The Fascinating Chronological History of Beer

history of beerCredit: Mikhail Kokhanchikov/123RF


According to 2017 statistical figures, the worldwide production of beer equaled a whopping 190 billion liters (190 million kiloliters) or 50 billion gallons. The estimated global revenue from beer is beyond $300 billion (back in 2006, it was $294 billion), which is actually more than the projected revenue of all the movie and TV industries of the world in the current state. Befitting such astronomical numbers associated with the beverage, the beer does boast its rich history.

To that end, beer is not only one of the earliest beverages consumed by mankind but also one of the earliest sources of ‘cooked’ nutrients preferred by a significant percentage of the population even 5,000 years ago (since beer was initially consumed in a gruel-like form). Considering all these factors, let us take a gander at ten things you should know about the chronological history of beer.

Earliest Known Archaeological Evidence for Beer (circa 11,000 BC) 

history of beer
Credit: Dani Nadel, University of Haifa / Source: TimesofIsrael

A Stanford University study concluded in September of 2018 revealed the world’s oldest known evidence for beer making. To that end, an international team of scientists found at least three 13,000-year-old stone mortars, and their residues confirmed a sort of beer-brewing operation.

The incredible discovery was made in proximity to a graveyard site called the Raqefet Cave, in the Carmel Mountains near Haifa, Israel. According to the researchers, the mortars were probably operated by a semi-nomadic people known as the Natufians (who lived in the Levant from late Paleolithic to Neolithic age), and the resultant brew had a more gruel-like consistency, as opposed to the effervescent nature of the modern beer.

As the scientists wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science

They packed plant-foods, including malted wheat/barley, in fiber-made containers and stored them in boulder mortars. They used bedrock mortars for pounding and cooking plant-foods, including brewing wheat/barley-based beer likely served in ritual feasts ca. 13,000 years ago. This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world.

It has long been speculated that the thirst for beer may have been the stimulus behind cereal domestication, which led to a major social-technological change in human history; but this hypothesis has been highly controversial. We report here of the earliest archaeological evidence for cereal-based beer brewing by a semi-sedentary, foraging people.

The Chinese Angle (circa 7000 – 6000 BC)

history of beer
Source: Stanford University

The early Neolithic village of Jiahu in China’s Henan province revealed almost 9,000-year-old residues of what must have been a fascinating concoction of rice, honey, and fruit (both hawthorne and grapes). In fact, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), this prehistoric drink from the Neolithic Age possibly ‘inspired’ the cereal beverages found inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties, from circa 2nd millennium BC.

Interestingly enough, the very same site in Henan also yielded the earliest known playable instruments, the earliest known domesticated rice in northern China, and possibly also the earliest Chinese pictographic writing.

Back in 2016, Stanford University researchers also managed to recreate 5,000-year-old Chinese beer recipes based on the residues found at the Mijiaya archaeological site in China’s Shaanxi province. The original composite, in that case, was found to have broomcorn millet, a chewy wild grain known as Job’s tears, tubers, and the surprisingly ‘secret’ ingredient of barley.

Pertaining to the latter, the surprising part entails how the earliest evidence of barley seeds in China only dates from around 4,000 years ago. But the earlier presence of barley as an ingredient in the aforementioned beer recipe suggests that the crop was introduced to China (possibly from western Asia) primarily for making alcohol, and was only later adopted into a staple food.

The inclusion of this item, along with other ingredients like yam and lily root parts, made the ancient beer more porridge-like in its consistency with a sweeter and fruitier flavor – and it was consumed through straws.

And interestingly enough, China is currently the largest consumer of beer (in terms of mass, NOT per capita), with 2010 figures showcasing how the country consumed 45 billion liters or approx. 12 billion gallons – which is almost twice that of the United States.

The Mesopotamian Penchant for Beer (circa 3500 BC)

history of beer
A modern stylized depiction of Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian tutelary goddess of beer. Source: Pinterest

The oldest known standard recipe for brewing beer comes from ancient Mesopotamia. Simply put, the first deliberate production of beer (or ale) in history can be attributed as one of the achievements of Sumerians, with the evidence of the oldest known surviving beer recipe contained within a 3900-year-old poem – Hymn to Ninkasi.

Now in terms of Mesopotamian mythology, Ninkasi was the ancient Sumerian tutelary goddess of beer (and alcohol). Symbolizing the socially important role of women in brewing and preparation of beverages in ancient Mesopotamia, the entity (whose actual depictions have not survived the rigors of time) historically also alluded to how beer consumption in itself was an important marker for societal and civilized virtues.

To give an example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest known epic, the wild man Enkidu “did not know how to eat bread, / nor had he ever learned to drink beer!”, with the second phrase suggesting how drinking beer was seen as a ‘quality’ of a civilized person.

At the same time, the literary work also mentions the ‘social lubrication’ aspect of beer, with Enkidu, who later becomes Gilgamesh’s deeply beloved friend, enjoying his fair share of the beverage – “…he ate until he was full, drank seven pitchers of beer, his heart grew light, his face glowed and he sang out with joy.”

