The word “beer” has many possible origins. Most likely this word derives from the Middle English word bere or from the Old English word bēor. The Old High German word bior may also be the precursor, as could the Middle Dutch word bēr. As we can see, the word “beer” has roots from Europe at least as early as the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century). The words from that time that gave us “beer” referred to a fermented drink made from malted cereals and flavoured with a myriad of different ingredients. In some cases, roots or other starchy plant materials instead of cereal grains were used to make the drink.
You don’t have to be a connoisseur of the alcoholic beverage to understand that beer is vastly different to wine. Beer is brewed, and wine is not, it is fermented. Brewing is the process of converting starches into fermentable sugars. In other words, the starch in grains or other materials is converted into sugars before being fermented into an alcoholic beverage. Because fermentable sugars already exist in fruit, a beverage made by adding yeast to fruits is not brewed, but still results in an alcoholic beverage we know as wine (or cider, perry, etc.). Making beer requires a few more steps when compared to wine or cider or other fruit based beverages.
From Ancient Roots
The earliest recorded recipes for what we can consider as being beer were most likely written in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, well before the 18th century BC. We know this because references to beer parlours were noted in the Code of Hammurabi. This code of laws was written around 1772 BC by the 6th Babylonian king, Hammurabi. The code explained the laws for the operation of their civilization; the phrase we know as “an eye for an eye” comes from these laws. Beer was noted in many places within the laws as well, hinting that beer predated this time enough to have pervaded society by 1772 BC.
Through the ages there are many references to beer and its societal and religious importance. It soon became heavily consumed by all parts of society and became a staple, meaning that the average citizen consumed the beverage throughout the day. A glass in the morning would accompany the start of the day and quench the thirst of those who could afford it (or made it at home) during the workday. At night, it filled your glass during your evening meal.
By the start of the Middle Ages, nearly everyone in Europe consumed significant quantities of beer on a daily basis. Overuse was not typical because the alcohol content was very low for these beers. After all, this was a drink consumed as part of the daily activities. It was not free (purchasing or growing the ingredients cost money), and stretching the amount of grain used to make the beer was the norm. This meant that the beer was alcoholic, but only slightly so.
One of the main reasons why beer became an integral part of life, being drunk by everyone from infant to the frail elderly, consumed at every meal and essentially any time that someone was thirsty, was due to the extremely poor living conditions in the middle-ages. This is not to say it was necessarily drunk to offset the squalor, it was more of a case of living areas not being the cleanest places to live and work. In fact, they were incredibly dirty. People dumped their rubbish and raw sewage into the street outside their house. Rivers, streams, and lakes also served as rubbish dumps. With no control over waste, citizens of those cities had no choice but to drink the same water that they polluted. At the very least, the appearance and flavour of drinking water could not have been pleasant.
At worst, drinking that polluted water would result in outbreaks of diseases such as cholera. In fact, the unsanitary nature of the cities meant that disease was commonplace. And once a disease started in a city, it spread very quickly across the population and even to neighbouring towns. Drinking beer instead of water, which was boiled as part of the brewing process, provided a much more pleasant experience and offered some improved protection from waterborne illnesses.
To illustrate the importance, if we look at London around 1200 AD, there were roughly 350 ale houses (or taverns) for the approximately 80,000 London residents. Brewing supply stores that sold malted barley and other ingredients were even more common. Records from the time indicate that there was approximately one supply store for every 60 residents. Everyone was making and drinking beer. In fact, the citizens of London had many different choices when it came to beer, from making it at home to buying it in an ale house. It was not uncommon for many city dwellers to send their children to the ale house to buy the family’s beer for the day
Beer making at home was relegated to the duties of the housewife or, if you were wealthy, to the kitchen staff. Large breweries serving groups of people, such as communes and monasteries, started to take hold in the early 7th and 8th century. Those breweries were typically included in the plans when a new monastery was built. And the plans kept a keen eye on making sure the space in the brewery was enough to supply the monks and their visitors with an endless supply of beer.
In northern France in 822 AD, hops were recorded as one of the flavouring agents being used in beer. Pliny the Elder, almost 800 years earlier, had written about the hop plant. And even though mention was made of the cultivation of hops by 736 AD, beer was typically made without hops. In addition to imparting a very desirable flavour to the finished product, beer flavoured with hops tended to last longer. Therefore, it did not have to be consumed as quickly as unhopped beer.
