Beer: Shall We Cheer This Drink With No Peer?
by Marjorie Dorfman

All the fat guys watch me and say to their wives, "See, there’s a fat guy doing okay. Bring me another beer.". . .
Mickey Lolich

Have you ever given a thought to the origins of beer? Did you ever wonder why it tastes the way it does? No, well, high time you did. Read on for some information and a chuckle or two.

What is this thing called beer? Why does it taste the way it does and who can solve the mystery of its origins? If you have never wondered about the answer to these questions, it’s high time that you did. As a wine drinker, beer is an alien brew upon whose qualities I can only speculate. (My tasting is limited to when I used to condition my hair with beer. Every once in a while, a drop would spill down my face and end up in my mouth.) Like the proverbial cat, however, I am curious about this colorful concoction and its power over mankind. Aren’t you? (Say yes or nod.)

Beer is almost as old and controversial as civilization itself. Made from barley, grain, hops, water and yeast, the word "beer" most likely originated from the old English "beer" or "beere", which was the plant once used in making beer. Later, when barley was substituted, the drink retained its name. The word may also have come down to us from the Latin verb, bibere, which means to drink and which later became biber and then bier. In Spanish, the word for beer is cerveza which has its origins in Ceres, the Roman god of agriculture. Fermented beverages in various forms were well known to the peoples of the ancient world. Chang is a Tibetan beer, chica is one made from corn, and kumis is a fermented drink produced from camels’ milk. While exact origins will never be certain, it is clear that beer (like some relationships and all taxes) is here to stay.

The oldest records of brewing date back six thousand years to the first written language (cuneiform). They refer to the Sumerians, who lived in Southern Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the cities of Babylon and Ur. The discovery of fermentation was probably an accident. A likely scenario could have involved a piece of bread or grain that became wet and a short time later, fermented, resulting in an inebriating blob. An ancient engraving which is also a recipe for making beer bears a hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing. It describes barley and a pictograph of bread being baked, crumpled into water to form a mash and then transformed into a divine drink that made the Sumerians forget about the significance of inventing the wheel.

The Babylonians under the leadership of Hammurabi became the rulers of Mesopotamia after the second millennium, BC. Their culture was derived from the Sumerians and thus they had mastered the art of brewing beer. In ancient times, beer was cloudy and unfiltered (like Pall Mall and other cigarettes). Drinking straws were employed to avoid ingesting the brewing residue, which floated unattractively across the top. (Talk about smoke getting in one’s eyes!) Still, beer was a vitamin-rich drink, which when consumed daily reduced disease and malnutrition. The Egyptians also brewed beer, adding dates to the amber fluid to improve the taste (not Saturday night acquaintances, fruit). Under the Romans, beer was only brewed in the outer regions of their empire where wine was difficult to obtain. To the Romans, beer was considered the drink of barbarians. (Throwing Christians to the lions was the modus operandi only of gentlemen of the highest caliber.) In general, early civilizations found the mood-altering properties of beer supernatural and intoxication was considered divine. (W.C. Fields could have been a god among men and much happier here than in Philadelphia.)

Until the Middle Ages, brewing and the baking of bread were exclusively women’s work. This began to change shortly before the first millennium, when the centers for learning, the monasteries, turned their attention to beer brewing. Perhaps one reason that beer became associated with them (the monasteries in Holland and Belgium in particular) is that in ancient Babylon women brewers were priestesses of the temple, thus connecting beer and religion for the first time. The monks desired a pleasant tasting, nutritious drink to serve with their meals, which could be lacking, especially during periods of fasting. The consumption of beer in the monasteries of medieval Europe reached astounding levels; historians claiming that each monk was allowed five liters per day! (W.C. and his drinking buddies really did miss their calling!)

Monks began to sell their brews and many monasteries developed into well managed commercial enterprises. Their beer was popular, of the highest quality and sold in "monastery pubs" throughout Europe. After the Reformation and the weakening of the church, brewing beer fell into the hands of commercial brewers. Local sovereigns introduced beer taxes, which rapidly began to add to their wealth. Many monastery pubs were forced to close because their previously privileged status had exempted them from these taxes. Still, civilization owes much to the monks for being the first to scientifically develop the brewer’s art. As the local water supply was often contaminated, beer provided a safe drinking source and was promoted by the authorities.

Throughout the Middle Ages, hops became widely used as both a preservative and a way to make beer more refreshing. Hops are said to have been first used to flavor beer in Brabant monasteries in what is now Belgium. This explains the legend falsely attributing the creation of beer to the Brabant king, Gambrinus, who is revered to this day as the patron saint of beer. With the use of hops, beer revealed its "clear character" and began to closely resemble the way it is today, both in taste and appearance. In order to guarantee a high level of quality and consistency, the Duke of Bavaria, Wilheim IV, proclaimed the German Beer Purity Law in 1516. This decree established for the first time that only barley, (later malted barley), hops and pure water could be used to brew beer. This law is the oldest food law in the world today.

The advent in the nineteenth century of James Watt’s steam engine and the artificial cooling system invented by Carl von Linde revolutionized the beer brewing industry. It had long been known that the making of good beer required certain temperatures. From the time of von Linde’s invention, brewing became a year round enterprise. In the area of scientific research, Louis Pasteur made great strides in 1876. His Etudes sur la Biere (Studies Concerning Beer) revealed the importance of microorganisms and bacteria, culminating in the word that today bears his name; pasteurized.

Early native Americans had been brewing beer for many centuries before Columbus set sail for the New World. In the American colonies, English settlers relied heavily on shipments of ales from England while the Dutch in New Amsterdam (New York) started their own breweries as early as 1632. The first beer with a brand name came from there; it was known as Red Lion Brewery. In 1683, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, started the first English commercial brewery. Sam Adams, while well known for his ardent patriotism, was also a brewer of trade. George Washington was a lover of porter and had his own recipe for beer, which is handwritten in an old notebook that can be seen today at the New York Public Library. The 1880’s became the golden age of American brewing, seeing a surge in growth that culminated in the formation of 2,272 American breweries. All of the big companies like Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors and Pabst date from this era.

The beer brewing industry chugged along at a comfortable pace until January 16, 1920, the date the 18th amendment (Prohibition) took effect. The flow of illegal beer and liquor was mostly controlled by gangsters (Al Capone) and the city of Chicago with its bathtub gin and speak-easies became one of the most violent examples of how poorly most people cried into their beer. The Volstead Act, the law enacted to enforce prohibition, created special units to operate as independent federal police squads, the most famous of which was Elliot Ness and his Untouchables. The beer industry never really recovered from Prohibition and neither did Elliot Ness or Al Capone. Today, ninety-five per cent of all beer consumed in the United States is American beer and eighty per cent of it is made by the five largest companies; Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Coors, G. Heilman (Henry Weinhard), Miller and Pabst.

The redeeming value of beer in American society is most certainly a moot point, perhaps akin to the effects of the Colt revolver on the decreasing population of the Old West. Bars have been the meeting place of many minds both sodden and sober, for centuries. Perhaps there is a whisper here of Mr. Benjamin Franklin and his poor Richard’s advice of all things in moderation. I have heard (from an old grapevine) that he too liked his lager, and it probably kept him from going early to bed and early to rise on more than one occasion. Mr. Franklin aside, (for he was a great man drunk or sober), if you are going to drink beer, at least buy the best you can afford for as the ancients (or at least the middle-aged) used to say, "life’s too short to drink cheap beer!"

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002