The history of beer


- and how it helped civilisation

According to William Bostwick, the renowned Second World War artist who created chart-maps for the invasions of Sicily and Normandy, humankind was built on beer.

He famously said: ‘From the world’s first writing to its first laws, in rituals social, religious, and political, civilization is soaked in beer.’

And it seems he may well be right given how long it has been around and how many different varieties exist around the world – from dark, heavy beer to the lighter, lager-style versions produced today.

Beer and civilisation

Many scholars on the subject believe the history of beer is the history of human civilization. Some anthropologists believe that man moved away from a hunter-gatherer existence to a settled agriculture-based existence just so they could take up brewing on a large scale!

Although this is conjecture, there is plenty of evidence to show that virtually every living being enjoys alcohol to some level.

Fruit, when ripe, gives on a smell that attracts animals to tell them it is full of sugar and ready to eat. Ripe fruit can be alcoholic when naturally occurring yeast starts to consumer the sugar – hence animals of all kinds will have experienced the intoxicating result of the process.

One of the great turning points for ancient humanity was the discovery of a method by which sugar could actually be created and fermented into alcohol in the absence of honey or fruit. This technique was the start of what we now call brewing.

Many people think of the German drinking culture and believe that is where the home of this drink lies. However, while many modern beer styles have been developed in Europe, the first barley beer was most likely born in the Middle East.

There is evidence to suggest the first beer production dates back 5,000 years to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia – meaning beer is one of the oldest drinks humans have produced.

Any cereal containing sugar has the potential to ferment because of wild yeasts in the air and it is likely that drinks similar to beer were developed where communities had domesticated the growth of different types of grain.

Safer than water

When the first brews were made, beer was  considered to be a healthier alternative to water – and  became the daily drink of choice for everyone from royals to peasants.

Beer was brought to Britain principally by the Danes and the Saxons and brewed in monasteries. During the black death (and since in times of water borne disease epidemics) beer proved a valuable and safe source of liquid to the population, due to its alcoholic content.

Global business

The industrial revolution lead to the construction of many large breweries in England. The microscope revolutionised scientific understanding, allowed the discovery of yeast and detailed analysis of the fermentation process (this work was predominantly carried out by Louis Pasteur). New specialised forms of yeast were cultivated, allowing the production of a range of lagers and beers.

Today, the brewing industry is a global business, consisting of several dominant multinational companies and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewpubs to regional breweries – as shown by the many beer festivals and beer days that exist to feed the interest of drinkers.

More than 35 billion gallons are sold per year—producing total global revenues in excess of £150bn.