Beer: The Origin of Civilization?

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Until recently, I never held beer in very high esteem. Growing up, I’ve always associated beer with frat boys, beer pong, and trailer parks. To me, beer culture was unrefined and encouraged gross over consumption, leading to boorish behaviour. I shared the Ancient Greeks’ preference for wine and low opinion of beer; it’s a barbarian’s beverage.

I was, of course, wrong. I had little knowledge of beer, didn’t know how to appreciate it, and therefore had no interest in it. My feelings were born of pure ignorance. In the last few years, I’ve opened up to at least giving beer a fair chance. I didn’t have much of a choice, really; my entourage is full of avid beer drinkers. What I found was a particular appreciation for very specific types of craft beers. Who knew?

Torontonians - in fact, most Canadians - are enjoying a craft beer renaissance. Each new microbrewery carving out a pocket of territory in the city. Left Field in the east-side. Bellwoods on the Ossington Strip. Bandit (where this article's pictures were shot) in Roncesvalles. And that's just the start of a long list of excellent breweries. But, interestingly, the craft beer tradition goes way back. That is, dawn-of-time way back.

Beer's Ancient History

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The Neolithic Revolution, over 12,000 years ago, was a point that defines humanity: when human cultures transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. What could have caused us to change our ways? Though no one can confirm the details of its invention, what many historians and anthropologists do agree on is that beer was quite possibly the catalyst. It is believed that along with domesticating and harvesting crops of wheat, rice, barley, and maize, humans discovered the fermentation process and began to brew beer before they were making bread. Others argue that it was in fact breadmaking that led to brewing, but their timelines remain relatively close. 

The earliest evidence of beer dates back between 3500 and 3100 BC to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iran. It is believed, however, that the Sumerians had been brewing beer for thousands of years before that. Beer was revered as a gift from the gods and often celebrated in poems, myths, and songs. The Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi, was praised with a poem, Hymn to Ninkasi, which also contained their early recipe for beer. The drink was consumed daily and produced by women, the priestesses of Ninkasi, who brewed beer at home as part of meal preparations. Made with fermented barley bread, it had the consistency of porridge and had to be sipped through a straw to filter out the solids and herbs.

Beer production expanded under Babylonian rule. By 2050 BC, beer was being produced commercially, as evidenced by beer trade receipts. In fact, 20 different varieties of beer were documented, each with their own set of characteristics. The socio-economic significance of beer is further emphasized by laws written specifically about beer in The Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest known code of laws in the world. According to the Code, merely short pouring a customer was punishable by death.

There were a lot of cultural similarities between Mesopotamian and Egyptian views on beer. The Egyptians also believed that beer came from the gods. While Tenenit was the Egyptian goddess of beer, it is believed that it was Osiris that taught humans how to brew. Similar to Mesopotamian tradition, women also brewed the equally porridge-like beer at home in Egypt. This practice was later overtaken by men.

Beer was deeply ingrained in Egyptian culture; large-scale commercial breweries were established in Egypt by 3150 BC. Egyptians paid their labourers in beer, used beer in over 100 medical remedies, and buried their royalty with miniature breweries should they have a thirst for it in the afterlife.

Beer did not have the same stature in Ancient Greece and Rome, where they prefered drinking wine. For them, beer was considered a low-class, barbarian drink. As the Roman Empire rose to power, the consumption of beer began to decline in favour of wine, deemed the superior drink.

The Middle Ages: Rise of the German Beer

In Germany, beer was being produced as early as 800 BC. However, it is not until 500-1000 AD, the first half of the Middle Ages, that brewing began to pick up in the rest of Europe. Again, as with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian early home brewing practices, women brewed the beer as it was synonymous with cooking. In time, the craft was adopted by Christian monks and the art of brewing transitioned from the home to monasteries and convents.

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It is in this period that hops were introduced into the brewing process. The first record of hops being used in beer making was in 822 AD by a Benedictine monk in Northern France. It is unclear whether hops were used for their preservative qualities or for flavour. From there, it is unclear when hops became a prominent ingredient in beer making. However, there is evidence of a commercial hop garden in Northern Germany that supplied hops to the breweries of the Hansa trading towns, sometime between 1100 and 1200 AD.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the the Renaissance, as commercial beer production spread across Europe, brewing technologies spearheaded by the Germans evolved closer to what they are today. The Germans developed the lager method of bottom-fermentation brewing, whereby fermentation occurs in low temperatures. The English preferred the top-fermentation method of ales, brewed in milder temperatures and stored in cellars.

