Basic information about various hobby and craft topics.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

History of Beer

The brewing of beer is an ancient craft, believed by many archeologists to be over 10,000 years old. The first domesticated grains were wheat and barley, with archeological evidence of these crops first being grown in Mesopotamia around 7000 BC. Beer making, as it depends primarily on these grains, surely made its entrance to human history shortly after the domestication of these important food crops. The first beer could have been accidentally produced. Stored grain, becoming wet, could have fermented naturally, producing beer. And the resulting brew undoubtedly both smelled and looked good to someone, who tasted it, and experienced the first hangover in history.

Before 6000 BC, beer was made from barley in Sumeria and Babylonia. Reliefs on Egyptian tombs dating from 2400 BC show that barley or partly germinated barley was crushed, mixed with water, and dried into cakes. When broken up and mixed with water, the cakes gave an extract that was fermented by microorganisms accumulated on the surfaces of fermenting vessels.

The first beer making process was very simple, given the limited technology of the time. The grains would have been fermented only a short time and this beer would not have been carbonated.

The basic techniques of brewing came to Europe from the Middle East. The Roman historians Pliny (in the 1st century BC) and Tacitus (in the 1st century AD) reported that Saxons, Celts, and Nordic and Germanic tribes drank ale. In fact, many of the English terms used in brewing (malt, mash, wort, ale) are Anglo-Saxon in origin. During the Middle Ages, the monastic orders preserved brewing as a craft. Hops were in use in Germany in the 11th century, and in the 15th century they were introduced into Britain from Holland. In 1420, beer was made in Germany by a bottom fermentation process; before that, yeast rose to the top of the fermenting product and was allowed to overflow or was manually skimmed. Brewing was a winter occupation, and ice was used to keep beer cool during the summer months. Such beer came to be called lager (from German lagern, “to store”). The term lager is still used to denote beer produced from bottom-fermenting yeast, and the term ale is now used for top-fermented British types of beer.

Since beer was a popular beverage among our ancestors, techniques improved over time. The basic principles of brewing were developed in the Middle East and gradually spread to Europe. In the first Century BC Roman Pliny reported that the north Europeans - the Saxons, Celts, and Nordic and Germanic tribes drank ale. Indeed, many of the brewing terms used today are of Germanic origin. And the history of beer in Europe was largely written by these hardy folk.

Beer making was kept alive as a craft by monasteries during the Middle Ages. By now techniques had improved further. Nettles were used to flavor the beer, giving it a tart flavor and aroma. The grain was heated over open wood fires. This resulted in the final product having a very dark color, and smoky taste.

Germans started using hops, a relative of the nettle, to flavor beer around 1300. Hops were imported into England, but met with much resistance. Acceptance in England was slow among many, and as late as 1512 a churchman forbade the use of the "wicked pernicious weed, hops" in the brewing of ale.

Brewing in these early times was a family chore. Throughout the middle ages, and before, part of the tax paid by serfs was a quantity of beer, or ale, paid to the lord of the manor. Gradually this changed. In villages, a family would emerge as having a superior beer recipe. Neighbors would purchase beer from them, rather than indulge in the laborious process themselves. In this way alehouses were born, the brewers selling their beer to fellow villagers and travelers passing through. There developed literally thousands of different types of beer, each alehouse producing its own distinctive brew.

Scientific instruments did not exist during these early days to control the quality of the brew. By the fourteenth century an official post was created in many town - the al-conner, or ale taster. His task was to taste the brew produced by an alehouse. If it didn’t meet standards, he could downgrade the beer, reducing its price. He usually wore leather breeches and sat on a wooden bench. A tankard of ale was poured on the bench, and he sat for half an hour. If the bench stuck to his breeches, he ruled that the ale contained too much sugar, not enough alcohol and was downgraded. If he could stand up unhindered, the beer was of good quality.

In England, colleges brewed their own ale. This was continued through the 14th century. After this time the practice gradually went away, by mid 18th century only four remained. Queens College in Oxford brewed continuously for 600 years, until World War II.

Until the early fifteenth century beer was made by using a top fermenting yeast. The fermenting yeast was allowed to overflow the fermenting container, or was skimmed off with a wooden paddle or spoon. The Germans around 1420 developed a bottom fermenting yeast, which produced a beer which would store for longer periods than the previous beers. As beer making was primarily a winter occupation, and the beer was stored using ice procured from lakes, rivers, and ponds during the winter, this was an important development. The German word "lagern", meaning, "to store" caused these beers to be called "lagers". This is the primary type of beer drank in Germany and US today. English ales are still produced using top fermenting yeast.

The nineteenth century saw a general increase in scientific study and advancement. These new technologies launched the Industrial Revolution, which touched every aspect of life, including beer making. Heated rotating bins were developed to improve drying the malt, producing a lighter, golden beer. Refrigeration enabled the brewing process to be scheduled year round, instead of seasonal production. This also allowed beer to be shipped greater distances. A direct result of this is the existence of the larger brewers today shipping their product all over the world.

Also developed during this period were two important instruments for brewing - the sachrometer and thermometer. With the thermometer the precise temperature of the beer could be determined and controlled from start to finish. The sachrometer is a glass instrument which floats in the liquid. By the level at which it floats, the graduations on the side of the instrument indicate the sugar content of a liquid. It was now easier to ascertain when a brew was finished fermenting, and the alcohol content could be determined accurately.

Most important was the research of Louis Pasteur in the 1860’s. Previous to Pasteur, it was believed that fermentation was caused by organisms created spontaneously in the fermenting brew. He proved that yeast were the creatures responsible for fermentation, and that they, along with other organisms, were present in the air to which the fermenting brew was exposed. The other organisms sometimes contaminated the fermenting brew, causing it to go bad. With this knowledge, brewers could now isolate the best yeast cultures and have more control over the brewing process.

The Industrial Revolution brought the mechanization of brewing. Better control over the process, with the use of the thermometer and saccharometer, was developed in Britain and transferred to the Continent, where the development of ice-making and refrigeration equipment in the late 19th century enabled lager beers to be brewed in summer. In the 1860s the French chemist Louis Pasteur established many of the microbiological practices still used in brewing. The Danish botanist Emile Hansen devised methods for growing yeasts in culture free of other yeasts and bacteria. This pure-culture technology was quickly taken up by continental lager brewers but not until the 20th century by the ale brewers of Britain. Meanwhile, German-style bottom-fermented lagers fermented by pure yeast cultures became dominant in the Americas.

Brewing has become very big business. Modern breweries use stainless-steel equipment and computer-controlled automated operations, and they package beer in metal casks, glass bottles, aluminum cans, and plastic containers. Beers are now exported worldwide and are produced under license in foreign countries. During the late 1970’s the large brewers in the US bought out or forced out of business many smaller, regional breweries, resulting in less variety in beer types available. By the 1990’s, in response to consumer demand, smaller microbreweries and brewpubs began operations, producing handcrafted local brews on a smaller scale, mimicking the small alehouses of long ago.

Technology has also made brewing simpler for the home beer maker. Modern kits allow the home brewer too easily and conveniently produce their own brew in their homes, like our ancestors did many centuries ago, when home beer making was a family craft. The history of brewing and beer making is a fascinating field of study.

© THC Toys, Hobbies and Crafts 2012

Home Beer Making

© Hobby Hobnob 2012

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