Many topics have been discussed over a.
pint of beer; religion, politics, even the origins of the universe. Not
many people ponder the origins of the foamy brew in front of them. In North
America, beer, ale, brewskis, frosty units, or whatever we know it by,
is taken for granted. How, in fact, did this popular beverage come
into being and what brought it to North America? After all, North
America is the largest beer producing continent in the world. To attempt
to answer this question will require traveling back in time about 8000
years to ancient Mesopotamia. Researchers believe that Mesopotamia was
the starting point of modern civilization, and that this is where plant
domestication first began. Not surprisingly this also seems to be the birth
place of our frothy concoction, because the first farming of barley seems
to have taken place here.
Barley, of course, is the main ingredient of beer.
Archaeologists have found traces of beer in earthenware pots found on the
site of this ancient civilization and, thanks to modern carbon dating,
this beer is known to be between 5,000 and 10,000 years old. (Takes away
the apprehension about drinking those 6 month old beers in the fridge,
right?) Those who have some knowledge of the beer making process
may be saying, "Wait a minute, just because you have barley doesn't mean
you have beer". This is true but the other two ingredients for making beer
were readily at hand; namely, yeast and water. Mesopotamia was located
in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates river in what is now parts
of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. The area between these rivers was a fertile
crescent which was lush with wild fruit bearing plants. Microscopic organisms
(yeast), which aid in the decaying process, are present on leaves and fruit
of many plants and often become airborne. We have barley, yeast and water
but these ancient people were no brewmeisters, so the story probably went
something like this:
Our ancestor Norman Neanderthal had evolved to the
point where he no longer wanted to roam and gather to survive, but he would
much rather use the resources at hand so he would have more time to hang
out with his pals. He tried eating the abundant kernels of barley
but found he could not chew them, and they did not sit well in his stomach.
Since he didn't want to go looking for something else to eat, he decided
to work with what he had (human laziness has necessitated many inventions).
He found soaking the barley in water softened it up a bit, but it took
a while. So Norm dug a pit and used an earlier invention, 'fire', to boil
up some of the grain and it worked well. Soon the whole family was
enjoying a nutritious gruel. Soon after, Norm found himself
to be thirsty and not wanting to walk a11 the way to the river, he scooped
up some of this old barley water to quench his thirst. Unknown to Norm
the airborne yeasts had settled in the water and reacted with the natural
sugars that were created by boiling the barley; thus creating alcohol.
This process is known to us as 'spontaneous fermentation'. He soon got
all the rest of the gang to try it, and it became the most popular beverage
A modern day example of this spontaneous fermentation
process can be seen in Kenya and the primitive Tiriki Bantu tribe. These
people leave earthenware pots full of grain mash and water out in the open
where it can be infected by the natural yeasts. After it is ready, all
that the men in this tribe do most of the afternoon and evening is sit
around drinking beer while the women do all the work, including all the
brewing. Some North American women may have concluded that this is
a fair description of our society. They may be right, but there is no couch
for the male Bantu to be banished to when he comes home late after one
of these drinking sessions. Actually, women were the brewers (brewsters)
in the family until the middle ages then monks started brewing.
Norm and his descendants soon worked all the life
out of their soil and moved northward to the lush virtually untouched areas
of Europe. They brought the barley seed with them, which, soon was providing
bumper crops in the fertile 'Euro-soil'. The water supplies in Europe ranged
from 'rock-hard' to 'soft and gentle', which made for many regional styles
of beer. For example, one of today's popular North American beer styles
'pilsner', gets it's name from the city of Pilzen, Czech Republic, which
has very soft water. In contrast, Burton ale (pale ale) is named after
Burton on Trent, England, which has very hard water.
Plain and simple, the generally accepted categories
of beer in North America are Lagers and Ales. The difference between the
two is simply the temperature and type of yeast used in each. Indoor
brewing made spontaneous fermentation impossible but, fortunately, the
yeasts lived and cultured on the brewing equipment. This equipment was
often used for many years creating very pure regional styles of yeast.
The bottom fermenting lager yeast creates a lighter more clean character
and is the basis for most of the popular brands of commercial North American
beers. The top fermenting ale yeast creates a heavier more robust brew
and is most commonly used in many darker malt liquors. The lager
yeast works most efficiently at lower temperatures and was discovered by
the Germans who used icy caves to store their beer, in a process called
'lagering'. This categorization of beer is simple to us now but in old
Europe, it was a thing of controversy.
The English considered ale to be pure malt barley,
water and yeast and nothing else. This was the traditional brew they
had taken to heart. The Vikings soon brought their 'ol' which contained
hops and was dubbed beer. Before the Norsemen the Britons called their
beer 'cwrw' which was very hard to say especially when you have had a few.
This name was replaced by the Danish 'ol', which later became 'ale'. The
ale swilling Englishmen saw the demon hops as an adulterant to their traditional
ale and even saw it as a predator. King Henry VIII at one time outlawed
the use of hops in English ale because it was losing flavor to the new
Scandinavian styles of beer. North Americans avoid the controversy and
just drink the stuff. Hops, a member of the nettle family and first
cousin to cannabis, is a vine whose fragrant oily cones are used for the
flavouring and preservation of beer. Hops came into wide use when it was
used as a preservative to ship pale ale from England to burgeoning markets
in India and the far east. Today 'India pale ale' is a strongly hoppy style
In the race to populate the 'New World' the Dutch
were actually the first to set up established brewing operations in North
America, although the Spanish had set up a brewery in Mexico in the 1500's.
Mathew Vassar, a Dutch brewer, was responsible for bringing barley to the
New York area, although there were some
native varieties of barley and hops, growing wild. Most
of the English colonists brewed small quantities in their homes or
else bought from the Dutch who profited greatly by the lack of beer exported
from Britain. George Washington was even known to brew. The war of independance
ended ale shipments from England which
spurred a vibrant brewing industry in the United States; especially
in Philadelphia. In the 1870's Adolphus Busch, the American Beer baron,
during a trip to Budweis in Bohemia liked the beer so much he introduced
a similar beer to the USA. Now Budweiser is the worlds' largest seller.
Brewers such as Molson, Labatt and Carling were responsible
for the expansion of beer to Canada. When English beer started selling
better than imported rum, John Molson saw his chance. Molson gave out barley
seed free to anyone who would grow it and helped finance them first railroad
to Winnipeg which helped ship the barley he had imported from England.
Ironically, a shipment of Labatt beer was cargo on the first run of his
new railway. Today Labatt's is one of the largest suppliers of brewing
yeast in the world.
Thousands of years and miles away from Mesopotamia,
beer is relatively unchanged and more poplar than ever. People come and
go, species become extinct and whole civilizations disappear but beer seems
to always stay with us. Beer is an integral part of life in North America,
yet the conversation while consuming the elixir seldom includes the actual
beverage itself. The next time you take a sip of your beer remember that
you're tasting a sip of history; the history of the human race on earth
. If you find this too deep, just drink your beer and talk politics instead.