This post originally appeared on Menuism.com on April 30th, 2013.
Beer in America is a fascinating dichotomy. On one hand you have the huge, multi-national corporations who brew a commodity beer and place more stock in how their brands are marketed that what goes into the brews. On the other hand there’s the growing legion of craft brewers who value innovation and flavor over everything.
It is easy to get caught-up in the beer wars and lose sight of what is really important: beer is a beverage inexorably tied to the human experience that is as delicious as it is influential.
The history of beer is long, and it’s earliest records are as fascinating as the changes that are happening in the beer-world today.
Beer Is Linked to the Development of Human Civilization
The history of fermented beverages is a fascinating, if fragmented tale. The earliest recorded recipe was a hymn to the Sumerian goddess of brewing dated to 3000BCE. The hymn lyrically explained how to brew a beer known as kas – which means “what the mouth desires.” Sounds right to us.
But long before the Sumerians were brewing beer, ancient humans made a choice that would forever change civilization: they chose to give up their nomadic lifestyles and put down roots (literally).
What could drive early humans to abandon the hunter-gather strategy that persisted for tens of thousands of years? The cultivation of cereal grains is often cited; writing for the New York Times, Jeffrey Khan sums up the theory, and some new ideas:
“Current theory has it that grain was first domesticated for food. But since the 1950s, many scholars have found circumstantial evidence that supports the idea that some early humans grew and stored grain for beer, even before they cultivated it for bread.“
The theory that the nomadic tribes founded an agricultural society in order to brew beer is gaining prominence, as is an idea that beer helped our early ancestors live together and develop a social order. Kahn continues:
“…the alcohol would have had more far-ranging effects, too, reducing the strong herd instincts to maintain a rigid social structure. In time, humans became more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative.”
The love of beer led not only to the cultivation of barley, but also to the technologies needed to maximize its production. The documentary How Beer Saved the World asserts that: “the plough, the wheel, irrigation, mathematics and even writing, all of these world-changing innovations were dreamed up to help with the production and distribution of beer.”
No one can say for sure if the desire for beer really was the tipping-point in human history that led to civilization as we know it, but any beer-lover will probably agree that it isn’t much of a stretch.
America Has Become a Driving Force in the Beer World (Again)
Jokes about American beer are common, and they often deride the ubiquitous American Light Lager for being none-too-far from water. This is no accident, the American beer industry’s move towards less flavorful beer was a calculated strategy designed to attract new beer drinkers and expand the market at the expense of true beer lovers. Now, however, American craft brewers are leading the revolution in flavorful beers, and the world is taking notice.
America changed beer forever in the 19th century when the Adolphus Busch developed refrigerated rail-cars and a network of icehouses so his beer could be transported to the thirsty west. Beer could suddenly be shipped hundreds of miles by rail without spoiling, and soon the thousands of regional breweries that served America’s population centers were competing with this cheaper, and often more consistent, beer. Many didn’t survive. Then, in 1919, prohibition was the death knell for all but around 200 American breweries.
All that was left for almost 50 years was homogenous American Light Lager: pale, bland, and largely uninspiring. It did, however, inspire one group of pioneers who had tasted the flavorful European brews to begin a homebrew revolution. The efforts of brewers like Jack McAuliffe and Ken Grossman to bring flavorful American beer back ignited the craft beer revolution.
American craft beer has only been existent for around 30 years, but in that time ingenuity and passion has led American craft brewers to develop new styles, new ingredients, and new processes for making beer that rivals that of the old-world beer giants. And beer fans have responded with a passion for drinking craft beer that matches the brewer’s passion for making it.
In recent years, European brewing powers like Belgium and Germany have begun to emulate the styles and techniques of American craft beer. The American craft beer industry is also having a big influence on the developing brewing industry in Latin American countries, New Zealand, and even a traditional bastion of wine: Italy. Places that haven’t typically be considered to have a strong brewing tradition are using American craft beer as a template for the beer they are brewing.
In one form or another, beer has been around for thousands of years. It has left an indelible mark on human culture, and historians, scientists, and brewers have dedicated their life’s work to the study of the beverage. Check out CraftBeer.com and the Menuism beer blog to continue to expand your beer knowledge.
The further you delve into the beer’s ancient history and the current trends the more fascinating it becomes. The more you learn about beer the more you can appreciate it, but the best part about beer isn’t that it rewards careful considerations. The best part about beer is that it is so easy to enjoy.