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by Rich Byrnes, President Fermental Order of Renaissance Draughtsmen

A Brief History of Beer

          The origins of beer are older than recorded history, extending into the mythology of ancient civilizations. Beer, the oldest alcohol beverage, was discovered independently by most ancient cultures - the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Africans, Chinese, Incas, Teutons, Saxons and the various wandering tribes that were found in Eurasia. These ancient peoples have left records to indicate they not only enjoyed their beer, but considered brewing to be a serious and important job.

         In recorded history, Babylonian clay tablets more than 6,000 years old depict the brewing of beer and give detailed recipes. An extract from an ancient Chinese manuscript states that beer, or kiu as it was called, was known to the Chinese as early as the 23rd century BCE. Beer was enjoyed by ancient peoples at all levels of society. Of course, some drank with more style than others. For example, the University of Pennsylvania Museum displays a golden straw used by Queen Shubad of Mesopotamia for sipping beer.

          With the rise of commerce and the growth of cities during the Middle Ages, brewing became more than a household activity. Municipal brew houses were established, which eventually led to the formation of the brewing guilds. Commercial brewing on a significantly larger scale began around the 12th century in Germany.

           Although native Americans had developed a form of beer, Europeans brought their own version with them to the New World. Beer enjoys the distinction of having come over on the Mayflower and, in fact, seems to have played a part in the Pilgrims decision to land at Plymouth Rock instead of farther south, as intended. A journal kept by one of the passengers - now in the Library of Congress - states, in an entry from 1620, that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth because We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer...

       The first commercial brewery in America was founded in New Amsterdam (New York) in 1623. Many patriots owned their own breweries, among them Samuel Adams and William Penn. Thomas Jefferson was also interested in brewing and made beer at Monticello. George Washington even had his own brew house on the grounds of Mount Vernon, and his handwritten recipe for beer dated 1757 and taken from his diary - is still preserved! 

Concise Timeline of Beer History
By Prof. Linda Raley, Texas Tech University

Ancient History

  • Historians speculate that prehistoric nomads may have made beer from grain & water before learning to make bread.
  • Beer became ingrained in the culture of civilizations with no significant viticulture.
  • Noah's provisions included beer on the Ark.
  • 4300 BC, Babylonian clay tablets detail recipes for beer.
  • Beer was a vital part of civilization and the Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Chinese, and Inca cultures.
  • Babylonians produced beer in large quantities with around 20 varieties.
  • Beer at this time was so valued that it was sometimes used to pay workers as part of their daily wages.
  • Early cultures often drank beer through straws to avoid grain hulls left in the beverage.
  • Egyptians brewed beer commercially for use by royalty served in gold goblets, medical purposes, and as a necessity to be included in burial provisions for the journey to the hereafter.

Different grains were used in different cultures:

  • a) Africa used millet, maize and cassava.
  • b) North America used persimmon although agave was used in Mexico.
  • c) South America used corn although sweet potatoes were used in Brazil.
  • d) Japan used rice to make sake.
  • e) China used wheat to make samshu.
  • f) Other Asian cultures used sorghum.
  • g) Russians used rye to make quass or kvass.
  • h) Egyptians used barley and may have cultivated it strictly for brewing as it made poor bread.
model of egyptians making beer

1600 BC Egyptian texts contain 100 medical prescriptions calling for beer. If an Egyptian gentleman offered a lady a sip of his beer they were betrothed. Early brewers used herbals like balsam, hay, dandelion, mint, and wormwood seeds, horehound juice, and even crab claws & oyster shells for flavorings. Romans brewed "cerevisia" (Ceres the goddess of agriculture & vis meaning strength in Latin).

55 BC Roman legions introduce beer to Northern Europe.

49 BC Caesar toasted his troops after crossing the Rubicon, which began the Roman Civil War. Before the Middle Ages brewing was left to women to make since it was considered a food as well as celebration drink.

