There’s nothing quite like a refreshing pint of beer, but did you know there are 10,000 years of history in this glass? Beer has been poured since prehistory. Slurped by Hunter-Gatherers & Pyramid Builders, Pharaohs, Vikings, the Inca, and the Irish. Chugged from jugs, horns, skulls, steins, and even through golden straws used to pierce through a warm crusty yeast cake. Yeap crusty yeast cake, we’ll get to that.
So what is the history of beer, how did it save humanity, and can a hangover be a religious experience? Well, Let’s Find Out.
The History of Beer
Our story begins a long-long time ago. At least as far as 13,000 years ago, people in the Levant and Turkey were making beer for feasts and rituals by fermenting wild grains. This is before humans settled down and started farming! Beer is essentially liquid bread. To make either: you mix grain like barley, wheat, or rice with water and leave it to ferment. Grains ferment because of yeast, tiny single-celled fungi that are everywhere. These little buddies turn sugars in the grains into alcohol. If you leave out some mushed-up grains, wild yeasts will find them and start fermenting. Wild yeasts have a very particular set of skills, they will find you and they will ferment you. Make a dough from the fermented mush and bake it and you’ll get bread, a more soupy version becomes beer.
Academics used to think humans settled down and started farming to secure a steady supply of grain to make bread. But…and it’s a big butt, hunter-gatherers had a better diet, shorter workdays, and healthier lives than early farmers. Why would humans swap their chill hunter-gatherer lives to become hard-working mostly bread-eating farmers? If bread was a convincing reason to start doing Civilisation then ducks would have beaten us to it.
Maybe…and it’s a big maybe, 10,000 years ago hunter-gatherer groups routinely came together to party and drink beer they made from wild grain. Then they realized they could secure a steady supply of grain to make beer if they stayed in one place and farmed grains.
Beer and festivals might have convinced hunter-gatherers to settle down in cramped towns and work long grueling days on farms under the rule of Kings, Pharaohs, and Priests. These first farmers in Mesopotamia now had to seed, plow, and maintain the land. Communities came together to build infrastructure like irrigation canals for their crops.
Once the grain grew, they had to learn how to store, process, and distribute it. Which led to writing and governments and militaries to protect those grains…and maybe steal other people’s grains and force the remaining hunter-gatherers to become farmers too. And boom now you’ve got Civilisation. Learning how to manage a grain surplus is essentially what Civilisation is. So maybe our craving for beer created civilization as we know it. Beer and Bread quickly became the symbols of civilized people.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The ancient Sumerians wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh around the 3rd millennium BCE. In it, we learn the story of Enkidu, a wildman, who lives outside of civilization. The city-living king Gilgamesh decides to civilize Enkidu and so sends Shamhat, a temple prostitute to tame him.
After spending some days together Shamhat tells Enkidu to “eat the bread, Enkidu, it is the way one lives/ Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land“. He ate the food and “he drank the beer—seven jugs!…and turned into a human“. It was beer and bread that turned Enkidu from a wildman into a proud Sumerian citizen, possibly a metaphor for what happened to the Sumerians themselves.
Mesopotamians and Egyptians
The Mesopotamians and Egyptians brewed dark beer, light beer, beer for the rich and poor and the living and the dead, and many others we still can’t translate. In Egypt, tombs were filled with a special kind of “beer that would not turn sour“— so the dead could enjoy it even in the afterlife. We see this in the tomb of King Scorpion I who lived in the 3200s BCE. This Scorpion King was buried with over 2,000 vessels of beer. Ordinary dead Egyptians only had a few small jars of beer to enjoy after death.
We didn’t discover what yeast was until the 1800s and so for the first farmers, the transformation of grains into beer must have seemed magical and connected to the Gods. Beer shows up across Egyptian mythology. The God Osiris brought brewing to humans. Another myth tells us that, one day, Ra was furious because he thought humanity was plotting against him. He sends his daughter, the Goddess Hathor to punish people by killing them and drinking their blood. And she does an amazing job at murdering everyone! Just look at her go! Ra realized that there would soon be no people left to worship him. So he tricked his daughter into drinking red-dyed beer. Thinking it was blood, Hathor chugged the beer and passed out. She woke up with a peaceful heart and stopped her rampage.
So technically humanity was saved by beer!
Hathor became tightly associated with beer. The Egyptians dedicated a holiday to her: the TEKH festival, the festival of drunkenness. During the celebrations, people would drink as much as possible while dancing and singing until they fell asleep. Then in the morning, priests would sneak into the party hall with a massive statue of Hathor and then wake up the partiers with loud drums. This sudden “sobering up” in the Goddess’ presence was supposed to produce a spiritual connection and probably one hell of a hangover.