In 1516, the Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, was enacted by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria. The law made it illegal to use ingredients other than water, barley, and hops to brew beer. It was designed to control consumer prices, divert the use of wheat from beer making to bread making, and prevent brewers from using toxic additives or hallucinogenic ingredients. At the time, yeast had not yet been discovered. While the Reinheitsgebot is still in effect today, the law has been amended since to not only include yeast, but to allow the use of malted grains other than barley.

Colonizing the Americas

By the end of the 16th century, plans for the British to begin colonizing the Americas had begun. The first beer in the New World was brewed in Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke Colony using corn, in present day North Carolina in 1587. This did not make for very good beer. The colonists, led by John White, requested that England send better beer. White returned to England for supplies to find the country at war with Spain, preventing his return until 1590. The colony, now known as the Lost Colony, had disappeared without a trace.

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Active colonization of the Americas began in 1609. In 1612, after recruiting experienced brewers using ads in London newspapers, the first commercial brewery opened in New Amsterdam (present day New York City).

In Canada, the Jesuits built the first brewery in Sillery, Quebec in 1647 and Jesuit Brother Ambroise is recognized as the first brewer. However, this title is contentious as there is evidence of home brewing decades prior. Furthermore, for generations and likely centuries, Canada’s First Nations had been brewing spruce beer. Albeit, it’s a beer that bears little similarity to what we recognize as “modern beer”.

In 1668, the first Canadian commercial brewery was established in Quebec City by Jean Talon. It was a solution to the surplus of grains and shortage of clean drinking water, as well as an attempt to be more locally self-sufficient to combat the large amount of money spent on French imports of liquor. Despite some success highlighted by exports to the West Indies, as with most breweries, Jean Talon’s did not last more than a few years. Over the next century, the fledgling industry would see breweries come and go.

Canadian brewing finally found stability in 1786 when John Molson founded the Molson Brewery in Montreal, known today as the oldest continuously operating brewing company in North America. Other British businessmen soon followed suit: Alexander Keith, William Dow, and John Sleeman just to name a few.

Industrial Revolution and Prohibition: The Rise and Fall

By 1860, there was an estimated 150 breweries in Canada. However, most were small-scale producers supplying local taverns, mainly located in towns with a military presence. British soldiers, often paid with daily beer rations, were the primary customers.

Immigration and new technologies in the latter part of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to a modern era in brewing in North America. While the British brought with them their preference for heavier ales, porters, and stouts, German and Belgian immigrants introduced their cold maturation methods with lighter ales and lagers. With advancements in commercial refrigeration, steam power, pasteurization, automatic bottling, and long distance transportation through rail distribution, beers began to be mass produced year-round. The beer industry began to thrive, but it wouldn’t last.

The Prohibition era put an end to the progress and a devastating majority of brewers were put out of business. In the U.S., only 160 of the approximate 1,400 pre-Prohibition breweries survived. The impact of Prohibition in Canada was still significant, though difficult to trace as a whole. Canada’s Prohibition occurred earlier, during WWI, and each province started and ended at different times. In Ontario, there were 64 breweries in 1916 and by the time Prohibition Laws were repealed in 1927, only 15 breweries remained.

The Craft Beer Revival

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For decades after Prohibition, the beer market was dominated by the surviving mass producers. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that microbrewing, the traditional way of small-batch production, re-emerged in Canada.

The revival of microbrewing can be credited to organized groups of beer enthusiasts lobbying their governments for the “re-legalization” of small-scale beer production. These groups existed all over Europe and united to become the European Beer Consumers Union in 1990.

In Canada, a chapter of the English Campaign for Real Ale was established in 1981. They successfully lobbied for licenses for new breweries; the first of which was issued in British Columbia in 1982. By the 1990’s, microbreweries were sprouting everywhere across the country. By 2015, there were 640 craft breweries in Canada and the number has continued to grow ever since. In the United States, that number has reached over 5,000.

While I initially held an aversion to beer, I’ve recently learned that my distaste for it was largely based on exposure to a small sample size of mostly mass-produced brews. With the overwhelming variety of craft beers I now have access to, I can say that it was just a matter of understanding what I like.

Through its long and storied past, it’s interesting to see how beer production has come full circle. With a 12,000 year-old history, only a few decades have been dominated by mass production. At least here in Toronto, where microbreweries abound, we consume beer more similarly to how it was consumed thousands of years ago. Perhaps soon, beer will regain its place in the kitchen. Nick began brewing his own beer, but that story’s for another time. All I can say is I can’t wait to taste it.

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Words by Kimberley Kwo, Photos by Abhishek Dekate

 

All of the photos featured in this article were shot on location at Bandit Brewery. In addition to having an imminently Instagram-able space, the kind folks at Bandit also turn out some truly spectacular beer and drinking snacks.

Check them out.