The song tells us, “He must’ve been an admiral, a sultan, or a king…” but in reality, we cannot know the identity of the man, woman, or deity that invented beer. What we do know, however, is that the history of beer is effectively the history of human civilization as we know it. Does that sound dramatic? Well, perhaps it is, but it’s also true – wherever modern, agrarian cultures have existed, there has been beer.
Or, at least, something that more-or-less resembles beer. The beer that you and I drink is pretty far removed from the spicy brews they were swilling thousands of years ago, but it still connects us. That’s the thing about beer: when you pull a draft and sit back with a pint of lager or a bitter IPA, you are part of a chain going back throughout all of human history. Your great, great, great, great, great… keep going about thirty or forty greats, grandparents probably sat around at the end of a long day enjoying a beer just like we still do.
Isn’t that a reassuring thought?
The Ancient World
If Doc Brown pulls up in a time machine and offers to take you back to ancient Mesopotamia, you won’t be able to stroll into a local pub and order yourself a tall, cool lager. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have something similar. The oldest known traces of something that suggests beer existed dates back more than 12,000 years. Residue found in caves near modern-day Israel contains fermented material similar to beer with a consistency more like gruel.
More “recent” examples of beer in history are easily dated back 6,000 years or more and can be found all over the world. There is evidence of fermented alcoholic drinks that were brewed in China around 7,000 BC, as well as fermented beer in pottery in what is now Iran that dates back to 3,500 BC. In Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq, a Sumerian poem that is nearly 4,000 years old, was written as an ode to the patron goddess of brewing and contains a rough description of the brewing process.
Sumerian and Egyptian workers in the ancient world were apparently paid in beer, along with other food, as a way to keep them well-fed and healthy. In pretty much any civilization where agriculture developed, cereal grains were inevitably used for fermentation and brewing something that could be considered the ancient ancestor of modern beer. It would seem that, much like Thanos, beer is inevitable.
The Middle Ages
All of those ancient beers were made by fermenting various grains, with barley, wheat, and maize all being popular options. Eventually, barley came out as the clear winner and was used for beer production all over the world. These ancient beers were flavored with all kinds of unusual spices and herbs, even fruit, to counteract the sweetness of the barley.
That all changed in the Middle Ages, however, when Christian monks throughout Europe took up brewing with a real passion. In Germany, they started using hops to offset the barley flavor, and it became wildly popular. Throughout the 12th Century, monks spread their recipes, and the abundance of hops in Germany became an important export throughout Europe. Beer was changed forever; the modern lagers that you drink today, flavored with malted barley and hops, are direct descendants of the beers made by those European monks.
The British Empire
But, Europe was not the only place making an impression on beer and changing it forever. As trade spread throughout Europe and west into Britain, brewing of beer was adopted with a passion unseen just about anywhere else – excepting probably Germany and Belgium. The British got a taste for it, and the brewing of beer became incredibly popular throughout England and Ireland.
The beers created in England were different from those in northern Europe, with dark stouts and ales becoming more popular than European lagers. As the British Empire rose and expanded throughout much of the world, British soldiers and citizens took their beer with them. In fact, the creation of the India Pale Ale was directly tied to the need for a beer that could survive the long journey from England to India and not turn sour in the Indian heat. If you enjoy sipping on an IPA on a hot summer’s day, you have the British Empire and their occupation of India to thank for it (well, maybe not thank, but you get the idea).
English colonialism and expansion also took their beers to other locations throughout the world. Brewing traditions in Australia, Canada, and other areas can all be tied back to British brewers. And of course, that extended to us as well…
The New World
Some sources have tied the very birth of America to the history of beer. Rumors say that the pilgrims stopped at Plymouth Rock and established themselves in the New World because they had run out of beer and needed to make more, which is why it is said a brewery was the first permanent building here in the US. It’s not our place to say whether that’s true or not, but it sounds like a pretty convincing argument to us.
Either way, beer was a huge part of the foundation of this country, with many of the early settlers and founders of the US brewing and enjoying beer. Much of this was initially stouts and ales that had come over from their British roots. As immigrants came to the US throughout the 1800s from numerous European countries, however, they brought their beers with them. Soon, the tapestry of beer made in America was as rich and diverse as the many nations that came together to call this country home.
The Modern World
And then Prohibition happened.
Prior to Prohibition, it is estimated that more than 2,000 small breweries were functional and successful here in the US. Once Prohibition went into effect, just about all of them had to close up or start making something else. A lot of those breweries were pubs that lost business due to the loss of beer brewing and sales.
For 13 long years, the waking nightmare of Prohibition continued and destroyed the brewing industry here in the US. A few breweries managed to shift to making other products like malt extract and scraped by – a couple even flourished. One brewery of note is Yuengling in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which refers to itself as the longest running brewery in America. This is accurate because during Prohibition, they stayed in business producing “near beers” that were 0.5% alcohol and they came out the other end of Prohibition to thrive once more.
Once Prohibition ended, then America found itself in the midst of a Depression that made it nearly impossible for breweries to bounce back. Following World War II, only a few large breweries like Yuengling and Budweiser managed to thrive and did well with wide-ranging appeal. But throughout the 1960s and 1970s, small breweries and brewpubs started springing up again to renowned success.
By the early 1980s, there were only a few hundred small breweries in America – a far cry from the thousands prior to Prohibition, but better than nothing. Today, small breweries like Fort Brewery have experienced a resurgence thanks to patrons like yourself that want to taste something different from what you find on store shelves.
Come join us at Fort Brewery in Fort Worth, TX, to connect with our shared human history, or just enjoy a pint of amber deliciousness. Whatever your reason, we can’t wait to see you soon – until then, Lord bless Charlie Mops!