In Sumeria, Ninkasi was the Goddess of Beer and women were the primary beer brewers. Sumerian beer was a thick frothy drink, drunk by several people out of the same jug. Both the Mesopotamian cuneiform character and the Egyptian hieroglyph for beer are little beer jugs that are kind of adorable. They drank these beers immediately after brewing when it was fresh.
Each person had their straw made from a reed or gold if they were rich. They used the straws to poke through the thick crusty yeast cake that formed on the top of the warm fermenting beer. The straws also helped filter out any bits that were floating in the beer. Here you can see an Egyptian drinking beer using the world’s first crazy straw. Also here is a 3200-year-old Egyptian painting of a Hippo making beer because everyone needs to see this.
Warm chunky beer might not sound nice to us but they were very nutritious. Ancient beer was a good source of vitamins B6 and B12, minerals, antioxidants, and even fiber. This made up for the lack of meat and vitamins in farming peoples’ diets.
In Egypt Pharaohs and nobles drank elaborately spiced and sweetened beers, and workers would get a simpler version. In Sumeria, women working in temples were paid 2 liters of beer daily…children got 1 liter.
The Code of Hammurabi, of eye for an eye fame, had laws regulating the price of beer. And the workers who built the pyramids of Giza were paid in beer! Not just beer obviously but it was a part of their wages. To pay all those workers Egypt needed to produce a lot of beer. One large brewery we’ve discovered produced 40,000 pints of beer at a time.
Just South of the Egyptians, Sudanese Nubians used fermenting beer to create antibiotics. During the fermentation process, they produced the antibiotic tetracycline and used it to treat bacterial infections 2000 years before Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin.
Over in China, the earliest finds of beer-making are from 7,000 BCE, and it was probably fermented from rice, berries, and honey. During the Shang dynasty, the palace had official brewers and taverns that popped up in large cities.
Di Xin, the last emperor of the Shang dynasty might have liked beer a bit too much. One of his parties had a lake of beer and meat forest, and he “made men and women chase each other about quite naked, and had drinking bouts the whole night long.”. The people eventually turned on him and the royal palace with Di Xin inside it was burned. The Shang dynasty quickly collapsed and many blamed it on the drinking.
Up in Scandinavia beer and mead, a drink made with fermented honey played an important part in diplomacy, marriages, and funerals. Communal drinking from a single cup was also a thing. They even had triple cups to make things easier. This helped people build strong bonds with each other.
Some Norse warriors, known as berserkers which means bear-shirt, were said to enter a sort of trance to increase strength during battle. Scholars think they did this by mixing psychoactive plants into their beer or mead. Which pumped them up for battle but also caused hallucinations, delirium, seizures, coma, and sometimes…death.
Some researchers believe that the Berserker hallucinogenic might have been henbane. This plant was found all across European archaeological sites, like Skara Brae, a Neolithic site and ancient brewery from around 3,000 BCE.
The Celts also seemed to have used henbane in their beer. Unfortunately, most of what we know about Celtic beer comes from Roman sources, who hated beer. But the wine-loving Romans have more to do with beer than you might think.
The words Beer came to us from the word “bier”, from old Germanic languages which might come from an older Germanic word “bureau”. But others scholars believe “bier” got to German via the Latin word biber, which means a drink or a beverage.
Today most counties use a word that sounds like beer. But Spanish speakers decided to be awkward and use Cerveza which came from the language of beer-hating Romans, Latin, and probably comes from the Roman goddess of growth Ceres, which is where the word cereal comes from. Or from a Celtic word for beer that morphed into cervisia then Cerveza.
In Early English Ale was the common word for beer and is still the word for beer in Scandinavia as Øl and the Baltics as Alus, beer only took over as a word in English later.
The Middle Ages
With the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century CE, the invasion of the germanic tribes, and the rise of the Catholic Church, beer gained a new role in everyday European life.
One catholic bishop, noted while visiting the Rhine river region, that the people drank “like mad [men] and that one has to thank the Lord to survive their drinking bouts”. The Church was hopeless about getting them to quit their “mad” drinking, so it embraced it instead. They matched the pagan festivities to Christian holidays, pairing traditions like the Germanic Yule with Christmas, or the bonfire solstice rituals with Saint John’s Day and monks became some of the best beer brewers.
Christian Monks also traveled a lot. It is thanks to the Flemish monk, William of Rubruck that we know that the Mongols drank beer in style.
