History of Beer: From Ancient Times to Today

Through my articles on beer in different countries (such as Portugal, Poland, Mexico, Turkey, Cyprus, Germany, and Japan) and my article on the oldest pub in the world, I have come to learn a lot about the history of beer. I thought it would be fun to look at the history of beer on a global level.

Beer has been brewed for perhaps as long as 10,000 years. Though the beer of that time would hardly resemble modern beer at all. There is evidence of beer being brewed in Ancient Egypt, and across Europe. Colonialism led to the introduction of beer to many other countries, and today there is beer in pretty much every country in the world. 

In this article, I will try and explore the history of beer. Looking at its pre-civilisation roots, and how it has evolved over the millennia. I will also look at the impact that beer has had on certain countries and the impact that certain countries have had on beer.

A History of Beer: Ancient Origins

One of the best things about beer is how easy it is to make. Note, I am not saying that it is easy to make good beer, just that beer is easy to make. The first beer to be made was likely done so by accident. Spontaneous fermentation occurs when wild yeast attaches itself to the sugars of certain cereals (such as barley or wheat). Once you can grow and harvest cereals, you can make beer.

What year was beer invented?

Cereal crops were first domesticated in the middle east around 10,500 years ago. The domestication of crops then spread West to Europe, East to Asia, and eventually south to African countries such as Egypt and Sudan. There is evidence that villagers in China were brewing alcoholic drinks as far back as 7,000BC, the drink was made from rice, honey, and fruit. If you have read my article on un-hopped beers, then you will know that many beers were made similarly before hops were discovered.

A 13,000-year-old “brewery” has been discovered in Israel, which shows that a form of beer-porridge was fermented and drunk as far back as 11,000BC. As with the Chinese drink, this is technically beer, but nothing like the beer we drink today. This beer-porridge would have been quite nutritious and the fermentation would have allowed it to “keep” longer. This is more beer-like than the Chinese drink, as it uses wheat and barley instead of rice.

The truth is though that it is impossible to know for sure, just when archaeologists think that they have found the first known brewery, another team find an even older one somewhere else in the world. At the moment though, the answer to what year was beer invented is:

The oldest known beer was invented 13,000 years ago in Israel. There may have been older breweries, and there may have been other locations, but at the moment, this is the oldest recorded brewing of beer. 

Who Discovered Beer?

If beer was first brewed in Israel 13,000 years ago, then there it is possible that the Natufian people who lived in the middle east between 13,000BC and 7,500BC. Of course, as I pointed out earlier, there may have been older breweries or breweries that were being used at the same time in different countries. But this is our best bet for now. The Natufians probably used the beer-porridge for religious rituals and ceremonies.

The Natufians may have also been responsible for the domestication of the dog. These people gave the world beer and pet dogs, and nobody has heard of them. I’m furious at my GCSE history teacher right now!

How was Beer Invented?

We don’t know how beer was invented. Whether it was invented by accident, or through trial and error. One theory is that beer was accidentally invented while making bread. While the explanation is a little ropey (bread-making interrupted by rainfall, wild yeast forms and bread maker tries the concoction), there are a couple of reasons why this could well be the truth.

Many of the first beers were made using bread, the ingredients for bread and beer are very similar, and creating a bread that could get you pissed sounds like the ultimate goal for humanity! Beer could have also been invented when porridge was accidentally left out in the rain (or whatever). Truth is, we just don’t know!

How Beer was Made in Ancient Times?

The first beer, brewed by the Natufians predated domesticated cereal. Meaning that they would have used wild wheat and barley. This article describes the process:

“After laboratory analysis, the team hypothesized that the Natufian brewery used a three-stage process: malt production from the starch of wheat or barley through grain germination, mashing of the malted grain, and finally, fermentation through the aid of wild yeast.” Times of Israel 2018

This process would have been improved upon over the years, and most likely the recipe was passed down to the Sumerians, who created the first ever recorded recipe for beer. This beer was derived from bread and would have looked different from the porridge-like beer of the Natufians.

history of beer

What was Beer Like in Ancient Egypt?

