A Fast and Furious Tour of Beer History

A Fast and Furious Tour of Beer History


It has long been said that dogs are a man’s best friend. Whoever coined that phrase had obviously never tasted beer. Is there anything better than a cold, crisp beer on a hot day? An icy lager to slake your thirst and remind you that some things can’t be improved?

Or a creamy porter on a chilly fall day as you sit around a fire and discuss the finer things of life, such as the chances of the Cleveland Browns reaching the playoffs in the next century.

Or perhaps you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth and prefer a spiced beer with hints of cherry or lemon. A little pick me up before you try to put up that Christmas tree.

Whatever your taste, one thing is clear: few things are better than beer. Actually we can’t think of anything that’s better.

But where did beer come from? What key events shaped its development? How did we move from only having watery, semi-flavorless Bud Light to having thousands of delectable craft beers?

Let’s hop in our time machine, crack open a cold one, and take a spin through history. And if you finish your beer, there’s more in the cooler.

We present to you...

Key moments in beer history...history...history (those are echoes).

Ancient History

Pint Glass Image

Just how long has beer been around? Some historians believe that ancient nomads may have been making beer before they learned to make bread. And honestly, that makes a lot of sense. Which tastes better: a loaf of bread or a beer? Not a tough question.

Babylonian clay tablets from approximately 4600 BC contain recipes for beer. They may also contain recipes for five alarm chili and cheese dip, although this has not officially been confirmed. The Babylonians produced around 20 different varieties of beer.

In fact, beer was so valuable at this time that it was used to pay wages. Frankly, that’s not a bad idea. Would you rather get a weekly paycheck or a case of your favorite beer? That’s what we thought.

In approximately 1800 BC, a hymn was written to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer. We assume Ninkasi was pleased with this offering and proceeded to make it rain sweet lager upon a dry and parched land.

The Egyptian royalty drank beer in golden goblets, which is really the only way to drink beer (especially a bourbon barrel beer). It was also used for medical purposes and included with dead bodies to send them along to the next life. You too may want to consider filling your coffin with your favorite stout. If an Egyptian man gave an Egyptian woman a sip of his beer, they were engaged to be married. This gives new significance to the phrase, “Can I buy you a drink?”

In approximately 55 BC, the Romans introduced beer to Northern Europe, thus paving the way for England’s beloved post-soccer match riots.

Medieval History

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Somewhere between 500 to 1000 AD, brewing started in Europe. The primary place for brewing was, as you might expect...church. The monks and nuns brewed beer to offer to traveling pilgrims. The next time you go to church, you can confidently sip on crisp lager during the sermon. If the pastor objects, tell him all the great saints of church history have indulged in libations.

In 580 AD, Saint Arnold of Metz was born. St. Arnold is one of many patrons saints to beer, brewers, and hop harvesters. How did he become a saint? By enticing people to drink beer instead of impure water that was spreading a plague. While this hasn’t been conclusively proven, we have reason to believe that St. Arnold’s motto was, “Beer Saves”.

During Medieval times, beer was also used for tithing to the church, trading, and paying taxes. Frankly, we think this is a waste of beer. Unless, of course, you happen to be the one receiving the beer.

By 1000 AD, people began using hops while brewing beer. Little did these people know that they had stumbled upon an innovation as great as fire, electricity, the wheel, and the credit card.

By 1200 AD, the beer making business was up and roaring in England, Austria, and Germany. This brings up an important point. Both WWI and WWII could have been avoided had these three countries had a beer with each other and sorted things out over a game of poker. Instead, beer was left out of the equation, and the entire world went to war. Lesson learned.

In the 1490’s, Columbus discovered that the Indians were making beer from corn and tree sap. Like a true American, he promptly drank some, set off fireworks, and began listening to Hank Williams Jr. Those last things may not be strictly true, but he did find the Indians making beer.

