Everywhere you look, there’s a tap handle ready to pour you a nice tall pint of IPA. The rise in popularity of craft beer is astounding, but also, in some ways, predictable. Beer is one of the oldest beverages in human history. It dates back to roughly 5,000 B.C. One could say it’s essentially in our DNA.
And while beer may seem mysterious in some ways, it’s really just grain, water and yeast. Of course, there are many styles and flavors — from blood orange to beer that’s been soaked in aromatic hops to whoknowswhat — but beer just is as simple as bread.
What happens if you dive into the mystery and origins of beer a little more? How did that tap handle ready to pour you that IPA actually get there? Time to explore!
The very first beer (5,000 B.C.)
Beer was made by mistake. Either someone left a bowl of primitive cereal out in water for a week that collected errant yeasts from the air or some farmer collecting grain in a field left a bag of it behind during a rainstorm. Either way the stuff fermented and beer – human existence’s best mistake – was created.
Ninkasi and China (3,000 B.C.)
For a long time, the first known historical reference to beer’s existence was the infamous Ninkasi poem, a nearly 4,000-year old Sumerian verse written in reverence to the goddess of beer. Recently, though, pottery with beer residue on it was unearthed in China, dating back more than 1,000 years before the Ninkasi poem.
Human civilization grows (1,000 B.C. – 1,000 A.D.)
More than anything else (with the exception of maybe bread), beer is credited with helping to establish modern civilization. Beer was a source of calories for workers, a source of clean water (because the stuff had to be brewed and fermented, dangerous microbes were killed off) and the stuff just made living more bearable with a nice buzz. Beer was a reason to stop and settle (near grain fields) and a propellant toward establishing commerce.
Women and monasteries (1,000 A.D. – 1800’s)
As the dark ages passed and civilization began to ramp up into modernity, beer was the purview of women and monasteries. In European towns, women ran the brew houses. Beer was brewed for family and friends and the extra was sold in taverns.
Outside of town, monks toiled over the perfect recipes, honoring the stuff as a way of honoring God. Monks were also the first to flavor beer with hops around 900 A.D.
The Industrial Revolution brought with it mass production of beer (Boo!). It was produced in large scale, shipped around the world and paved the way for giant modern beer companies.
What a dumb idea! Seriously, is there anyone who looks back and is like, “Wow, Prohibition. Those were the good ol’ days?” Of course not! But add this crappy fact to the Prohibition list: by closing all the little brew houses, the folks who made the beer had no money to start them up again when Prohibition ended.
This was the opening giant beer companies needed. And it’s no coincidence craft beer was all but destroyed.
Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller (1950’s)
While many of the giant beer companies were established in the late 19th century, the ending of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, was the perfect time to pounce. With all of the local competition gone, Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller could swoop in, provide homogenous light beer to American workers, provide no real choice, and make all of the money.
President Jimmy Carter and Sierra Nevada (1980’s)
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the right for home brewers to make their own beer. Some 45 years of being beholden to the giant beer companies, private citizens could now legally experiment with different styles. In other words: party time! Two years later, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was founded on the power of their perfect Pale Ale, the basis of which is the Cascade hop. Sierra’s Pale Ale remains the standard.
Huge stats (2010’s)
In 2011, there were some 2,016 craft breweries in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. Just five quick years later and there are 5,234. That’s a half-decade increase of 3,218. Thanks, Jimmy Carter! Manifest Destiny, everybody!