In 1253 William entered the Karakorum, the capital city of the Mongol Empire at that time. He was dazzled by the Khan’s fountain. It was a magnificent silver tree, with silver serpents coiling around it. On its base, there were 4 lions also made of silver, each of them spewing mare milk. From the branches of the tree, 4 pipes poured grape wine, fermented mare milk, rice beer, and honey mead into basins for drinkers to enjoy.
In Medieval Europe, women were the primary brewers and in England, they were called Alewives. As cities grew Alewives began making a profit from selling beer. Seeing this, men quickly decided to take over brewing. Unlike their wives, men could take out loans and set up guilds to protect their business and regulate the market in their favor.
Between the 13th and 15th centuries, alewives were depicted with gross physical features, and some were even charged with witchcraft alewives were pushed out of the beer business and men took over.
Up until the 13th century, beer was brewed with GRUIT, not that Groot!
A combination of herbs and spices added flavor and helped preserve the beer longer. So you didn’t have to drink it as soon as it was fermented like back in Sumeria. Taxing gruit became an effective way to regulate and tax beer production. But Bavarians and Bohemians found an alternative to gruit: hops. Hops are these terrifying-looking plants. They added bitterness and extra flavors to beer, but more importantly, hops were cheap, untaxed and their antimicrobial effects preserved beer much longer than Gruit could.
The longer the beer lasts, the further it can travel. Some cities became major beer exporters. By the 1400s, the city of Hamburg had 15-20 thousand people but was producing an average of 30 million liters of hopped beer per year.
Laws were soon passed to regulate beer production. The most famous one is the 1516 REINHEITSGEBOT, or German purity law, saying the only ingredients allowed for making beer were barley, hops, and water. Today 500 years later the Reinheitsgebot still influences how beer in Germany is produced.
In 1553 Bavaria passed a law forbidding brewing during Summer, saying the weather would spoil the beer. Brewing started in March, and they would leave it to ferment in very cool caves until September, and so Märzenbier or March Beer was born.
The Modern ages
In 1810, there was a huge public party in honor of the wedding of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese. They had parades, horse races, and lots of beer. The wedding was in Munich in October, pairing perfectly with the opening of the Märzenbier barrels.
It was such a success that they decided to repeat the celebrations every October and it became known as Oktoberfest. Today Oktoberfest runs from mid-September to October and every year the Munich Oktoberfest attracts more than 6 million visitors, consuming more than 7 million liters of beer, a lot of it being Märzenbier.
On the other side of the ocean at least since the 4th century BCE Andean societies were brewing their maize beers that today we call CHICHA. Andean women chewed the maize to start the fermentation process and then brewed the beer. Chicha was used to celebrate harvests, the new year, weddings, and funerals. They offered Chicha to the Sun and poured it over the ground during festivals because the gods always got the first sip.
The Inca civilization uniquely functioned without currency or markets. The citizens paid taxes by giving their labor to the state and they got all of their necessities from state-owned warehouses. The empire hosted massive feasts with thousands of liters of Chica, to repay people for their service to the state. The Inca feasting economy created an insatiable demand for beer. In the Quechua language, the city of Cuzco, the Inca capital city, was called AKHA MAMA, meaning chicha mother.
The Inca Empire invested in expanding maize production by opening up new areas to farm, creating colonies in fertile regions, and improving technology. Maize production skyrocketed under the Inca and their system of roads was so well developed that they could easily distribute and store grain across their mountainous country, one of the largest empires on Earth at the time.
When the Spanish conquered the region they tried to ban Chicha production but Andean women managed to keep it alive and thanks to them today you can sip this ancient drink across South America.
In 18th-century colonial America during the Revolutionary War against Britain, American soldiers’ daily rations included about 1 liter of beer. And in 1780, general George Washington granted his troops their one winter holiday. On the 17th of March, to celebrate St Patrick’s feast, a considerable percentage of the army at the time was Irish.
With the mass migration of poor Irish people to America in the 19th century, Saint Patrick’s day celebrations grew and grew. Today more than half of the US population celebrates it. The city of Chicago even dyes its river green. In Ireland, we don’t dye the rivers green but there are parades, dances, drinking, and cultural events like Seachtain na Gaeilge or Irish Language Week.
Worldwide, more than 13 million pints of Guinness, Ireland’s famous stout beer, are served on St. Patrick’s Day. Arthur Guinness was part of a group of pioneers that revolutionized brewing during the industrial revolution. He decided to open his brewery at St. James’ Gate Dublin in 1759.