The Sumerian recipe for beer wound up in Ancient Egypt, where it became incredibly popular. For a long time, people believed (and many still do) that the beer drunk in Ancient Egypt would have been porridge-like and drunk with straws (just as the Sumerian and Natufian beer was). But a team from the British Museum decided to recreate the beer using recipes from the time, they were surprised to find that the beer was similar to the beer drunk today.

Obviously, without hops, the beer tasted a lot different. The Ancient Egyptians would have added spices, seeds, flower petals, and the like, and some dates to speed up the fermentation process. I should stress that this is just intelligent guesswork from the team at the British Museum, but the process does appear to work.

Ancient Egypt certainly took beer to its heart. Their beer was very different from the Sumerian version, which was drunk out of a large bowl with a straw (to avoid ingesting the mash). Beer was brewed at homes by the women of the family, but the Egyptians were the first people to start state-owned breweries. The beer brewed here was used for festivals (where it was often given away for free) and it was also used to give to workers (such as the men who built the pyramids).

Different Egyptian Beers

But the Egyptians brewed many forms of beer. They had their regular beer which was similar to brown ales. Then they had a lighter beer that was similar to lager (used for special occasions), they had higher-alcohol beers for funerals, and beer that had honey added to it. This last one was reserved for the Pharaoh, and his family/guests.

Egyptian beer was talked about in many other countries, the Ancient Greeks mentioned it in their texts, as did the Romans. Both Ancient Greece and Rome brewed beer, though it was never as popular as wine. However, the Romans created a more industrialised brewing process and also helped spread beer around their empire. It is thought that beer was brought to Britain by the Romans during their occupation.

Beer would become massively popular in Europe during the Dark Ages and Medieval times. While Egypt’s beer brewing days were over. Stopped by the rise in Islam, which forbade alcohol. Sadly, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan etc all stopped brewing beers for centuries. Some Middle Eastern countries still do not brew beer.

A History of Beer: The Middle Ages

Once the Roman Empire fell, Europe was left to its own devices, broken up into smaller countries. This period is also referred to as the Dark Ages, but this title is increasingly becoming controversial. What is certainly true is that a lot of the innovations that the Romans had brought with them fell out of use and had to be relearned centuries later.

How Beer was Made in the Middle Ages

Beer was mostly brewed at home, though many Monasteries brewed beer or wine for profit. At first, beer and ale would have been similar to the Egyptian beers. No hops, just grains, water, and wild yeast. With spices, nuts, and fruits used to impart flavour (or increase alcohol by volume).

Around the 9th century, areas of Northern Europe began to cultivate hops. Places such as Bavaria would likely have begun to add hops to their beers as early as then. Hops helped to preserve beer for longer, but it also added a bitter taste. Until hops began to be used consistently, beer would have rarely been fermented for long. Most beer would be very “young” compared to beer today.

Just as Bavarians were experimenting with hops, a small pub in Ireland was opening its doors. Sean’s Bar in Athlone opened in 900BC. You can read more about it in my article on the Oldest Pub in the World.

The 11th Century to 14th Century

If you have read my article on Beer in Germany, then you will know that it was during the 11th Century that Weihenstefan Abbey started brewing beer, the brewery is still in operation today. Making it one of the oldest companies in the world.

The beer brewed in the 11th century may have been brewed with hops, but could also have been brewed in a similar way to most beer at the time (un-hopped and with fruit, spices, and seeds added for flavour).

In the 12th century, brewers in England were brewing three different strengths of beer. This was labelled as X, XX, or XXX. With XXX being the strongest. This method was helpful as most beer drinkers could not read. If you have read my article on the Oldest Pubs in Nottingham then you may recognise one or two pubs from that period. They would have used this method.

Today, the XXX rating is still sometimes used in brewing, and also has other connotations. Check out my article on XPA beer, to learn a bit more.

It was also around this time that hops began to be used in most of the breweries in Northern Europe.

The Little Ice Age and Beer

Depending on which expert you talk to, the Little Ice Age either occurred in 1300 or around 1500. But temperatures began to drop after what is known as the Medieval Warm Period (around about 900-1300 AD). This had a marked effect on the wine industry.

