Image attribution: Photo by on Unsplash 

Ancient China

An odd place to start. And not the place we associate with beer. That is usually associated with Ancient Egypt. Which is not quite true. 

The first ales (cereal based) were made in China about 5,000 years ago. The main reason for that was the use of germination to process grains like barley and millet ie convert the starches to sugars in the same manner used today. Another innovation was to also use another grain, Jobs Tears or Adlay millet as a filler. Some other starchy material like yams or lily roots may have been added.

The result would have been more of a thick, porridge-like mash. Unlike modern ales and beers the step to filter out the mash was not included, the liquid would be consumed with a straw.

We have direct evidence of this from food and drink left as grave offerings. Along with the pots and equipment used to prepare and process the mash. There is even evidence of multiroomed buildings constructed to brew beer and then consume it.

Not sure of how long it might have been stored. Ales were not filtered or hopped. Most likely they would have been produced in batches for specific events and consumed very soon after brewing.

Ancient Sumer

The traditional origin for ales and beers in the Middle East and then Europe was from Mesopotamia. Sumer [modern Iraq] is where the evidence of large scale brewing is found. Both in archaeological evidence and written records. It fixes the earliest evidence of mass production at about 5500 years ago.

It is thought that with the large scale growing of barley, there was a store of grain that sprouted. Not able to either sow it or grind it, this was then boiled up with water to form the mash. The sugars from germination fermented from wild yeasts. The original ale that would have been both calorific and enriched with vitamins.

Later on, the process was extended by using baked loaves of barley to increase the bulk of the mash. And, depending on the needs of the brewer or customer, dates and/or honey - high in sugar - were added to increase the alcohol content along with other additives. There is also evidence of lagering, the practice of storing the result in cool rooms. That suggests that a fairly stronger alcoholic content could be obtained.

There was even a 'Beer Goddess', Ninkasi. Brewers would sing a hymn during their work to honour her:

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,

Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine

(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

Ninkasi, (...)(You the sweet wort to the vessel) 

The beer was drunk with a straw to avoid the leftover mash floating on the surface. Most were simple reeds, but the wealthy often had gold or silver ones. The straws were often then fitted with a filter to further keep the drink free of mash.

In 1989, an American beer company used an ancient recipe to reproduce it. It was said to be be effervescent and smooth, with the aroma of dates.

Image (left) : Depiction on seal showing beer drinking. 

Original (and image) from the British Museum.

Karhu beer logo from wikicommons

Finland : The Land of Heroes (and Beer)

One of the oldest mythic traditions in the Modern Nordic nations comes from Suomi (Finland in English). It is a long oral poem collected in the 19th Century from sources across Finland and Karelia. There is no time period given to this tale, the Kalevala or Land of Heroes. But from the themes it would be dated to the Nordic Bronze Age around 3500 to 2500 before the present.

The Kalevala is a story of the founding of the nation of Finland and the struggles between heroic characters. It also tells of the forging and subsequent loss of the Sampo, a magical mill that could deliver abundance to its owner. In it however, are certain parts that describe what are quite ordinary events, the sowing and harvest, baking bread and the brewing of beer. In the case of the wedding of the daughter of Louhi, the hostess of Pohya:

"Whence indeed will come the liquor,

Who will brew me beer from barley,

Who will make the mead abundant,

For the people of the Northland' 

In particular a very long and detailed description of the brewing of beer, it could be inferred that this must have been a very important part of the culture it drew on. In is noteworthy that neither the Sami or Siberian peoples had a history of brewing beer. That may have been a point of demarcation between the Finns and their neighbours, as they were farmers with an abundance of barley, not herders. It also clear that the technology to undertake brewing is one that can only be found in a farming society with access to both smithing and complex wood working:

"Osmotar, the beer-preparer, Brewer of the drink refreshing,

Takes the golden grains of barley, Taking six of barley-kernels,

Taking seven tips of hop-fruit, Filling seven cups with water,

On the fire she sets the caldron, Boils the barley, hops, and water,

Lets them steep, and seethe, and bubble Brewing thus the beer delicious,

In the hottest days of summer, On the foggy promontory,

On the island forest-covered; Poured it into birch-wood barrels,

Into hogsheads made of oak-wood. 


The Ale Wars : Gruit vs Hops

Beer is a relatively 'modern' innovation. By modern, I mean that although the history of brewing from grains is ancient (see earlier articles), the billions of litres of the stuff we consume today has a fundamental difference to ancient tipples. It was in the Medieval period that the last step was taken to change the brew from a short-lived and widely flavoured product to one dominated by only one single addition, hops. And this was not a universal or even welcomed change.

Let's look at the war between ales flavoured with various herbs - a mix called gruit - and that processed with one type, hops, and then called beer to this day.

The Contenders

Until the 15th century the result of brewing - the ale created from malt - was flavoured with a wide range of herbs available locally to the brewer. These were often peculiar to a specific region or locality and even a closely-guarded secret by the brewer. It also meant that the brew was sweeter too. It was not intended to keep for long, so the flavourings weren't there to make the difference between a product that could be stored for long periods or transported over distance. 

The most common herbs used were either bog myrtle or (when not available) marsh rosemary. Next were laurel berries and laser wort, pine resin seems to have also been added. In Scandinavia, yarrow was another major ingredient, as was heather in Britain. Ground ivy was frequently added - note the alternative name 'alefoot'. Most of these would have given a more astringent taste to the final product, and some preservative properties.

The next additives were mostly local and relied on the preferences and availability in the area. Juniper berries, cumin, caraway and even hops were used. Even more exotic and dangerous products from the nightshades ended up in the vat. In particular, the use of henbane - a very potent narcotic - in Viking culture posits a brew intended to create a violent state in the drinker for ceremonial purposes.

Due to the tax collected on the gruit it became a mandatory additive up to the 16th Century. To the point of forbidding the use of hops as the sole flavouring. Britain even banned the use of hops, often to protect local suppliers of gruit. But mostly as hops needed had to be imported and it was often the lowest quality product being sent. By the 18th Century even the hold-outs were gone as brewing had become an industrial process and needed to compete with the burgeoning mass production of spirits. Hopped beer was here to stay.

The Winner!

About 700 years ago there was a sensible move to replace all the possible kinds of planty things that made ale taste better with a single type. 

It might not have been popular. It may not have been tasty. It may have even been cursed as the ruination of local tradition.

But, it was the botanical equivalent of VHS. It smashed the opposition. People wanted only that. And plenty of it.

At the same time it opened a virtual flood-gate for a standardised product that has stood the test of time. Beer. And only beer. All your brews are belong to us!