Beer History

Beer: From Tradition to Science

By: Adam Montgomery

Ancient Mesopotamia was known as the cradle of civilization. The oral tradition of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next evolved into a literate society of inscribed tablets around 7000 BC. One of the oldest known carved monuments, now located in the Louvre, was an Ancient Babylonian depicts an offering of beer to the goddess Nin-Harra.[i] Throughout time as scientific knowledge has evolved, beer has evolved with it. Beer has been the both the subject of scientific studies and the reason for scientific discoveries. It has been the subject of poems, songs, art, and government regulation. If science is a process then beer is definitely a science.

The rich soil in both Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt was perfect for the production of grains and cereals. The actual origin of beer is thought to be an accident. When the grains were inadvertently soaked from rain, or possibly dew, it became a mash. Within the mash fermentation occurs, sugars within the grain break down and alcohol is the result. Upon this discovery the Ancient Mesopotamians began to experiment with ways to flavor and perfect their beer. The oldest recipes for beer date to 1800 BC and were recorded in honor of the Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkisi. The first of these recipes for brewing the beer called for the grains to soak in water for a period of three days at which point the liquid was to be drained off causing the grains to begin to release enzymes, converting the core of the grain to starch and sugar. The resulting malt would then be ground and baked into loaves, which they would then soak in a vat of water in order to initiate fermentation. After a few days of fermentation fruits, spices, honey, or dates were added to improve taste and the final product was transferred into jars for storage and ultimately consumption.[ii] Beer was usually a shared beverage consumed in inns and taverns, it was consumed by groups of people through straws, from a communal pot. The straws were used to prevent the sour sediment leftover from the brewing process from being swallowed along with the beer.[iii] Considered some of the world’s earliest laws, the 18th-century BC BabylonianCode of Hammurabi even contains four laws regulating the sale and consumption beer and wine in early taverns.[iv] Ancient Mesopotamians believed that beer contained medicinal and even magical properties. It was believed to help sore throats, headaches, upset stomach, as well as the ability to give the drinker a feeling of enhanced happiness.

The brewing process in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (3rd-century BC) was done on a smaller scale, than that of the Mesopotamians. The beer was less likely to be produced in a commercial setting and more likely made in individual Egyptian homes that were equipped for its production.


Families would brew enough for themselves as well as enough to help support the local military units.Beer was the staple liquid of the Egyptian diet, as it was more potable than water. One account tells of an entire army becoming ill after their supply of beer ran out and they were forced to consume the local water.[v] All levels of Egyptian society consumed beer, from pharaohs to common soldiers and slaves. Beer was also used as a method of payment for workers. Egyptian mathematicians would calculate the exact amount of grain that a worker would receive as payment compared to the amount of grain used to produce a batch of beer. The amount of beer could vary depending on how much was left in the batch after the brewing process, due to loss of liquid and additives taking up space in the jugs; this lead to newer and more standard systems of measurement, not just for beer but also for liquid in general.[vi] One could argue that the entire system of liquid measurement in Ancient Egypt was the result of beer.

With the perfection of the brewing process in the New Kingdom (1600-1100 BC), came an increase in the production volume; herbal additions to act as preservatives began to make their way into the mixture. This allowed the export of beer to the Middle East and Asia Minor, and began an era of state taxation of breweries in Egypt. The industry itself began to become more refined. The discovery of adding yeast during the process gave greater control of the fermentation process and reduced the chances of spoilage.[vii] Egyptians began to siphon the beer from one vessel to another in order to effectively separate the beer and the sediment; a method still used today by home-brewers. The result was the ability to pour and serve the beer in cups and bowls rather than through straws.

As the Egyptian culture began to fade and the Greek and Romans began to rise, the production of beer remained steady in the Middle East. However, Greeks and Romans considered themselves too sophisticated for the consumption of such a barbaric beverage; they preferred the more refined drink of wine. The spread of beer, however, was not stopped by their lack of interest. The craft spread through Turkey and Israel, around the Greeks and Romans, to the Gauls, the Germanic tribes, and finally to the Celtic and Gaelic people of the British Isles. Though some of the ingredients, flavors, and colors of beer varied from culture to culture, the process of brewing remained largely same during the time of the Roman Empire.

It was only after the fall of Rome and during the Middle Ages that beer began to regain the popularity that it once possessed. The Germanic tribes of Central Europe began to spread out and brought the traditions of the household production of beer with them. The craft quickly made it’s way into monasteries, the locations of large amounts of excess grain in Europe, where first large-scale production of beer took place.