Before 1300, England was a massive producer of wine. It would also have been drunk more in most of Northern Europe as well as all of Southern Europe. When temperatures began to drop, vineyards failed and the Northern European countries turned to beer.

Of course, this is a massive simplification of events. England was already importing wine from France at that time, Germany still produced wine, and France stuck with it throughout the Medieval period. Climate change certainly affected beer production, but it was just one factor among many.

The Renaissance (1400-1618)

This period saw the biggest changes in beer production and culture until the Industrial Revolution. What you need to understand is just how much beer changed as a drink between 1400 and 1618 (the period that most historians think of as the Renaissance).

In 1400, most beer was made without hops, it was fermented for a very short time, and most breweries were home-breweries. Around the 1480s things began to change. The Munich beer laws were brought in 1487 and the first Brewing Guild in Germany was formed two years later (check out this article to learn more). The first brewers guild in London was founded in 1493.

Rheinheitsgebot (German Purity Law)

In 1516, the Rheinheitsgebot was first implemented in Bavaria. As mentioned earlier, there were several versions of this law already in effect in several German towns and cities. But these laws are the most famous and are still in effect to this day. According to the laws, beer can only be made from hops, water, and barley. Yeast was not mentioned, but this was more down to it not being fully understood at the time. Check out my article on yeast in beer to learn more.

The purpose of the German Purity Law was mostly to improve the quality of beer, but there were other reasons. Promoting barley over other grains was designed to prevent competition with bakers and keep the prices low. It may also have been a goal to weaken the competition from Northern and Eastern German brewers, who tended to use other ingredients in their beer.

The laws are often thought of as unchanged to this day, but nothing could be further from the truth. Wheat was added to the list of acceptable ingredients just a few years later. Yeast was added too. Other ingredients were added over time, and recently even more ingredients are being added so that Germany isn’t left behind by the craft beer revolution.

The laws did a lot of good in Germany at the time, and have been instrumental in brewing across the world. But there is a sense that the laws have held Germany back a bit, compared to countries such as Belgium.

English Hops

History of Beer

Around 1520, England began to grow its own hops, up until this point, English brewers had tried to avoid using them. But eventually, brewers relented and English beer would change forever. At this point in Europe, un-hopped beers were becoming rarer and rarer. Heather beers in Scotland and similar beers in England, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Ireland began to die out.

Hops were just too good to ignore. They helped to preserve the beer longer, which meant that it could be transported further and develop better flavour over time. Hops also provided an excellent taste of their own. Meaning that expensive spices no longer had to be used.

Colonial Beer

The Renaissance also saw the first beers being brewed in countries that had been colonised by European powers.

1587 saw the first beer brewed in America when Sir Walter Raleigh established a colony in Virginia. Beer supply may also have influenced the voyage of the Mayflower. It docked at Plymouth Rock because the ship had run out of beer!

Beer was introduced to Mexico when Cortes and his soldiers invaded in 1520. The first brewery in Mexico was founded in 1544. You can read more about beer in Mexico here.

The Dutch (briefly) brought beer to Japan in 1600, establishing a beer hall in Nagasaki. However, this brief flirtation with beer was quickly quashed, and the Dutch were kicked out. Check out my article on beer in Japan to learn more.

History of Beer: 1618-1900

The 17th century did not represent much change in the beer world, the increase in distilled spirits and many changes to wine was the main alcoholic changes of the time. But the 18th century saw a lot of changes. London invented porter and stout in the early 1700s, check out my article on beer in London to learn more.

England also invented pale ale and then India Pale Ale after the industrial revolution led to changes in how malt was dried. My article on New English Pale Ales goes into a lot more depth on this subject.

18th Century Breweries

The 18th century saw the founding of many famous breweries around the world. In Ireland, you have got Guinness, which was founded in 1759. The Molson brewery was founded in Canada in 1786 (now it is Molson-Coors). Rothaus brewery was opened in Germany in 1791, while the Warsteiner brewery was founded in 1753. In London, the Whitbread and Courage breweries were also founded in the 18th century.