The Renaissance

Beer Bottle Image

In 1516, the Bavarian brewing guilds created beer “purity laws”. No, this didn’t mean that beer had to be made by unblemished virgins. It meant that the only ingredients permissible were water, barley, and hops. This law is still in effect today, although it has been modified to allow both yeast and wheat.

In 1673, Heinrich Knaust wrote the first extensive book on brewing in Germany. In an incredibly poetic turn of phrase, he called, “...the noble Hamburg beer the queen of all other wheat beers.” He obviously was not talking about Milwaukee’s Best.

By the late 1500’s, Queen Elizabeth was drinking strong ale along with her breakfast, a practice that we heartily endorse (in moderation, of course).

In 1587 the first beer was brewed in the New World (in Virginia), but it was so bad that the colonists requested better beer from England. We assume it was Miller Lite.

In 1620, the Pilgrims decided to stop their journey at Pilgrim Rock. Why? Because their supply of beer was running low, which is a totally legitimate reason. If you had been sailing for months on end and were running out of beer, you’d stop too.

In 1757, George Washington penned his own personal recipe with the title “To Make Small Beer”. Washington and Thomas Jefferson also had their own private brewhouses. Frankly, politics would be a lot more pleasant these days if every politician owned their own brewhouse (see previous point about avoiding war).

Soldiers in the Revolutionary War were given one quart of beer per day for their rations.

Modern History

In 1810, Munich officially established Oktoberfest. Fun fact: during the 2013 Oktoberfest, 7.7 million liters of beer were served. That’s how you throw a party.

In the year 1842, the first golden lager was produced in Pilsen, Bohemia.

By the 1850’s, German immigrants began introducing cold maturation beers to the US, thus marking the start of giant beer companies such as Miller, Coors, Stroh, and Pabst. And as we all know, Pabst won a blue ribbon at some point, which must mean the beer is good.

By the late 1800’s, the modern era of brewing in the United States had kicked into high gear. Refrigeration, pasteurization, automatic bottling, and railroad distribution had all been invented. Within a few short years, the man cave would be invented, along with the 60-inch flat screen television. It was the beginning of the golden age.

By 1880, there were approximately 2,300 breweries in the United States, which is about how many there currently are in per square mile in Portland.

In 1909, Teddy Roosevelt brought 500 gallons of beer on a safari to Africa. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a man who knows how to travel in style. It’s also clear that Roosevelt understood the dignity of the Presidential office.

In 1920, in a moment of total insanity, the United States outlawed alcohol with the 18th amendment. Prohibition lasted for 13 years, which were officially the darkest 13 years in the history of the world. Yes, the black plague was a bad time, but at least they could drink beer.

In 1966, Budweiser became the first brand to sell 10 million barrels of beer per year, thus cementing their status as the king of awful beer.

In 1992, astronaut Bill Readdy went into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery carrying a bag of Cascade hops. Spinnakers Brewpub later used those hops, which circled earth 128 times, to brew a beer.

In 1997, Jack McDougall won the first U.S. Beerdrinker of the Year Competition. It was a proud day for the McDougall family. Really, it was a proud day for every American.

By 2008, the Smithsonian Magazine was declaring that the best beers in the world were being made in the United States. Take that every other country. Cue “Proud To Be An American” by Lee Greenwood.

By 2014, craft brewers reached 11 percent volume of the total US beer market, and the retail value of this beer is estimated at around $19.6 billion. There are approximately 3,400 breweries in the US, and 99% of those are located in Portland.

Today, craft brewers have a 12.3 percent market share of the US market, worth about $23.5 billion. There are 5,300 breweries (you know where they’re located).

In conclusion…

Cheers to Beer Image

There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker. The variety is astonishing, the quality is superb, and the taste is off the charts. No longer must we suffer low quality, mass produced, sock water beers. There an infinite number of twice hopped, sweet, sour, creamy, thick, coffee-flavored, barrel aged beers. No matter what your preference, there is a beer for you.

Now, let’s hop out of this time machine and have a drink.