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History of Beer: Brief Retrospective From the Discovery of Beer to Nowadays Essay

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Updated: Nov 10th, 2021


As mankind began emerging from their cave homes more than 10,000 years ago, they began farming grains which led, by necessity, to formal civilizations. The discovery of beer soon followed the discovery of grain as a renewable food source thus it is accurate to state that beer dates back to the earliest known evidence of human civilization. It has always been and all evidence points to the idea that it will always be a major part of the culture among much of the world’s population. Throughout the annals of western society, beer has enjoyed a colorful history and society has certainly enjoyed beer. Its use accelerated the use of written communication, was consumed as part of religious ceremonies by medieval monks and ancient Egyptians, drank by necessity in Medieval Europe and outlawed by the U.S.

Beer has been an important aspect of life for people of all levels of society who use it to celebrate and simply to relax. The bar, tavern or pub is a gathering point for socialization and refuge for many. The simplest of products, water, barley, yeast and hops combine to produce many types of beer. Although the brewing process is somewhat complex it is easy enough to make at home. This process is considered an art-form by those that brew beer whether in large plants, micro-breweries or in the home. This discussion gives an overview of the history of beer from ancient times to the present.

Ancient Origins

Man began farming grains and forming communities as a means to survive. Hunting wasn’t as safe or dependable as farming as a source of food. Meat would spoil quickly but grains could be stored for many months if it remained dry. However, grain could not, as meat could, be eaten in its raw form, so ancient people ground it up to make a sort of gruel-type substance. As early man became increasingly more reliant on grain than meat and were remaining in one area rather than constantly traveling in the search for food, this coincided with the need to store the grains (Standage, 2005: 13). When seeking methods by which to store grain, they discovered that grain, when combined with water, would sprout which caused the grain to turn into malt (Standage, 2005: 14). When the malted grain was left out in the warm sun, wild yeast which was floating in the wind fermented the sugars of the malted grain. So, quite by accident, this process created beer. “Apparently one hungry or thirsty chap came across gruel that was sitting out for awhile, slurped it down and found himself in the midst of a mind bending experience” (Standage, 2005: 16).

Beer is credited with accelerating agricultural pursuits because following that first taste, its popularity grew rapidly and therefore increased the need for ever greater amounts of grain. The Nomadic hunter and gathers became communal farmers largely as a result of discovering beer. From about 5000 to 7000 B.C., grains grew best in Egypt which caused the society of this region to flourish and expand not only in number but culturally and economically as well, a part of history that has been well-documented.


Beer was not simply an economic tool of the Egyptians although the old, young, rich and poor consumed it in liberal portions on a daily basis (Standage, 2005: 39). Egyptian legend tells of the god Osiris who taught man how to make beer. It was part of most every celebration or ceremony and the usual drink of choice at meals. Because beer was such a major facet of Egyptian life, Egyptologists have often examined beer remains extracted from the wood on Egyptian ships so as to understand how it was made. Egyptians brewed their beer by “crumbling lightly baked, well-leavened bread into water; they then strained it out with a sieve into a vat and the water was allowed to ferment because of the yeast from the bread” (Samuel, 1996: 488). They then added honey or the juice from dates for flavoring because it tasted bland without some type of enhancement.

Medieval Europe

The familiar term for this intoxicating mixture of common ingredients, beer, originated from the Saxon word, baere, or barley. Beer in Medieval Europe was not the clear drink of today. It was a cloudy mixture packed with carbohydrates and proteins making it a great nutritional source for nobleman and peasant alike. Because of this nutritional benefit, “it [beer] constituted a considerable portion of the medieval diet, particularly in the lower classes” (Geary, 1983: 181). Hops became a common ingredient in beer during the medieval period. It was previously used for medicinal purposes then was added to beer which gave it both nutritional and medicinal qualities. The country that began this practice is not entirely clear but English ale did not contain hops until its soldiers returned from sixteenth century battles on the European mainland boasting of German beer. Hops then quickly became a staple ingredient in English beers. This account is disputed by some, however, who give the Dutch credit for bringing their version of beer which contained hops to England a century earlier (Brown, 1987: 49)

During the 1600’s, all school children in England were allocated two bottles of beer per day because the drinking water at that time was usually taken from polluted streams and rivers and was therefore not as safe to consume nor did it taste as good as beer. Beer was a common drink of the working man as well. While American statesman inventor, diplomat, etc., Benjamin Franklin was living in London during the mid-1700’s, he kept a record of the daily beer intake of the employees of a local printing company he visited regularly. Each employee consumed a pint before eating breakfast, one at lunch, one after work and one at dinner. In England today, it is not unusual for employees, even teachers and policemen, to have a pint of beer at lunchtime and, of course, after work as well. Many Medieval cities derived much of their economy from brewing beer. In Hamburg, Germany, for example, 500 breweries operated within the city supplying employment for most of its citizens (Wilhelm, 1983: 33).

Early America

The first settlers to America brought beer with them. Beer was food to the colonists who imported barley from England to brew it themselves. Local corn was inexpensive and more readily available therefore soon malted corn became a substitute for malted barley. American politicians were forming strategies regarding the brewing, distribution, promotion and drinking of beer during the late 1700’s. Beer was a patriotic pursuit for the Founding Fathers. If the colonies brewed and drank their own beer instead of importing it from England, this would cut into England’s funding power for the war and thus lessen its economic and military stranglehold on the colonies. In addition, by promoting beer, it was hoped this would help to wean the population from drinking the harder types of alcohol.