However, hops were difficult to obtain on a widespread scale in Europe, and the amount of hops needed for a batch of beer was hard to determine because of the variability of the amount of bittering agents in the wild plant. This meant that as people travelled, the beer they consumed had vastly different flavours resulting from the availability of what ingredients were found near the breweries.
One of the major issues with early beer was the quality (or lack of or variability of). The Germans first tried to tackle the issue with the Duke of Bavaria, William IV, in 1516 issued a law known as the Reinheitsgebot (the Bavarian Purity Law). This law was constructed not only to assure some uniformity in beer production, but also to ensure that enough grain was available to make bread for people to consume. The Reinheitsgebot dictated that beer had to be made from barley, hops, and water. (Yeast was not known in the sixteenth century and thus was not added to the list of acceptable ingredients.) This law was officially still on the books until 1987.
Barley malt was thus restricted to the production of beer, a task for which barley is very well suited. Grains, such as rye and wheat, which were much better for use in bread making, were not to be used to make beer.
The industrial revolution swept across Europe in the mid- to late 1800s, resulting in a dramatic impact on the production of beer. Engines that could operate machines, the invention of the thermometer and hydrometer to monitor beer production, the development of coal-fired ovens used to kiln malt, and small but very useful improvements to packaging beer for sale in bottles served to increase the output of municipal and commercial breweries. In fact, that increase in production signalled the beginning of a shift from brewing beer in the home to brewing beer commercially. The economies of increased scale meant that beer became cheaper and easier to buy than it was to make in the home.
It is fair to say that brewing from home became far less commonplace during the industrial revolution. Brewing from home was not helped as many nations began to regulate it or ban it outright. For example, in the USA, the introduction of Prohibition in 1920, banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages full stop so brewing from home was made illegal.
Though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, making your own beer with an ABV that was greater than 0.5% remained illegal under federal law until 1978. It was this year that President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, a bill that “allows any adult to produce wine and beer for personal and family use.” The bill also gave states with ability to create their own laws surrounding home brewing.
The bill stated: any adult (formerly only heads of families) is allowed to produce wine and beer for personal and family use and not for sale without incurring the wine or beer excise taxes or any penalties for quantities per calendar year of: (1) 200 gallons if there are two or more adults in the household and (2) 100 gallons if there is only one adult in the household. After being legalised, home brewing exploded in popularity, building on the already popular practice of home winemaking.
Looking closer to home in the UK, before 1963, if you wanted to brew your own beer, you had to pay the government for the privilege, or do it secretly, thanks to the lingering effects of Victorian legislation. In 1880 Prime Minister William Gladstone, seeking to appease the farming lobby and urgently raise money, replaced the longstanding malt tax with a duty on the finished product – beer. As a side effect, households that brewed their own beer for ‘domestic use’ (that didn’t sell it) were suddenly subject to registration, regulation and inspection, and were required to pay for a licence.
In the following years, and as people were prosecuted for making beer at home without any license, home-brewing very nearly disappeared altogether as far as the Government was concerned. Official numbers suggested that by 1961-62 only 250 people in the entire country had licences to brew beer at home.
Obviously, the draconian legislation did not stop home-brewing altogether, especially not in cases where it was part of community life. There was plenty of home-brewing taking place behind closed doors and without the knowledge of Her Majesties Revenue and Customs. Eventually, the cost of investigating and prosecuting hardly seemed worth the effort which is why, on 3 April 1963, Conservative Chancellor Reginald Maudling announced the abolition of the 1880 law.
Home Brewing Boom
The immediate result of this liberalisation was that home-brewers began to share advice and information more openly. There was a flurry of newspaper columns and books such as H.E. Bravery’s 1965 pocket guide Home Brewing Without Failures which epitomises the make-do-and-mend approach of the time. Need a fermenting vessel? Use a plastic dustbin. Need to darken your beer? Why not use gravy browning. Some of the recipes seem by modern standards rather off the mark, such as a mild made entirely with crystal malt and demerara sugar, but they underline part of the essential appeal of home-brewing: variety, quirkiness, the ability to make a beer exactly to your taste, and know exactly what is in it.