Signing a famous 9,000-year lease for £45 per year. Quite annoying because I used to live next door to this brewery and my rent was much higher than £45!! Guinness was an international success and was shipped all over the world.
The first brewery abroad opened in 1963 in Nigeria, only two years after the country became independent. Guinness is so popular there that some Nigerians think of Guinness as their national beer and they are the world’s second-largest consumer of Guinness.
In Ireland, up until quite recently, Guinness was associated with good health. For many years doctors prescribed Guinness to postoperative patients, blood donors, and pregnant women, believing it was rich in iron. While industrial-scale brewing made Arthur Guinness other factory-owners rich, many workers were crushed by the industrial malt mill, drowned in beer vats, or asphyxiated by the CO2 generated by fermentation.
London had a deadly incident in 1814 when a 6.7m tall (22 foot) wooden vat filled with porter beer burst. The half a million liters beer “tsunami” flooded a neighborhood and killed 8 people. But the Industrial Revolution didn’t just affect the brewing process, it changed the palate too.
During the Industrial Revolution, the deep, rich, heavy porters and stouts of the working class were all the rage but then BOOM…IMPERIALISM. Tea and coffee took over Europe as they poured in from overseas colonies and the emerging Middle Classes developed a taste for bitter drinks. Light and bitter Pale beers rose in popularity. AND THEN IMPERIALISM STRIKES AGAIN! On the other side of the planet, the British Indian army waited impatiently in the Indian heat for their beer.
Dark beers kept arriving stale and skunky. After six months of rocking at the bottom of a ship, what did they expect? Then some companies tried sending some paler beer packed with hops, which, as we have seen, is a powerful preservative. The beer was, not very creatively, named Indian Pale Ale, or IPA for short.
Let’s go up to 19th century China and see what’s going on. BOOM IMPERIALISM STRIKETH YET AGAIN!
In 1897, Imperial German naval troops went to the other side of the planet to seize the Chinese fort at Tsingtao, The Germans built a small village near the fort, and by 1903 the city was attracting investors. Among them were the founders of Germania Brewery, which later became Tsingtao Brewery. In the beginning, Tsingtao Beer was brewed by the German Reinheitsgebot (Purity Law), but after the company was privatized in the 1990s Tsingtao added rice to the beer. Nowadays, Tsingtao is the second largest brewery in China, with more than 17% of the domestic market, and 4.4% of the global beer production.
Germany also changed the beer history of another country. In the 19th century, Germans went to America by the hundreds of thousands. By the end of the century, there were an estimated 2.8 million Germans living in the US. Adolphus Busch was one of them. He partnered with Eberhard Anheuser, to establish what would become the biggest beer company in the world: Anheuser-Busch. Busch made many improvements in beer production including pasteurization and refrigeration. After a trip to Bohemia, the modern Czech Republic, he developed Budweiser, the biggest beer brand in the world. Which kind of annoyed the Czechs who had a beer already called Budweiser for about 800 years. The dispute between Budweiser and…Budweiser is why the American Budweiser is called just BUD in Europe. Today Anheuser-Busch sales exceed 52 billion dollars a year, nearly 30% of the world market.
By the end of the 19th-century, drunkenness was becoming a social problem in the United States and the Americans reacted harshly. From 1920 until 1933, alcoholic beverages were outlawed across the US. Companies that had made fortunes in the decades before were suddenly struggling to survive, selling anything from malt extract and “tonics” to ice-creams. When Prohibition ended and the market picked up again after the end of World War II, almost all small breweries had died out.
Beer brewing was now in the hands of gigantic corporations. Beer corporations became masters of the new science of marketing and soon TV sets were filled with beer advertisements and refrigerators were stocked with cold beer that was cheap, bottled, mass-produced, and mass-marketed.
In the last 20 years, small breweries have made a comeback. Brewing their unique beers. Beer drinkers can now enjoy a beer of all flavors, you can even drink a beer called GILGAMESH based on the earliest beers brewed in Sumeria.
Since 2010 an average of 190 billion liters of beer have been produced every year. It is the most consumed beverage on Earth after water and tea. And each time a pint is raised to welcome friends, to wish good health, to toast a new marriage, or to remember lost loved ones, it is an act that has been repeated by humans every day for the last 10,000 years. Today maybe we don’t believe beer connects us with the gods, but there is still some magic in it.
Although if you want to use beer to feel connected to the gods again you can head to Guatemala and share a cigarette or a beer with Maximon a Maya Folk saint. Evan from the channel Rare Earth did just that in this video over on Nebula.