23 BC Chinese brewed beer called "kiu"

500-1000 AD the first half of the Middle Ages, brewing begins to be practiced in Europe, shifting from family tradition to centralized production in monasteries and convents (hospitality for traveling pilgrims). During Medieval times beer was used for tithing, trading, payment and taxing.

1000 AD hops begins to be used in the brewing process.

1200 AD beer making is firmly established as a commercial enterprise in Germany, Austria, and England.

  • a) German's preferred cold temperature lagers (bottom-fermentation) stored in caves in the Alps.
  • b) English preferred mild temperature ales (top-fermentation) stored in cellars.

1295 King Wenceslas grants Pilsen Bohemia brewing rights (formerly Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia & Czech Republic).

1420 German brewers develop the lager method of brewing.

1489 Germany's first brewing guild, Brauerei Beck, was established.

1490's Columbus found Indians making beer from corn and black birch sap.


Renaissance History

1516 Bavarian brewing guilds push for the Reinheitsgeobot purity laws make it illegal to use any ingredients but water, barley, and hops in the brewing of beer (they didn't know yeast existed).

1553 Beck's Brewery founded & still brewing today.

Late 1500's Queen Elizabeth I of England drank strong ale for breakfast.

1587 the first beer brewed in New World at Sir Walter Raleigh's colony in Virginia--but the colonists sent requests to England for better beer.

1602 Dr. Alexander Nowell discovers that ale can be stored longer in cork sealed, glass bottles.

1612 the first commercial brewery opened in New Amsterdam (NYC, Manhattan) after colonists advertised in London newspapers for experienced brewers.

1620 Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock because the beer supplies were running low.

1674 Harvard College has its own brewhouse.

1680 William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) operated commercial brewery.

1757 Washington wrote his personal recipe "To Make Small Beer."

1786 Molson brewery is founded in what is today Canada. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had their own private brewhouses. Samuel Adams operated commercial brewery. Soldiers in the revolutionary army received rations of a quart of beer a day.

1789 James Madison proposes that Congress levy a low 8-cent duty per barrel on malt liquors to encourage "the manufacture of beer in every State in the Union." Beer and bread were the mainstays of the ordinary person's diet for centuries. Yeasts during this time were exactly the same as those used in bread.


Modern History

Before the 1800's most beer was really "Ale."

1810 Munich establishes Oktoberfest as an official celebration.

1830's Bavarians Gabriel Sedlmayr of Munich and Anton Dreher of Vienna developed the lager method of beer production.

1842 the first golden lager is produced in Pilsen, Bohemia.

In the mid-19th Century (1850's) German immigrant brewers introduced cold maturation lagers to the US (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Stroh, Schlitz, and Pabst roots begin here). The modern era of brewing in the US began in the late 1800's with commercial refrigeration (1860), automatic bottling, pasteurization (1876), and railroad distribution.

1870's Adolphus Busch pioneers the use of double-walled railcars, a network of icehouses to make Budweiser the first national brand.

1876 Pasteur unraveled the secrets of yeast in the fermentation process, and he also developed pasteurization to stabilize beers 22 years before the process was applied to milk.

1880 there are approximately 2,300 breweries in the US.

1890s Pabst is the first US brewer to sell over 1 million barrels in a year.

1909 Teddy Roosevelt brought over 500 gal. of beer on safari in Africa.

1914 Commercial competition drives the number of operating breweries down to 1,400.

1933 Prohibition ends for beer (April 7).

1935 Only 160 breweries survive Prohibition.

1935 The beer can is introduced (American Can Co. & Kreuger Brewing).

1938 Elise Miller John heads Miller Brewing for 8 years as the first and only woman ever to run a major brewing company.

1965 Fritz Maytag purchases Anchor Brewing Co.

1966 Budweiser is the first brand to sell 10 million barrels in a year.

1976 New Albion is the first in the rebirth of brewpubs and microbreweries in the US opening in California.

1988 Asahi Super Dry (Japan) introduces new beer category (soon to follow is Michelob Dry).

1991 the US produces 20% of the world beer volume (world's largest).