Weird Wednesdays: A Beer-eif History

With national Craft Beer Week and the summer approaching, here's a rundown of the history of the drink so many people love, beer. (Dilettantiquity/Creative Commons Flickr)

With national Craft Beer Week coming up in May, the end of semester on the horizon and the increasingly pleasant weather, I figured that this week we should talk a bit about the liquid elixir so many people love (besides coffee and Red Bull.)

Beer, like taxes, prostitutes and your English professor, is as old as civilization itself. I’m not kidding – one of the oldest written documents in the world was discovered to be a 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet inscribed with a hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of beer.

Evidence of beer is even older, dating back to around 3500 BCE (about 5,500 years ago.) Archeologists discovered residues of fermented, grain-based beverages on clay jar fragments around Sumerian settlements. It’s older than wine, liquor, democracy and possibly even bread-- because really, the Sumerians knew how to get their priorities in a row.

The discovery of the beverage itself was most likely an accident, historians speculate. Fermentation wasn’t really a new thing, even in the natural world.

All you really need to make alcohol is sugar and the right kind of microbes, which eat the sugars and burp/fart out the fabulous lifeblood known as alcohol. If you leave a piece of fruit lying around long enough, it can ferment and become saturated with with happy juice. When some hapless herbivore comes along and noshes a mango that’s been left in the sun a little too long, they can actually become drunk.

It’s theorized that a batch of barley or maize (which contain sugars in the form of starch), was left to soak, and started to ferment on its own, much to the surprise of whoever discovered the happy accident. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s also theorized that beer is actually the basis for agrarian society. Hunter-gatherer communities, where social groups migrate around and seek out sustenance from nature instead of farming it, were in vogue up until beer was discovered. Beer requires grains, and grains require agriculture and cultivation – a kickstarter for civilizations as we know it. Soon, non-mobile settlements around farmlands sprung up, which then grew into large settlements, then cities, then city-states – and so on.

It’s not just about being drunk. Beer is nutrient and sugar-rich (as anyone with a beer gut can tell you), making it a perfect drink for a prehistoric worker. The alcohol sterilizes the beverage, making it much safer to drink than the dirty natural water available at the time.  

With this appeal, beer spread its way across humanity, working its way to parts of Asia, ancient Egypt, and to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Germany had been brewing its own beer since 800 BCE, and in turn spread it to the British Isles.

By 1000 CE, hops were used in the beer-brewing process and in 1040, the oldest still-operating brewery, Weihenstephan, was established as part of the Benedictine Weihenstephan Abbey. (Yeah, nuns were in on it too.)

Beer wasn’t just limited to Europe. Native Americans made a type of beer using corn starch and birch sap, and in China, beer known as “kiu” was made using fruit starches and rice grains.

The business only really got going in the late 1800s, when Louis Pasteur, the guy who discovered microbes, identified the role of yeasts in fermentation. At that point specific yeasts and microbes could be used, instead of letting a bunch of hops sit and hoping for the best – a method which usually led to the wrong microbes getting in, and making for a sour beer.

The early 1900s were a dark time for beer. In 1920, Prohibition restrictions ended thousands of breweries across the U.S., leading to an underground movement of secret distilleries and manufacturers operating away from the eyes of the law. By the time Prohibition ended, only 160 American breweries survived – down from 2,300.

In 1935 the beer can was introduced by American Co. and Krueger Brewing. Much like a modern tin, you had to use a can opener to get at the good stuff. Other cans featured a spout and cap, like a bottle. The invention of the pop tab in 1962 made cracking open an ale much easier, as did the mass manufacture of glass bottled beer in Australia in 1945.

Nowadays the popularity of craft beer has led to a swing towards smaller beer manufacturers – as any hipster will tell you, the best beers come only from microbreweries. The craft beer market alone is worth around $23.5 billion in the U.S. – which is about one-fifth of beer sales in America alone.

So, as long as you’re over 21, kick back and relax with a nice brew this spring. Whether it’s Sam Adams or Sumerian, you can be assured that humanity’s past is raising a glass with you.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.