Saturday, April 08, 2006
A Short History of Beer
I like beer. I like to think of beer as a culturing agent much as many people think of wine. The consumption of beer, its enjoyment and the critiquing of the many varieties lends mankind a substance for comraderie, critical evaluation and cultural pride. Of course beer can be a social lubricant, but it can also be an attractive accompaniment to food. It is one of my goals to introduce the finer varieties of beer to the American public so that they can understand that a fine meal does not need a fine wine to accompany it; a fine beer can do the job quite nicely. In this effort I'd like to introduce a very short history of beer, one of my favorite subjects.
The earliest mention of beer in historical writings dates back to the Sumerian civilization about 6000 years ago. The "beer" the Sumerians drank was undoubtedly very different than what modern beer has become. In the third millenium B.C., beer is prominently mentioned in the epic poem, Gilgamesh. The poem describes the journey of a man (or mankind) from a savage, unkempt beast to a civilized, and cultured person. It is interesting that this tranformation was wrought upon the man by a harlot, sent to him by the demi-god, Gilgamesh, to learn his weaknesses:
"They placed food in front of him,
they placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
and of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
he drank the beer-seven jugs!-- and became expansive and sang with joy!
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human."
In ancient Babylonia, one of Hammurabi's famous laws, was one which decreed a standard measure of beer for it's citizens. Of course, this early form of entitlement was doled out in differing measure, depending upon the class of the citizen.
In the Middle Ages, brewing became very popular in the many European monasteries. This was the time when brewing began to be entrusted to men, as previously it had been, along with cooking and breadmaking, the job of women. Monks brewed beer because they needed a nutritious drink to serve with their meals, which were few and frugal at best. Since beer was not considered food, it could be consumed while fasting. European monks developed quite the appetite for beer. This turned into a commercial enterprise for them, as they produced more than they could consume, and the monastic pubs were enormously popular. Monks introduced scientific improvements to the brewer's art. It is no surprise that Belgian monasteries have produced some of the most celebrated beer in the world.
During this time, the science of brewing was poorly understood. When beers didn't turn out properly (probably because of sanitation problems as germs were not known to exist, yet), superstition took over. Brew witches or beer witches were blamed for many a bad brewday, and burnings were common. The last known burning of a beer witch occurred in 1591. It was around this time that the use of hops became near standard in the brewing of beer in Europe. Before this the flavoring, spicing and bittering agents used included many herbs and spices; some of them actually poisonous or hallucenogenic in nature. The famous German Beer Purity Law of 1516 helped to ensure that beer was produced according to accepted safe standards. Known in Germany as the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law decreed that beer could be made only with Barley, water and hops (the unacknowledged ingredient, yeast, being an unknown entity at the time). This law, still in effect today, is the oldest food purity law in existence. The EU looked upon this law as counter-competitive, though, and insisted that beer imports into Germany be allowed, even if they do not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, as long as they are so labeled.
Until the nineteenth century, technology required brewers to produce ales when the weather was warm and lagers only when the weather was cold enough to allow the low-temperature fermentation required by lager yeasts. As cooling technologies were developed (fittingly, the first refrigerating technology was tested in a Munich brewery), brewers were freed from these natural constraints and lager beers began to be produced all year round. The lager beers began to be prized as the "new beer", as any technological innovation seems to become the popular fad, and they nearly fazed out the older ale styles in the late nineteenth century. The knowledge of microbes was introduced to the world, finally absolving the poor beer witches of yore,, and sanitation improved considerably. Pasteur himself learned much about the germ world through his studies of beer, published in 1876. Yeast was "discovered" and isolated to allow brewers to use the many different strains to produce markedly different flavor profiles, and machinery such as steam engines allowed the brewing process, as well as the transportation of beer, to become mechanized.
Beer styles often arose as a result of historical and political occurrences. The enormous panoply of varied beer styles in Belgium resulted from the isolation of the monks in the different monasteries, the competition between these monasteries for customers, and the competition with wineries in the beverage market. In England, during it's colonial heyday, beer was produced and transported to England's many far-away colonies. In order for a beer to make the trip, in the days before modern pasteurization was possible, beer needed to be over-hopped and higher in alcohol than normal to make the beer more resistant to spoilage. The development of an entirely new style of beer was the solution and the Imperial Pale Ale (IPA)was born. In the 1800's many English brewers saw a geat market in Imperial Russia. The Baltic Porter style was long popular in the area, and English brewers wanted to outdo the favored style of the Russians to win over the czar's favor: the Russian Imperial Stout was the result. Baltic Porters are dark, malty beers with a strong alcohol content(7% +), again to aid in retarding spoilage during the trip from England to Russia and beyond. The Russian Imperial Stout is the development of a truly high octane stout, sometimes reaching over 10% in alcohol content. These are the kings of stout beers, boasting a pronounced malt profile, with roasted, toasted and chocolatey malt flavors as well as fruity hints and higher alcoholic notes. My favorite beer of this style is made right here in Michigan by The Kalamazoo Brewing Company. It is called Bell's Expedition Stout. Give it a try!