Old World Beer Brewing

 In778 AD Charlemagne even hired a personal brewer to oversee production of beer in his palace.[viii] The popularity of beer continued to rise and it was the monks that first added hops to beer sometime between 822 and 860 AD. The monk’s discovery of adding hops to beer added both flavor and preservative properties, making storage and transportation much simpler. Yet it wasn’t until the 10th-century that the use of hops began to spread throughout Europe.[ix]

With the addition of hops, the beer industry began to urbanize and commercialize. By the 11th century landlords in Britain saw the potential income of commercial breweries and began to establish them on their estates. Many of those who previously found profit from the baking industry were easily able to convert the equipment used in the making of bread for use in the brewing of beer.[x]

Advances in metallurgy paved the way for larger copper vessels for brewing, and thus larger breweries. As the cities became more densely populated, fewer people had the space to brew their own beer.[xi] Large commercial breweries began to rise in industrial centers in Britain during the 12th century to compensate for the lack of suitable drinking water and the shrinking number of home brewers. Hops was now commercially grown in Britain rather than imported from continental Europe, this, along more hops meaning less added sugar, further lowered the cost to the manufacturers. By the 14th century northern European brewers began to see some great success and large profits.

The industry thrived during the 15th century, as long as two countries were not at war and engaged in trade they traded beer. In 1447, the Munich government issued the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian public oath of purity, which allowed the use of only barley, hops and water in Bavarian beer.[xii] By 1487 Duke Albrecht IV enforced the Bavarian purity law in all of Munich, and in 1516 it was applied to all of feudal Bavaria, and later all of Germany. The law gave the government quality control over the ingredients, the brew process, and the quality of beer produced in commercial breweries; it is considered the first food quality law not only in Germany, but also the world. The original text of the Reinheitsgebot, that “towns, market places and on throughout the country[…]that beer should only be brewed from water, barley, and hops” was carefully worded, so that it only applied to towns, and therefore only commercial manufacturers. This gave the small brewer, like Duke Albrecht IV himself, outside the established towns the ability to produce more complex wheat beers for themselves. Another reason for the law had nothing to do with the purity of beer. Price competition between brewers and bakers in Bavarian cities became an issue. The bakers wasted required cereals, herbs, and spices for their bread, and brewers desired the same products for wheat beers.[xiii] The Reinheitsgebot allowed the brewers and bakers to coexist without driving each prices up, an early form of government price manipulation. The law remained on record in Germany until 1987, when the European Court claimed that it restricted free trade. However, many German brewers still claim loyalty to the original 1516 version of the Reinheitsgebot (for advertising purposes), though the yeast that they use was not among the originally allowed ingredients.[xiv]

In the 16th century, there was a stall in the British beer industry. During the reign of Henry VIII, the use of hops in any British ale was outlawed. It wasn’t until the reign of Elizabeth I in 1558, 11 years after the death of Henry VIII, that restrictions on beer production were lifted. She herself enjoyed the taste of beer as long as it wasn’t overly strong.

To this point, the brewing of beer has been mostly tradition, with a distinct lack of scientific experimentation involved in the process. The Dutch scientist Antonj van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was the first to look at beer scientifically and observe fermenting beer under a microscope. In his spare time, Leeuwenhoek’s hobbies included metalworking and lens making, which allowed him to expand upon current microscope designs. Leeuwenhoek’s new microscope was able to achieve an astounding 300x magnification and he became the first to describe yeast in microscopic detail in 1680, thus becoming the first to discover microbial life.[xv]

Then, in 1826, the French scientist, Dèsmazieres, discerned that the organism that he saw in the beer was animal rather than plant. He made no mention of whether these yeasts played an active role in the fermentation process, nor did he give any other reason why these organisms would be in beer. By 1876 a group of Royal Society, known as the “Bacterium Club”, placed themselves in various breweries throughout Britain in order to study brewing and fermentation in depth. They were the first to approach the beer industry in a purely scientific manor and report their results. Their studies lead to the formation of the Brewing Industry Research Foundation in 1946, the premier scientific research group in Britain.[xvi]

