zythos came from the Egyptian name for beer – Zytum. Since the climate was different, the brew wasn’t as good as the Egyptian’s, and the Greeks considered it a low-class barbarian drink.
Emperor Julian wrote a poem glorifying the nectar-like scent of wine and compared the smell of beer to that of a goat. Despite that, the Romans brewed beer called Cerevisia in ancient Treveris. There is also evidence of brewing in Castra Regina, the Roman military encampment on the Danube, in 179 CE.
Beer In Northern Europe
The Germans started brewing beer called Ol in 800 BC. The first beer jugs were discovered in a tomb in northern Bavaria in the village of Kasendorf. During that time, women made beer at home to supplement daily meals.
Over time, Christian monks took over the craft of brewing. The monastery Kulmbacher Monchshof Kloster, founded in 1349 in Kulmbach, started producing many types of beer, including Schwartzbier, which is their most famous brew today.
The Germans instituted the Reinheitsgebot, their purity law, in 1516, which regulated the ingredients breweries could legally use, including water, hops, barley, and yeast. They also believed that this beverage was a necessary staple in a healthy diet and implemented a daily ration of it.
The Finnish Saga of Kalewala from the 17th century has been preserved to this day. It describes beer production and shows people’s admiration for the effects of beer. The Finns considered beer a magical beverage brought to earth by their gods to help people stay healthy, happy, and at peace.
Beer And Christianity
Believe it or not, the rise of Christianity increased beer production, and monks played a primary role in brewing. Since available water was often unclear and the risk of illness was constant, people drank beer instead.
Monks were allowed to drink beer even during fasting periods, and they started brewing at an early stage. The father of Western monasticism was Saint Benedict, who lived from 480 to 547 and established rules that defined the standards of monastery life throughout Europe.
One of the rules included offering food and drinks to travelers. As a result, most travelers stopped by monasteries during the Middle Ages, and monks shared their food and beer with them.
Even today, you can hear the term ‘Gloazen Stutjes,’ which means ‘a sandwich in a glass’ in parts of West Flanders, referring to that old custom. Monks eventually began selling their beer in medieval pubs under the name of their patron saint.
In the 10th century, the Vatican took control of the brewing process, using the names of real or often imaginary saints for this purpose. This custom has continued to this day, and many beer brands still bear the names of different saints who became patrons of brewing and brewers.
Brewing At Home
However, many people brewed beer at home, especially in Britain after Henry VIII broke off relations with the Catholic Church and closed the monasteries. They invoked the names of their patron saints while brewing to ensure the quality of the beer. When the process was unsuccessful, people needed someone to blame.
Sometimes, they blamed evil spirits, but they also accused ‘brewing witches’ and burned them at the stake. The last known case was recorded in the late 1500s.
The Plan of St. Gall, dating from 820, is the oldest existing brewery plan that shows a Benedictine monastery with brewing facilities. Based on this document, it can be concluded that monastic breweries produced approximately 100 gallons (378.5 liters) per day.
Monks were the first brewers to use wild hops, and Abbot Adalhard of Corbie, France, was the first to mention this information in 822. German monks started practicing the same in 1200.
Monks also improved the brewing process and emphasized the importance of cleaning and sanitization during the Middle Ages. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the first commercial breweries were established based on the production model of the monasteries.
Unfortunately, by 1815, only 30 monasteries remained in Europe, marking the end of the era of monastery breweries.
Today, a dozen Trappist monasteries still produce beer, including the oldest one established in the late 16th century. They are famous for their Belgian-style ales. St. Sixtus of Westvleteren produces the best and most desired beer worldwide, but in limited quantities.
Although many ancient civilizations were brewing beer centuries ago, they often faced storage problems. This was solved with the discovery of the first hopped beer in the 9th century.
Once Louis Pasteur established the germ theory of fermentation in 1857, breweries started adding yeast to beer, and the modern beverage was born.