Offbeat

What is This Thing Called Beer?

Beer is almost as old as civilization itself. The oldest written records date back six thousand years to the Sumerians, who lived in Southern Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the cities of Babylon and Ur. Made from barley, grain, hops, water and yeast, fermented beverages in various forms were well known to the peoples of the ancient world.

An ancient engraving, which is also a recipe for making beer, bears a hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing. It describes barley and a pictograph of bread being baked, crumpled into water to form a mash and then transformed into a divine drink that made the Sumerians forget about the significance of inventing the wheel.

In ancient times, beer was cloudy and unfiltered, and people used straws to avoid ingesting the brewing residue, which floated unattractively across the top. Still, beer was a vitamin-rich drink, which when consumed daily, reduced disease and malnutrition. In general, early civilizations found the mood-altering properties of beer supernatural, and intoxication was considered divine.

During the Middle Ages, the monasteries became the chief beer producers. Monks sold their delicious brews and many monasteries developed into well-managed commercial enterprises. Throughout the Middle Ages, hops became widely used as both a preservative and a way to make beer more refreshing. With this innovation, beer began to closely resemble the way it is today, both in taste and appearance.

James Watt’s steam engine and the artificial cooling system invented by Carl von Linde in the 19th century revolutionized the beer brewing industry. It had long been known that the making of good beer required certain temperatures. From the time of von Linde’s invention, brewing became a year round enterprise. In the area of scientific research, Louis Pasteur’s 1876 Etudes sur la Biere (Studies Concerning Beer) revealed the importance of microorganisms and bacteria, culminating in the word that today bears his name; “pasteurized”.

Early Native-Americans had been brewing beer for many centuries before Columbus set sail for the New World. In the American colonies, English settlers relied heavily on shipments of ales from England while the Dutch in New Amsterdam (New York) started their own breweries as early as 1632. The first beer with a brand name came from there; it was known as Red Lion Brewery. George Washington was a lover of porter and had his own recipe for beer, which is handwritten in an old notebook that can be seen today at the New York Public Library.

The 1880’s became the golden age of American brewing, seeing a surge in growth that culminated in the formation of 2,272 American breweries. Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors and Pabst all date from this era.

The beer brewing industry chugged along at a comfortable pace until January 16, 1920, the date the 18th amendment (Prohibition) took effect. Chicago gangsters controlled the flow of illegal beer and liquor. The Volstead Act, which enforced prohibition, created special units to operate as independent federal police squads, the most famous of which was Elliot Ness and his Untouchables. The beer industry never recovered from Prohibition and neither did Elliot Ness or Al Capone.

Today, ninety-five per cent of all beer consumed in the United States is American beer and eighty per cent of it is made by the five largest companies; Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Coors, G. Heilman (Henry Weinhard), Miller and Pabst.

The redeeming value of beer in American society is most certainly a moot point, perhaps akin to the effects of the Colt revolver on the decreasing population of the Old West. Bars have been the meeting place of many minds, both sodden and sober, for centuries.

Still one can only conclude that if you are going to drink beer, at least buy the best you can afford, for life’s too short to drink cheap beer!

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