Louis_PasteurScientists continued to debate the actual reason that fermentation occurred until the famed chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur determined the function of yeast in beer. In 1860 Pasteur concluded that fermentation was the result of life without oxygen. Yeast cells feed on the decomposing sugar, containing oxygen, the result of the reaction being alcohol and carbonic acid (carbon dioxide in liquid). He believed that through his work, the brewing process could be manipulated in such a way that beer could be brewed independent of the seasons and without the need for expensive means of cooling. His ultimate goal was a superior product could be produced, at any time of the year, and at a lower cost to both the manufacturer and the consumer.[xvii] Pasteur’s fermentation studies lead him to believe that spoiled batches of beer are caused by an infiltration of germs. The most obvious source of the germs he attributed to the exposure of the beer to air, especially as the mixture cooled. Pasteur’s investigation into the microscopic fermentation process lead to the conclusion that while germs from air exposure or unsanitary conditions are the likely reason for spoilage, an infection in the yeast itself could also result in spoiled beer. These discoveries moved the industry away from wild strains of yeast and toward the practice of using professionally cultivated yeast.[xviii] While Pasteur’s work came at the end of the Industrial Revolution it was the Scientific Revolution for the beer industry.

Pasteur was not the only person attempting to advance beer production in the 19th century. Brewers throughout the world began employing chemists. The Schlitz’s and Pabst breweries in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1883 and 1887 respectively, both adopted the practice of cultivating their own yeast and keeping full time chemists to constantly evolve their product.[xix]

Today most major breweries have a full time chemist on staff. While the scientific advancement and study of beer has changed over the past 150 years, the fundamentals of brewing have not. With a little knowledge and an inexpensive kit, anyone can brew small batches of beer in their own home. The industry has evolved so that home brewers can produce superior products with a very small risk of spoilage.

Beer helped keep people alive and was the reason for some of advancements in mathematics in ancient Egypt. It was enjoyed and brewed by the common man and by pharaohs, kings, queens, and presidents. Brewers today are still attempting to recreate recipes from those of the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, to those of America’s earliest presidents, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. From oral tradition to scientific study, beer has been both a reason and a cause; and the tradition will continue until “La Fin Du Monde” (The End of the World).

 Works Cited

Baron, Stanley, Brewed in America: A History of Beer and Ale in the United States, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962.

Dayagi-Mendels, Michal, Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times, Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1999.

DeLyser, D. Y. and W. J. Kasper, “Hopped Beer: The Case for Cultivation,” Economic Botany, Vol. 48, no. 2, (Apr. – Jun., 1994): p.166-170, (accessed March 3, 2012).

Dorbusch, Horst D., Prost! The Story of German Beer, Boulder: Brewer Publications, Division of the Association of Brewers, 1997.

Heilbron, Ian, “Brewing in Relation to Natural Science,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 143, no. 911, (Jan. 27, 1955): p.178-191, (accessed March 3, 2012).

Hornsey, Ian S., A History of Beer and Brewing, Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.

Sigsworth, E. M., “Science and the Brewing Industry, 1850-1900,” The Economic History Review, Vol. 17, no. 3, (1965): p.536-550, (accessed March 3, 2012).

Thone, Frank, “Beer-Making 8,000 Years Ago,” The Science Newsletter, Vol. 19, no. 531, (Jun. 13, 1931): p.378-380, (accessed March 3, 2012).

Unger, Richard W., Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.



[i] Frank Thone, “Beer-Making 8,000 Years Ago,” The Science Newsletter, Vol. 19, no. 531, (Jun. 13, 1931): p.378, (accessed March 3, 2012).

[ii] Michal Dayagi-Mendels, Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times, (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1999), p.113.

[iii] Ian S. Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing, (Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003), p.86.

[iv] Hornsey, 112.

[v] Dayagi-Mendels, 118.

[vi] Hornsey, 43-4.

[vii] Hornsey, 63.

[viii] Unger, 27.

[ix] D. Y. DeLyser and W. J. Kasper, “Hopped Beer: The Case for Cultivation,” Economic Botany, Vol. 48, no. 2, (Apr. – Jun., 1994): p.169, (accessed March 3, 2012).

[x] Unger, 40.

[xi] Unger, 40.

[xii] Horst D. Dorbusch, Prost! The Story of German Beer, (Boulder: Brewer Publications, Division of the Association of Brewers, 1997), p.43.

[xiii] Hornsey, 321.

[xiv] Dorbusch, 45.

[xv] Hornsey, 404.

[xvi] Ian Heilbron, “Brewing in Relation to Natural Science,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 143, no. 911, (Jan. 27, 1955): p.179, (accessed March 3, 2012).

[xvii] E. M. Sigsworth, “Science and the Brewing Industry, 1850-1900,” The Economic History Review, Vol. 17, no. 3, (1965): p.536, (accessed March 3, 2012).

[xviii] Sigsworth, 337.

[xix] Stanley Baron, Brewed in America: A History of Beer and Ale in the United States, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962), p.240.