by: Taylor Armstead
In this day and age, drinking beer has become a huge part of American culture. Craft breweries are popping up in just about every town, and Friday happy hours often include a dose or two of hops and lagers. But what do we really know about beer? It actually has a history that goes all of the way back to ancient times.
The first known brewers of beer were the Egyptians, who documented their recipes on papyrus scrolls around 5,000 B.C. However it is believed that women in Mesopotamia were actually the first to brew beer: not only were chemical traces of beer from the 4th century were discovered in a Sumerian settlement, but also a tablet with the Hymn to Ninkasi describes an ancient recipe for brewing. This song of praise, written to the Sumerian Goddess of Beer, was recorded in 1800 B.C., but it's believed to be much older and passed down in oral form until its recording. In the middle ages, monks began brewing beer and are credited with ideas such as using hops and lagering beer. In many places (especially in areas where water contamination was prevalent) beer was actually considered a safer alternative to water prior to the invention of water filtering technology.
The craft beer industry in the United States has a more recent (yet no less interesting history) as well. In the late 1800’s, beer production in the United States was highly varied due to many different nationalities of immigrants bringing their traditions and recipes with them - lagers and ales alike were abundant in a variety of styles. In 1873, there were a recorded 4,131 breweries (not including home breweries). This number of distinct breweries was not surpassed until 2015, despite modern population being roughly 8 times the size. The 18th Amendment put a stop to many breweries, however, although some survived by making malt extracts, ice cream, and sodas. When the 18th amendment was repealed in 1933, 756 breweries opened in the year that followed. The mid-1900’s brought a slew of innovations such as the cone top can (Schlitz, 1935), the aluminium can (Coors of Golden, Colorado, 1961), and associations like the United Brewers Industrial Foundation (1936) and the United States Brewers’ Association (1941). In 1943, due to World War II, breweries were temporarily required to allocate 15% of their production to the military. Many of the breweries that opened post-prohibition were pushed out of business by the larger breweries, so that in 1961, only 230 breweries remained in the United States, with 140 of them being independently owned.
In 1965, Fritz Maytag bought the struggling Anchor Brewing from Joe Allen and Lawrence Steese (the former having opened the brewery post-Prohibition along with Joseph Kraus). Maytag is known as the father of the modern craft beer revolution: with the help of Joseph Owades, Maytag revived the brewery’s unique, signature steam beer, which uses a lager yeast but is fermented in warmer temperatures. Despite struggling for many years, the brewery eventually achieved success and ushered in a revolution of small craft breweries.
Traditionally, beer contains 4 ingredients: water, malts, hops, and yeast. The first step of the brewing process is called the mash. Grains are added to hot water, which extracts the malt (sugars in the grain), color, and flavor. Next, hot water is poured over the grains to extract all of the sugar made during the mash – this step is known as the sparge. During the boil phase, the liquid extracted from the previous step, known as the wort, is kept at a rolling boil for a period of time while hops, spices, and other flavors are added. Heartier or bittering ingredients are typically added first, and the more delicate and aromatic ingredients are added toward the end. The last step is fermentation, where the beer starts to become alcoholic. The yeast is pitched into the cooled wort and left to sit for a period of time until the bottling process. Beer carbonates naturally with some sugar, but most brewing processes involve adding additional carbon dioxide during bottling. Some processes also bottle condition, where yeast and sugar are added a second time to produce carbon dioxide. Bottle-conditioned beer, similar to fine wines, will continue to mature as it ages. The ABV (alcohol by volume) of most beers ranges between 3.0-13.0%.
Beer can be divided into two main categories: lagers and ales. The overall difference between these two categories is that lagers traditionally take a longer time to ferment at a cooler temperature and produce a crisper beer. Lagers are frequently described as being “crisp”. Their name is derived from the fermentation method, which involved storing the beer in caves around the forty-degree Fahrenheit range. Lagers were first brewed in the 15th to early 16th century, making them much younger than ales. Some of the more common style lagers include pilsners, bocks, and dunkels. Ales, on the other hand, take a shorter time to ferment, and require a higher fermentation temperature (ranging between about 60-75°F). Ales are known to be fruiter and/or spicier than lagers as well as having more of a “full-bodied”, robust, and complex mix of flavors. Some of the most common types of ales include India Pale Ales (commonly known as IPAs), brown ale, porters, stouts, and amber ales.
The variety and types of beers found in breweries, grocery stores, and anywhere else craft beer can be purchased will differ depending on the season. During the hottest months of the year, such as now, lagers, IPAs, sours, and other lighter, crisper beers can be found more readily. In the winter months, porters and stouts become more popular for drinkers who enjoy heavier beers. In the fall, many people flock to the Märzen beer style (a lager), more popularly known as the traditional beer served at Oktoberfest.
Today, with the increasing number of breweries, brewers work to distinguish their beers with marketing and many complex flavor profiles and styles. Some breweries have gone back in time to peruse recipes that date to ancient times: Dogfish Head’s beer Midas Touch is derived from an ancient recipe from 700 B.C. found in King Midas’ tomb. Other breweries seek to distinguish themselves by brewing as earth-consciously as possible. New Belgium Brewing (Fort Collins, CO), Brewery Vivant (Grand Rapids, MI), and Brooklyn Brewing (Brooklyn, NY) are three breweries known for leading the charge on more sustainable innovations in brewing. For those with a more adventurous palate, there are options such as the spicy Ballast Point Habanero Sculpin, or Short's Brewing OMGWTFBBQ which features smoked hops and actual barbecue sauce. Whether you are new to beer or a seasoned drinker, there are many new beers emerging daily to discover.
Cheers (and drink responsibly)!