19th Century Breweries

The 19th century was one of the most exciting times for beer brewing in history. It was in this century that beer truly went global, with many countries opening their first brewery. Using my previous articles, I will name some of the biggest brewery openings in the 19th century.

  • Bitburger, Germany (1817)
  • Veltins, Germany (1824)
  • Young’s, London (1831)
  • Okocim Brewery, Poland (1845)
  • Jever, Germany (1848)
  • Kirin Brewery, Japan (1869)
  • Beck’s, Germany (1873)
  • Fullers, London (1875)
  • Sapporo Brewery, Japan (1876) – Privatised in 1886
  • Ayinger, Germany (1877)
  • Holsten Brewery, Germany (1879)
  • Zywiec, Poland (1881)
  • Herrenhäuser Brewery, Germany (1884)
  • Erdinger, Germany (1886)
  • Asahi, Japan (1889)
  • Super Bock, Portugal (1890)

Remember, these are just breweries that I’ve mentioned in my articles so far. There were hundreds of other breweries that opened in the 19th century, many of which are still in operation today. The 19th century saw the introduction of mass brewing, thanks to innovation in production lines, globalisation, and a huge increase in population.

Something that I’ve noticed while researching the history of beer in different countries is the ridiculous number of countries who used Germans or Austrians to help establish their beers. Mexico, Turkey, Cyprus, Portugal, and Japan all had help from either German or Austrian brewers.

The 19th century also witnessed the start of Oktoberfest, in 1810. Check out my article on Oktoberfest to learn more.

History of Beer: 1900 – Present

The beginning of the 20th century was a funny time for beer. While many countries were erecting their first breweries, others were turning against it. The temperance movement had been around since the late 18th century, but it kicked off in the 20th. Many Scandinavian countries banned alcohol, as did the United States, this led to the shutting down of all breweries in America. Completely changing the beer landscape of this country.

If you would like to learn about a country that had an even crazier experience with alcohol than the US. Check out my article on Iceland, the country that banned beer for 75 years.

The World Wars had a massive influence on beer too. German beer houses were the setting for numerous Nazi meetings before WWII, and several breweries suffered from the war. East Germany’s beer scene was destroyed after WWII as the Soviet Union shut down breweries at will.

Britain’s beer scene was affected by the establishment of the big six breweries, who ran a virtual monopoly over the entire beer scene in England. Poland saw all of its breweries nationalised by the communist government.

Craft Beer Revolution

The 20th century was on course for a very homogenous conclusion. Many breweries were playing it safe. Germany was brewing 10,000 variations of pilsner, and most of the world was following suit. Britain was only just recovering from the decimation of its brewing scene (thanks to imports and bad domestic breweries), and many countries were content with just one or two state-owned breweries. American beer was universally bland.

Then craft beer started in America, coming out of the home-brewing craze of the 80s. This led to the reintroduction of forgotten beers such as sours, IPAs, and wild-fermented beers. As American craft beer became more successful, other countries started experimenting. This started early for some countries (such as Japan) and has slowly caught fire, spreading to almost every country. Poland, Turkey, Cyprus, Portugal, Mexico. All of the articles I have written about countries and their beer have shown that craft beer is transforming the beer scene everywhere.

Final Thoughts

It is difficult to talk about the history of beer in just one article. As you have probably seen, I have included links to several other of my articles that can provide more information about certain subjects. But even that isn’t enough. Thanks to my articles on certain countries, I know a lot about their beer history. But I have barely scratched the surface. I barely mentioned Belgium in this article, and yet their beer history is amazing.

Hopefully, this article has given you a good idea of how beer has progressed over the millennia. As with a lot of things, it evolved at an incredibly slow pace for thousands of years, then the pace picked up as time went on. By the 17th century, beer was unrecognisable from what it was just 200 years before. Then just 100 years later beer had transformed again. Look at beer today, in just 10 years we have gone from no craft beer to be found in any pub in England to craft beer being sold everywhere!

I cannot wait to see what the next ten years bring.

Leave a Comment: