Everyone loves beer, and with good reason, too: Beer can actually be credited with helping to create civilization! Believed to even predate the invention of bread, beer is speculated to have actually been discovered by accident. Ever since the domestication of plants through agriculture, cereals (specifically barley) attracted wild yeasts, which caused natural fermentation and so beer came to be!
The earliest record of beer comes from chemical tests performed on pots excavated in present-day Iran, ironically, where the consumption of beer is prohibited. These pots not only prove the existence of alcoholic beverages in antiquity but also that the process had been harnessed and utilized by people as far back as 7,000 years. The oldest known depiction of beer drinking ever found was a 6,000-year old Sumerian tablet in which people are drawn consuming it from a communal bowl. The oldest physical example of beer unearthed has been dated to 3,500 - 3,100 B.C. when it was discovered in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. Sadly, it had probably gone skunk by the Trojan War.
In 2,100 B.C., the Mesopotamian ruler Hammurabi included regulations regarding tavern owners in his laws. Later, in ancient Egypt, beer was part of the daily diet of everyone from the slaves that built the pyramids to the Pharaoh himself. Beer was so highly revered that it was considered an appropriate gift to present to the Pharaoh and was often offered as a sacrifice to the Gods.
Beer, playing off of its previous religious affiliation, really took off with the expansion of the brewing industry in Christianity. Monasteries, in hospitality towards travelling pilgrims, became some of the first major brewing organizations. Because grape cultivation proved difficult in Northern and Eastern Europe, beer became the drink of choice, and ales, lagers and mead would be made. Since water purity in many places was, at times, questionable at best, beer was often chosen as a water substitute, having been made with water that was boiled pure during the brewing process.
By the time of the Late middle Ages, beer accompanied every meal, and in England, per capita consumption of beer was about 60 - 66 gallons annually. Hops were first added to beer in 822 according to a recipe written by an unknown Carolingian abbot. Whoever he was, he revolutionized the brewing process from then on.
In 1516, William IV, the Duke of Bavaria (modern Germany) implemented the Reinheitsgebot, arguably the oldest law regarding food or drink still in effect. This was in a sense a “purity law” stating that the only ingredients that could be used to produce beer were water, barley and hops. Yeast, however, would be added to the list after Frenchman Louis Pasteur came to understand its significance in the creation of alcohol. Most beers until relatively recent times were top-fermented. Bottom-fermented beers were discovered by accident in the 16th century after beer was stored in cool caverns for long periods. They have since largely outpaced top-fermented beers in terms of volume.
Beer came to the Americas along with European colonizers, with the first commercial brewery having been established by the Dutch West India in Lower Manhattan in 1632. The oldest brewery still in operation, however, is that of Yeungling, having opened in 1829. Commercial brewing really began to take off after the 1840s, thanks to the influx of immigrants from Ireland and Germany to cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Chicago. Best Brewing of Milwaukee, in particular, founded by German immigrant Phillip Best, became the first brewery with a broad market, shipping their product to new markets in Chicago and St. Louis. Milwaukee, with its large German-American population would became a major brewing city in the United States throughout the 19th century, with many brews we still drink today having been founded there, beers such as Schlitz, Pabst, and even Miller.
It would be just on the eve of the Civil War, however, that the World’s largest manufacturer of beer would come into its infancy. In 1860, a prosperous St. Louis, Missouri soap manufacturer named Eberhard Anheuser would buy out a local struggling brewery. After his death, his son in-law, whose name was Adolphus Busch became the one to kick business into motion, founding the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company. The Budweiser brand was introduced in 1876, after Busch, who had toured around Europe and introduced a popular bohemian style lager from the Czech city of Budweis.
Also introduced during this time was the Pilsner glass, which took its name from the Czech city of Plzen. Busch was able to expand business nationwide during this time by taking advantage of the newly invented refrigerated rail car, which enabled Budweiser beer to be shipped fresh from St. Louis to anywhere between New York and San Francisco. Also during this time, Adolph Coors would found the Coors Brand outside of Denver, Colorado in 1873.
The larger breweries enjoyed rising success throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s; however, these good times would be cut short by a rising group that called themselves the temperance movement. The pressure that these groups placed on their congressional representatives caused them to ratify the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 16th, 1919, which would ban the manufacture, importation, transportation and sale of all alcohol in the United States one year from the date of ratification. January 17th, 1920 rolled around, and prohibition had begun.
Although alcohol was suddenly illegal in the United States, demand did not drop (obviously). Thus, the speakeasy was born. People could still “see a man about a dog” and have their demand for beer and liquor met. All the way to the top, Warren Harding, President during the early 1920s, was well documented to have enjoyed liquor in the White House while it remained illegal nationwide. The illegal black market of alcohol further fueled the gains of organized crime, with Al Capone peaking in his success and popularity during this time.
The culture of the “roaring twenties” furthered the demand for illegal beer and liquor, so much so that, in many places, even the local police chief or sheriff could be seen enjoying a beer that he had sworn not to drink in a bar he was legally obligated to shut down. By the 1930s and the Great Depression, it became clear that the 18th amendment had failed (No, really?) and society was actually worse off than it had been before. In 1933, the 21st amendment to the constitution undid the acts of the 18th amendments, and Americans were free to once again enjoy beer!
They never looked back! In 1978, President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing, and as a result, the large number of microbreweries we see all around came to fruition. Arguably the largest of these, the Boston Beer Company, famous for the manufacture of the Sam Adams Brand was founded in 1985, and currently ranks behind only Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and the Pabst Company in sales and is tied with Yuengling for being the largest American-owned manufacturer of beer.
Today, over 1,400 microbreweries operate in the United States, each one diverse and different from one another, implementing varying styles and recipes from all over the world. Beer is sold in 80% of United States convenience stores, and the United States convenience store industry sells more than 2 billion U.S. gallons (7,600,000 m3) of beer a year, roughly one-third of all the beer purchased in the United States. In 2007, U.S. consumption was 6.7 billion U.S. gallons (25,000,000 m3).
Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in America and accounts for about 85% of the volume of alcoholic beverages sold in the United States each year. The top beer brands by market share were Bud Light (28.3%), Budweiser (11.9%) and Coors Light (9.9%). Corona Extra is the #1 imported beer, followed by Heineken. 2009 figures show an overall decline in beer consumption from previous years, with only craft beer sales rising at a rate of 7 - 10%, earning 4.3% of sales by volume.
Overall, U.S. beer consumption was calculated at 205.8 million barrels. Light beer constitutes a 52.8% share of U.S. beer sales. Worldwide, the United States ranks 12th in per capita beer consumption with Americans drinking about 78 liters (26 gallons) each, compared to 132 liters and 107 liters per capita in the Czech Republic and Germany respectively. Beer itself is the world’s most consumed alcoholic beverage, and the third most consumed beverage overall after water and tea.
So, the next time you pop open a can, twist the top off a bottle or even lift the lid on a stein, remember you’re partaking in one of the oldest and most cherished traditions of humanity itself. Raise your glasses, bottoms up, and cheers to Beer!