A short history of beer

A woman’s hand holds a mug like glass of a red ale beer in the foreground, with a European river and bridge setting in the background.

Take a trip through time with your favourite beverage. See how beer made history, starting in ancient Mesopotamia and ending up at The Beer Store down the street

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, someone left some bread dough in a jar with water and the rest is … well, pretty fascinating.

That’s one leading theory on how beer first came to be, and the story only gets more interesting from there. Today, we spend most of our time thinking about the future of beer (specifically, what to try next), but it’s just as rewarding to look back on this brew’s illustrious past.

Not only does beer have a really interesting timeline spanning thousands of years — touching the lives of everyone from peasants to queens — but history would be a lot less riveting without this beverage. So sit back, crack a cold one and enjoy the highlight reel.

Ancient history

During farming’s early days, thousands of years ago, people probably made the happy discovery that warm, wet grain ferments at lots of different times and in some interesting places. There’s even a theory that humans shifted to agriculture-based societies specifically so they could grow a steady supply of grain for beer making (which is as good a reason as any to settle down!).

But brewing as we (kinda sorta) know it emerged in southern Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. The ancient Sumerians were brewing a barley-based beer they called “kas” by around 5,000 years ago. They thanked the goddess Ninkasi for it and mentioned it in the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature.

In other words: They loved the stuff.

The ancient Greeks and Romans? Not so much — they weren’t beer drinkers. But the Egyptians made up for that: Beer was their everyday drink because it was safer than water in the days before sanitation. Everyone sipped it, from peasants to pharaohs, and, like the ancient Mesopotamians, they huddled around a big jar to drink it through long straws. Maybe they couldn’t imagine existing without it, because they also stashed brews in their famous tombs to sample in the afterlife.

But was it good? Hmm…probably not for modern beer drinkers. People hadn’t yet figured out that contact with air causes beer to oxidize and spoil, so ancient beer was likely pretty off-putting by today’s standards — unless it was freshly made.

The Middle Ages to Shakespeare’s day

Fast-forward to Europe, where time travellers would find the ancestors of most of the beers now available at The Beer Store. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century was lucky news for beer: Celtic, Germanic and other European peoples who had been beer drinkers for millennia were able to make brews more respectable across the continent. Cheers to that.

In the Middle Ages, brewing was often a domestic activity, typically performed by women: Larger aristocratic households employed “ale wives” to run their beer operations. Monks brewed beer for their brethren, too — as some of them still do today. Hopped or not, beers of this time would have been dark, sweetly malty and light-bodied.

Beer quietly rested in the background of daily life until the 16th century, when hops — popular on the Continent but not yet in England — finally made their way into the country’s suds.

Traditional ales had been flavoured with spice mixtures called “gruit,” which often included yarrow, juniper, bog myrtle and other flavourings. Hops were a challenge to those who preferred the old, sweeter style of beer. Controversy ensued: England’s King Henry VIII himself tried to outlaw hops. But they’re a natural preservative — meaning they kept beer fresh longer — so they stuck.

Was it tasty yet? Getting better — especially if you like dark ales.

The Industrial Revolution

An age of technological innovation brought new ideas and techniques to the world of beer.

The first brew style to take advantage of industrial methods and become commercially mass-produced was likely London porter, a dark, sweet style that was all the rage in the 18th century.

But soon, coke-fired ovens, first developed in England, would enable the invention of pale malts (made from barley that was more lightly toasted than what came before). This gave many styles of beer a crisper flavour that’s familiar today.

Science and technology continued to improve ales and lagers. In 1862, Louis Pasteur invented a process that enabled brewers to kill off the micro-organisms that led to “off” flavours in beer — pasteurization let healthy yeast thrive and made brews reliably delicious.

In 1842, a young brewer named Josef Groll created a refreshing new style of beer for the Czech town of Plzen; it became known as pilsner. With the invention of refrigeration in 1870, the stage was set for the spread of crisp, clean-tasting lagers like this — no more hauling huge chunks of ice into cold cellars and caves to create the frigid conditions required to properly age and enjoy these golden brews.

Was beer tasty yet? Definitely. Industrialization may have created a lot of ills, but at least beer became cleaner-tasting and more consistent.

Prohibition to the present day

OK, so not everyone appreciated beer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Actually, some people were so opposed to it that Prohibition resulted. Following an interlude (in Ontario, eight years) when it was considered an illicit pleasure, beer was re-legalized in 1927.

And guess who showed up on the scene that year? Yep, The Beer Store. We were founded in 1927 as Ontario’s trustworthy purveyor of delicious suds.

The mid-20th century was all about standardization; consumers wanted predictable beer, and that’s usually what they got. But starting in the 1980s, people yearned for the variety of all the ales and lagers of yesteryear. And that kicked off an era of experimentation like never before.

Today, there’s innovation in beer, to be sure — we carry lots of flavours and styles that never existed in the old days. But, in many ways, the present of beer is its past: Explore your local Beer Store today and you might find a saison like the ones that quenched the thirst of farmhands in Wallonia, or a brown ale that might have been right at home on Shakespeare’s table, or a Baltic porter that would have pleased a Russian princess.

In a very real way, the history of beer is something we can reach out and taste. What a time to be a brew lover.

Is beer tasty now? It’s never been better. Cheers!

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