As for some of the excerpts from the 3900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi (the Hymn to Ninkasi), translated by Miguel Civil, they read like this –

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Coming to the historical scope of beer consumption, while its first known literary evidence, in the form of the Hymn to Ninkasi, dates from circa 1800 BC, the ‘brewing song’ in itself is undoubtedly older. In other words, beer was made and consumed in Mesopotamia long before the onset of the 19th century BC.

In fact, archaeological evidence for brewing beer in the Mesopotamian region dates back to circa 3500 BC (or possibly even before), with researchers being able to identify chemical traces of beer in a fragmented jar at the ancient Sumerian trading settlement of Godin Tepe, in modern-day Iran. As for their consumption method, given the thick consistency of the beer, drinking straws were used to circumvent the bitter solids leftover from the fermentation process.

The Oldest Known ‘Payslip’ (circa 3000 BC)

history of beer
Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, boasts a lasting legacy that relates to many of humanity’s ‘firsts’. One among them pertains to a 5,000-year-old artifact originally salvaged from the city of Uruk (in modern-day Iraq). Inscribed with the pictorial language of cuneiform, this tablet dating from around 3300 BC, depicts a human head eating from a bowl and drinking from a conical vessel.

The bowl represents ‘ration’, while the conical glass alludes to the consumption of beer. And more than just this human visage, the tablet is also marked with scratches that basically record the quantity of beer assigned to each worker.

Simply put, the ancient Mesopotamian artifact is the world’s oldest known payslip that rather hints at how the hierarchical system of workers and employers existed even five millenniums ago – and they were possibly connected by exchange of beer.

And even beyond Mesopotamia, the concept (and system) of paying the beer to workers was also prevalent in ancient Egypt, circa 25th century BC. For example, around a total of 4-5 liters of beer (brewed from emmer wheat) were assigned daily to the laborers working on the Great Pyramid of Giza.

And since beer, during this time, was consumed as gruel, as opposed to a light drink, it formed an important part of their daily quota of nutrition. Some of the later ancient Egyptian beer varieties possibly even involved the use of dates as an ‘exotic’ ingredient.

Iron Age Beer Making (circa 5th century BC – 5th century AD)

history of beer
Source: BalkanCelts

Xenophon talked about the production of an ancient fermented drink from wheat, barley, and vegetables in one of the villages of Armenia. Beer, as a beverage, was also popular in the western and northern parts of Europe during both the Greek and the Roman era.

And while the Mediterranean factions tended to look down upon its consumption by Celtic and Germanic people (for example, in Rome, wine was preferred and beer was perceived as a drink of the ‘barbarians’ – noted by Tacitus), beer did become popular even with the Roman legionaries serving in far-flung territories, as is evident from archaeological discoveries made at the Vindolanda fort in Britain.

And in what turned out to be one of the earliest pieces of evidence of beer-making in Sweden, researchers at Lund University were able to identify carbonized germinated grains at the archaeological site of Uppåkra. These grains allude to how malt was produced for large-scale beer-making in Scandinavia as early as the Iron Age (with coincides roughly with the period between 400 – 600 AD, in the Nordic region).

Mikael Larsson, a specialist in archaeobotany and one of the participants in the study, also talked about the potential high production of beer in the area –

Because the investigated oven and carbonized grain was situated in an area on the site with several similar ovens, but absent of remains to indicate a living quarter, it is likely that large-scale production of malt was allocated to a specific area on the settlement, intended for feasting and/or trading.

From other archaeological sites in the Nordic region, traces of the bog-myrtle plant have been found, which indicates beer brewing. Back then, bog-myrtle was used to preserve and flavor beer. It wasn’t until later during the Middle Ages that hops took over as beer flavoring.

The Nubian Antibiotic Beer (circa 2nd-4th century AD)

history of beer
Funerary stele from Amarna, circa 1350 BC.

An analysis of bones of ancient Nubian people made in 2010 revealed the presence of tetracycline, an antibiotic that is also used in our modern times for treating bacterial infections. The bones specimens were nearly 2,000 years old – of people who lived in the Nubian kingdom circa 350 AD.

And thus the study yet again hinted at how antibiotics were (possibly) familiar to ancient populations before the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. And the interesting part is – the Nubians probably took in tetracycline through their special beer concoctions that were more akin to sour porridge.

According to the researchers, there is strong evidence that the Nubians possibly knew that their beer concoctions made from grain were laced with tetracycline (in their eyes, it was laced with something ‘beneficial’, since the concept of antibiotics was unknown to ancient people).

Now in historical terms, the first batch of beer was possibly contaminated by Streptomyces, a soil bacteria that produces tetracycline and also thrives in arid conditions such as Nubia (the land encompassing present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt).

But the Nubians, over time, must have noticed how the ‘accidental’ tetracycline antibiotic cured them of various bacterial ailments. So they devised ingenious ways to propagate and brew this particular variety of beer and consumed them as a part of their diet.

It should also be noted that Streptomyces can produce a golden-colored bacterial colony on the top of the beer, and this particular hue might have enticed the Nubians to consume more of this special ‘antibiotic’ beer (since gold was venerated by many ancient cultures).

But unfortunately, as with many historical traditions of observed science, this specific art of brewing the tetracycline beer was probably lost to time. And lastly, if we stretch the ambit a bit, the profusion of Streptomyces in these African regions might also explain the antibiotic resistance showcased by the native fauna.

The Beer ‘Influence’ of the Norsemen (circa 8th century AD)

history of beer
Illustration by Angus McBride

Quite intriguingly, back in 2014, Davide Zori, the field director for the Mosfell Archaeological Project, had shed light on the intrinsic relationship between a Viking chieftain and consumed alcohol. His study points to a perspective that the Icelandic Vikings took part in those grand beer-and-beef feasts not just because of their propensity to drink, but also to cement their political footing in captured lands and colonies.

In essence, the feasts were intended part of a political economy in which the chieftains took part to further their image of being the dominating ‘big man’ of the Norse society. In other words, these grandiose affairs demonstrated the political power of the said patron to both his allies and opponents (much like the ancient Celts and contemporary Anglo-Saxons).

Moreover, the investigation further suggests that the loss of alcohol-making capacity negatively affected the warlord’s influence, and as such the names of many such chieftains gradually disappeared from the Viking sagas.

Moreover, as the economy continued to fail, the lords had to opt for sheep herding. The extant findings only partly relate to this deteriorating state of affairs, while the text sources significantly allude (and provide context) to the loss of prestige among some Vikings due to a lack of beer-making capacity.

The Medieval Craft (circa 9th century AD)

history of beer
Medieval beer making. Source: Medievalists

While it may seem ironic on many levels, the practice of European beer-making in the early medieval times was rather encouraged by the Catholic Church, with many abbeys and monasteries taking a leading role in brewing. There is a theory that such endeavors resulted in high-profit margins for the institutions since beer was one of the common beverages of the early medieval times.

The consumption pattern is rather epitomized by one incident where Emperor Charlemagne (possibly) trained monks in the art of crafting beer because of its staple nature. There were also examples of 11th-century brewers’ guilds adopting patron saints for their brands.

Interestingly enough, beer was so common that many myths persist that it was consumed as an alternative to water – because the latter was perceived to be bacteria-prone and unhygienic for drinking in certain areas. However, the settlement patterns of early medieval European towns and villages do suggest that people valued water as a drinking source since such populated areas were mostly located near streams and wells.

Moreover, the supply of water (as opposed to beer) was rather increased and made more effective by technological advancements like pipe systems (by circa 13th century) that allowed city-based cisterns to be filled to their proverbial brims. Added to that, literary pieces of evidence also suggest that, while beer was popular, water was always considered the ‘essential’ drink that was to be served to weary travelers and children.

Talking of advancements, by the early 11th century (or possibly even earlier than that), beer production was ramped up in areas that now constitute Germany. This was made possible with the introduction of hops instead of grut (herb mix) which allowed for the preservation of the beer flavor, which in turn led to greater storage capacity and year-round consumption of the beverage.

Beer Purity Law or Reinheitsgebot (circa 16th century AD)

history of beer
Early 14th-century Genoese tavern scene. Source: British Library

The transition from homebrewing to standardized brewing processes was embodied by Reinheitsgebot or the Beer Purity Law. An initiative taken in the 16th century by German breweries (the best-known example dates from 1516 AD), the scope entailed a series of regulations to limit the number of ingredients in making beer, thereby upholding the ‘purity’ of these beverages.

In fact, the Bavarian law from 1516 AD had a statute that clearly underlined how pure beer from the area had to have only three chief ingredients – water, barley, and hops.

Such statutes sort of offered protected status to the Bavarian beer which boasted the lack of additives and ‘pagan’ ingredients like grut (the latter was rather advertised by the church). On the economic side of affairs, the Reinheitsgebot (and its push for barley) was formulated to prevent price competition with traditional baking ingredients like wheat and rye.

However, on the practical side of affairs, an argument can be made that, while such standardized laws upheld an element of quality associated with Bavarian beer, they also suppressed the production of different indigenous varieties of German beer from various regions.

The Advent of the Industrial Revolution (post-18th-19th century)

While yeast played its role in the fermentation of beverages and leavening of bread since ancient times, the identification of yeast as a microorganism and the related biological process was only comprehended in the late 1860s by the works of Louis Pasteur.

The consequent technique of pasteurization, along with the development of technologies like the thermometer, hydrometer, mass bottling, and commercial-level refrigeration allowed for higher production and equivalent supply of beer to different regions (and consumers).

Pertaining to the latter, the installation of railroads in the United States further increased the volumetric supply of the beverage to remote parts of the country. In terms of figures, by 1880, there were a whopping 3,200 breweries in the United States alone.

Other Online References: University of Pennyslvania / Beer100 (link here) / Dreherrt

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