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The Early History of Beer

Beer is known to be one of the earliest beverages civilization has produced. Its invention even preceded the making of bread.

Tutankhamun-AleBeermaking in ancient times

When ancient civilization first cultivated cereal for human consumption, it was discovered there are many cereals that contain sugars and therefore have the ability to undergo fermentation. Thus they began to develop brewing beverages from those grains.

Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Babylonia reveal that beer-making was one of the honorable occupations at that time. These clay tablets also contain the oldest extant beer recipes, and a poem honoring the goddess of brewing, Ninkasi. Most of the ancient brewers were women.


One of the earliest surviving works of literature — the thousand-years old ancent Sumerian poem Epic of Gilgamesh — also mentioned beer.

Brewing became more widespread in regions where cereal and other grains were domesticated and cultivated. In ancient Egypt, it was a vital industry. In fact, former British beer maker Courage Brewery came up with a replica of the ancient Egyptian beer “Tutankhamun Ale” (made of emmer wheat, which is rarely grown and cultivated today) in 1996.

In different cultures and myths, beer plays different parts. Find out more about this in our post about the role beer plays in stories and myths across cultures.

Brewing during the middle ages: seeking to improve the beer’s flavor and shelf life

Beer brewed in ancient times were more like porridge than the beer that we drink today, and because of the thick consistency of the ancient beers, drinking straws were used to avoid the bitter “sediments” left from fermentation and brewing.

The knowledge of making beer was then handed down to the Greeks, who in turn taught it to the Romans. In Ancient Rome beer was widely drunk, but as times passed wine displaced beer as a popular alcoholic drink. Beer, as viewed by the Roman senator/historian Tacitus, was a lowly beverage, the “drink of the barbarians” brewed by the Germanic tribes.

But as time marched on, beer-making was still continued. By the middle ages beer, as well as wine, became a common drink when treated. Keep in mind that at those days potable water was still unheard-of.

Gruit (or grut) was a mixture of a variety of spices which was then traditionallly used as a flavoring/bittering agent to beer. Gruts also gave the beer a distinct aroma. However, most of the beers prepared then would spoil easily and the alternative solution in prolonging its shelf life was to add alcohol — but adding alcohol proved to be a costly preparation.

The primary ingredient of beer, hops, was not introduced until 1000 AD. Since its discovery, hops has become one of the key components of beer. Aside from the flavor, hops has the stronger stabilizing properties than gruits.

Around the 13th century, Bohemian beermakers in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) were among the first people to improve beer’s taste and quality by infusing hops. When beer wasn’t brewed for commercial purposes in the medieval times, it was mostly done at home for simple family refreshment.

By the middle ages, beer had sprung from a home-made creation into an growing industry, responding to the consumer’s growing preference. Pubs, as well as monasteries and abbeys, began to open breweries. Yes, the monks and nuns brewed beer too, and they were even considered as the best brewers. These holy men and women brewed beers as part of their everyday chores. Beer, aside from food and temporary shelter, was one of the things they provided to pilgrims and travelers. In medieval England, brewing was also becoming a strong business industry as well.

The process of beer-making continued to evolve as years passed and new brewing techniques were introduced but it has long been a part of human history. Today of course beer is a huge multi-national industry with several corporations and multi-million dollar super bowl ads.

The latter-day history of beer-making (from the Industrial Revolution era to the present) will be presented in another hub.

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