Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Home Brewing Part 1: The History

Posted by Ross

Note to the reader: This was written in January 2009 and never published. I think Andy (RoyalCow) helped me, and Drew was supposed to write part 3, which may never happen.

This is part one of a three part post on home brewing.  Part 2: The Science, and Part 3: The Art.  We have also have made Appendix: The Language, which you can use as a reference for brewing jargon.


mmmmmmmmFirst we must start by looking at the origins of beer.  You can't really talk about the history of home brewing without talking about the history of beer.  This isn't a chicken and the egg situation. The first beer was brewed at home, not at Budweiser.  I'd like to imagine it wasn't too much longer before we some enterprising young lad set up the first pub and brewery after stumbling upon the recipe for beer.  In actuality it was likely much longer.  

It's impossible to pen that story of the first brewer not just because nobody was writing anything down, but also because if you were handed a beer in Ancient Mesopotamia, you probably wouldn't recognize it as beer.  The first variations of beer were probably created on accident around 7,000 years ago, give or take a few millenia.  The first time barley was fermented and consumed must have been a mystery.  There was no way of knowing about our microscopic miracle workers, yeast.  We can only assume it happened completely by accident.  The first accidental brewer was probably starting to make bread as he got called off to war.  While he was gone some wild yeast floated on in to his home.  Upon returning a few days later he must have been very thirsty from spending all that time defeating enemies.  Little did he know, drinking that leftover mystery bowl on the kitchen counter was the first celebratory beer. 

As I mentioned, nobody really knows how any of this happened.  The first batch of beer may have been preceded by other accidentally fermented beverages, or could have contained much more than just barley.  Let's stick to the facts.

Early History

Sure enough, along with the first writings of the Sumerians was evidence of beer.  Much like today, they had laws regulating how society could enjoy its home-crafted beverages.  They even had a goddess of beer, Ninkasi.  Although many other civilizations weren't writing, we believe they were independently discovering beer, and had their own regional variations.  Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found what they believe to be residue from beer on pottery found in Iran that dates to 3500 B.C.  People who like Budweiser would have found themselves at home in Asia thousands of years ago, as they were probably brewing beer with rice.  Europe was also partaking in the beer party 5,000 years ago.

The Renaissance

I'm refering to what I call the Beer Renaissance, which predates the actual Renaissance by centuries.  It had it's beginnings in the 9th century, when monks first recorded using hops in beer.  We all know hops are one of the staple ingredients of modern beer, the other parts will go into more detail about why they are so important.  To this day monastaries remain masters of the craft.  Just look at Beer Advocate's List of top beers.  Anywhere you see the word trappist means it was brewed under the control of a Trappist Monk.  This age fully came about in the middle of the actual Renaissance in 1516 when Germany enacted the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law.  Some say this was created by a secret society, which still exists today and controls key members of the FDA.  (OK, not really).  This law stated that beer must consist of only three ingredients: water, barley and hops.  Yeast was still unknown at this time.

The Modern Era

Our history of home brewing splits with the Industrial Revolution.  Since the advent of big breweries home brewing began to fade away.  Around the start of the 20th century there was legislation in place in the UK and US that made home brewing difficult.  With the onset of the prohibition it became outright illegal.  There was an entire culture that sprang up around illegal home crafted alcholic drinks, however this era revolved mostly around distilled spirits.  Imagine a little girl as a moonshine runner trying to hide a keg in her bike basket.

Home brewing as we know it started in 1979, when Carter signed an act passed by congress the year before.  This eased restrictions and made it legal for guys like you and me to brew beer in the privacy of our own homes.  I don't feel like we've come that much further in 30 years.  As a matter of fact, states like Utah and Alabama are still fighting to legalize home brewing and repeal other ridiculous alcohol related laws.

Unfortunately by the time that home brewing become a realistic option America's taste for beer had been dulled by lack of availability and a the marketing efforts of the major breweries.  It was the symbiotic relationship between craft brewing and home brewing that revived beer to what we know it as today in the U.S.  When I say craft brewing, I'm refering to things like microbreweries and brew pubs.  A major break through came in the form of the New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, CA.  So, although you may think of Sonoma as 'Wine Country' beer drinkers should have a great appreciation for the city as well.  The co-arising of the home brewers and craft brewers persisted throught out the next decade.  Craft brewing exposed more people to good beer, which spurred an interest in home brewing, which created an interest in good beers, which increased demand for the craft breweries as well as brewers capable of making them... Well, you see where this is going.  This continued through the 80's, which brought us companies like Wyeast, Whitelabs and Five Star Chemical.  Companies that have been serving home brewers and craft brewers alike for decades now.

Along come the 90's.  At this point in time the craft brewing scene is really gaining momentum.  The American public had finally taken an interest in good great beer.  By 1996 there were over 1000 homebrew shops in the US.  Microbreweries distribution reached far and wide, they could put on nationwide ad campaigns.  Home brewers paved the way for the variety and quality of beer that we enjoy here in America today.  There's a thriving culture around home brewing.  Styles are being improved, invented and even resurrected. You'll have a hard time finding the range and quality of beers anywhere else in the world that can be found here.  (Alabama excluded).  Even the large breweries are getting on board  by purchasing craft breweries and creating their own lines of craft beers.  We home brewers have come a long way from our humble prehistoric beginnings.  Next time you're out at the bar, enjoying a well crafted malt beverage, raise your glass in salute of your local home brewer for being a part of the beer revolution.

Edit: At the time of writing this (4.5 years ago), brewing was illegal in Alabama. As of a few days ago, it is finally legal.


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