On British high streets home brewing ingredients and equipment, which had long been available but with a furtive under-the-counter reputation, became easier to buy, more widely advertised, and more convenient to use.
In 1966-67 Edme, manufacturers of malt extract, sold 300 tons to UK home-brewers – enough to make millions of pints of beer. In 1969 the same firm launched pre-hopped malt extract on to the market, meaning that any amateur with a bucket could produce about 40 pints of beer for less than 18 shillings, some warm water, and fifteen minutes work.
By the 1970s there was a home-brewing boom underway, fuelled by the Good Life do-it-yourself tendency and advertising campaigns on TV and in newspapers, among other factors. By 1978 the Mirror was estimating that there were more than 2 million home-brewers in the UK and it was sufficiently mainstream to warrant the celebrity taste-off treatment in the same newspaper, with Alvin Stardust among others reviewing and rating home-brew kits.
All this came, of course, with a healthy dose of moral panic: there were scares over home-brew alcoholics; over the risks of driving after drinking home-brew of indeterminate strength; over cases of poisoning supposed to have been caused by home-brew; and, of course, over the risk posed to pubs and the ‘proper’ breweries by this growing trend. And there was probably something in this last point: every time the government put up beer duty, sales of home-brewing equipment and materials grew. After all, why pay 60p for a pint when you could make one at home for 10p and, in many cases, find that it tasted better? Or at least more interesting, and probably stronger.
It was also in this decade that some of the first serious, dedicated beer writers emerged from the world of home brewing. Dave Line, for example, was an electrical engineer from Southampton who first got into wine-making with his wife, Sheila. He was inspired to make his first beer by an advertisement run in national newspapers by Guinness which rather smugly challenged home-brewers by providing a recipe for producing 2.5 million pints of its famous stout. Line reverse-engineered the recipe and later published it under the name ‘Romsey Stout’.
His first book, The Big Book of Brewing, was released in 1974. ‘You can steal a man’s wife, burn down his house, sack him from his job’, he wrote in it, ‘but never should you deny him the right to sup good ale.’ With his informal style, rebellious tendency and rugged practicality, Line chimed with the values of the young folk who made up the bulk of the CAMRA-led real ale movement of the 1970s.
Into the 80’s
By 1982, home-brewing was such a big industry in the UK that publicans began pressuring government to tax and restrict home-brewing. This wasn’t successful but it didn’t matter because, in 1986, the market collapsed under its own weight and most high street shops ditched their home-brewing ranges.
Some of those millions who had tried their hand in the 1970s and 80s gave up, perhaps realising that the beers they produced, though undeniably cheap, were also often nasty. People of a certain age will reminisce, and not fondly, about Dad’s bucket in the airing cupboard and the foul, farty, headache-inducing brews it produced from tins of goop and sachets of extract, with bags of cane sugar to boost the ABV.
Diehards, of course, kept at it, and with greater care and expertise than ever. More and better books were published (especially in the US) and specialist shops thrived, supplying not only extracts but also whole grains, whole-leaf hops, and ever more sophisticated equipment. In 1995 James McCrorie founded the UK Craft Brewing Association, a serious-minded organisation that avoided the term home-brewing because, as he was quoted saying in 2013, ‘it had come to mean, in Britain, a can of crap and a kilo of sugar’.
Then, with the rise of the internet, a second and more sustainable boom began. Online message-boards provided opportunities for brewers to acquire recipes and advice, while mail order stores meant that anyone could easily access specialist ingredients and equipment with a few clicks. The internet also made it easier to organise competitions and social gatherings.
From around 2007 two other factors kicked off a new home-brewing boom. First came a global financial crisis which made cheaper beer appealing; and, secondly, there was growing excitement around craft beer. If back then you wanted to drink crazily hopped, crazily strong American style IPAs, brewing your own was cheaper and more fun than buying imports. It was also by far the easiest way to try obscure styles such as, say, Gose or Rauchbier.
For many in this period home-brewing was an inviting route into commercial brewing – so many, in fact, that these days it feels quite unusual to read a craft brewery origin story that doesn’t begin with a plastic bucket.