However, the beer that the colonists drank was not the same as that served at the first major league baseball games in 1882. Until 1842 beer served all over the world was usually dark and always cloudy. The very short shelf-life due to a lack of refrigeration and pasteurization led to this cloudy appearance. When commercial breweries began to spring up in 1842, ice was used to keep the product cool until consumed. This is why the city Milwaukee became a major player in the beer business during the 1800’s. There was plenty of available natural ice near the city. Advances in cold storage, railroad transportation and bottling in addition to pasteurization allowed for beer to be shipped longer distances without spoiling. Adolphus Busch created the first national brand (Budweiser) in 1875 which made him a very rich individual (Rudin, 2002).

The 20th Century

Beer was positioned to become the national drink of America in the early part of the twentieth century. It was enjoyed at home, during sporting and recreational events and was especially favored by the workingman. However, the temperance movement served to detour America’s love affair with beer. In the years of prohibition all alcoholic beverages including beer were banned but ironically, this caused the temperance movement to be subverted. The use of hard alcohol such as whiskey had been declining in favor of beer since the Civil War days. However, prohibition changed this trend. Harder alcohol brought higher dollars to bootleggers so Americans switched back to that and began drinking less beer by necessity. Following World War II, the marketing and therefore consumption of beer skyrocketed. The larger breweries sold their product in all parts of the country by the 1960’s and were battling mightily for market share. They discovered that brand image was the key for success therefore advertisements for beer grew exponentially. Commercial brewers started rolling out new products such as ice beer, draft, light, malt liquor, low and no alcohol types. Over the past few decades, micro-breweries and imported beers have created a niche in the beer business (Rudin, 2002).

Social Aspect of Beer

Beer has not only benefited society but most likely was the catalyst that started it. It has brought individuals closer together, socially and physically. It has also caused friction between individuals, cultures and societies. Beer has often provided a practical excuse for bad behavior and definitely has made human existence more interesting. More importantly, it was at least partially responsible for giving humankind written language. Pottery was invented in about 6000 B.C. which allowed for the storage and transport of grains in addition to many other items. With foods now being warehoused, a technique to keep track of the contents was needed, especially for grains because this was used as money at this time (Standage, 2005: 31). “With a need to maintain a close eye on where and who the grain was being distributed to or when it was initially stored, people began etching symbols into clay tablets that would be baked and remain as permanent inventory records” (Coffin & Stacy, 2005: 16). This type of early writing (cuneiform) was a practice that utilized pictograms instead of what would commonly be recognized as alphabetic symbols. Over time, cuneiform writing transformed into a lettered form of marking that would eventually transform into the writing familiar to people today. Who’s to say when or if the alphabet in its present form would have been invented without the existence of beer?


Unquestionably, beer has positively impacted the development of humankind. Innovations such as the alphabet, pottery and farming either resulted from or were accelerated by the advent of beer. It has been an important part of the evolution of human society. Without the discovery of beer, the social structure that man exists in today would probably be very different.

Whether it would be an improvement over what is familiar now can only be matter of conjecture but it certainly would be different. The gruel made of grains first discovered by accident became an essential economic and social phenomenon that has impacted all of human history and likely will continue to do so well into the future, possibly more so than any other of man’s inventions.

Detriments – a disclaimer

Regardless of how innocuous, historically important and beneficial the consumption of beer may be presented, the detriments of alcohol consumption outweigh any benefits whether real or perceived. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Alcoholism, 2000), alcohol is among the three largest causes of preventable mortality in the United States. Contributing to approximately 100,000 deaths annually, only tobacco and diet/activity patterns contribute to greater death tolls. The Council also estimates that, despite laws against underage drinking, approximately 13.8 million Americans over the age of 18, representing about seven percent of the population, have experienced difficulty controlling their alcohol consumption, including 8.1 million people who are alcoholic.

Alcohol, without it, civilization may not have progressed as it did but many believe it to be the scourge of modern society. It is the essence of life and cause of many thousands of deaths, a multi-million dollar business which costs Americans millions in health-related expenses. Without it, celebrations are less vivacious but those who celebrate too much then drive and often kill the innocent. It has been and always will be manufactured, sold and consumed. Even after prohibition in the early part of the last century, it was manufactured, sold and consumed. Alcohol was there at the beginnings of humanity and will be there at the end. The question is how to alleviate the detrimental affects. Moderation and education is the only answer.

Works Cited

Alcoholism.com. “Alcohol-related Statistics.” WebMagic. (2000). Web.

Brown, Sanborn C. Wines and Beers of Old New England. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1978.

Coffin, Judith G. & Stacey, Robert C. Western Civilizations. (15th Ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Geary, Don. The Home Brewer’s Handbook. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Tab Books, Inc, 1983.

Rudin, Max. “Beer and America.” American Heritage Magazine. Vol. 53, I. 3, 2002.

Samuel, Delwen. “Investigation of Ancient Egyptian Baking and Brewing Methods by Correlative Microscopy.” Science. Vol. 273, N. 5274, 1996.

Standage, Tom. A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker & Company, 2005.

Wilhelm, Dr. Paul G. “Brewing Dark Ale.” Tournaments Illuminated. Vol. 69, 1983, pp.32-33.

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