How beer was discovered / invented is a pre-historic mystery going back to a time long before humans wrote down their experiences. Fruits often naturally ferment through the actions of wild yeast, and the resultant alcoholic mixtures are often sought out and enjoyed by animals. Pre-agricultural humans in various areas, from the Neolithic period on, surely similarly sought out such fermenting fruits and probably even collected wild fruits in the hopes that they would have an interesting physical effect (that is, be intoxicating) if left in the open air. The problem in conceiving beer as having similar origins is that, unlike fruits which already contain the requisite sugars and water and only need yeast contact for fermentation, cereal’s insoluble starches and sugars (that is polymers) must be converted into soluble starches and sugars, mainly maltose but also dextrose (that is monomers), through the actions of enzymes. Without this process of conversion one would have a product with an extremely low alcohol content due to the small amount of fermentable sugar found in unprocessed cereal. The main way of processing cereal for beer is malting it, whereby the enzyme diastase, along with other enzymes formed from germinated cereal are used. For complete conversion, the added step of mashing, that is the heating (but not boiling) of the malt in water for a period of time, is essential.
There is evidence that the Mesopotamians (Middle East) produced a beer very similar to the Belgian ‘Lambic’ about 5000 years ago, while the first evidence of fermented beverages appears from China. Shards of pottery, collected from a Neolithic village known as Jiahu in Northern China’s Henan province and analysed with modern techniques revealed traces of alcoholic liquid dated between 9000 and 7000 years ago. The liquids were the result of a mixed fermented beverage of wild grapes, hawthorn, rice, and honey. (McGovern et al, ‘Fermented Beverages’) The origins of beer in Europe has been traced back to ancient Egypt. It is understood that the ancient Egyptians taught the Greeks and Romans how to ferment wheat and yeast and thus produce the first type of beer. (Although evidence suggests beer being discovered independently by the Celts and other races of Western Europe). The Greeks and Romans however favoured wine over the consumption of beer and for a long time beer was considered a second class drink.
Climate too, determined how and what was drank before the advent of planes, trains and automobiles, when local food and local drink wasn’t just a fashion. Where grapes were not as abundant wine would have to be made from other fruits or even from cereals. A fairly moderate climate and soils that are particularly favourable for the growing of cereals, coupled with countless sources of underground water, makes the so called ‘European Beer Belt’ an ideal region for beer production. The Beer Belt comprises areas where beer has been the alcoholic beverage of choice since times immemorial: Ireland and the UK, the Low Countries, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Bosnia and Albania; most of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia and Romania; and significant, western parts of Poland.
The fact that these mineral water sources all have their own distinctive character and taste has led to the development of an enormous range of different beers throughout Europe. For instance, Dublin has very hard water and this is particularly good for making stout, like Guinness. Pilsen in the Czech Republic has very soft water, ideal for making pale lager, universally known on the Continent as Pils. The waters of England’s Burton on Trent are rich in gypsum, making them ideal for the brewing of pale ale. In addition, some regions are particularly rich in airborne wild yeasts and these have been used from earliest times to create wild beers, the character of which arises not so much from the ingredients, but from the environment of the brewery (winemakers call this ‘terroir’). This is particularly important for the traditional beer styles of Belgium, but also used by brewers the world over to create beers in style and character unique to their place.
By the end of the Middle Ages beer had become one of the most common European drinks and it was consumed daily by every social class in the northern and eastern parts of Europe where grape cultivation was difficult or impossible. The perception of beer as inferior to wine changed dramatically with the fall of the Roman Empire. In medieval times the brewing process of beer was progressed by the ancient Celts and Monks who added different flavours or ingredients to vary the taste of the beer as it grew from strength to strength. It is widely believed that the commercial beers that are brewed today in the modern age hail from medieval Europe. The coming of Christianity saw a tremendous increase in the brewing of beer, largely because monks played such an important role in its production. People often had a very dubious water supply, and there was a constant risk of illness. In this case it was not safe to drink the water so beer was drank instead and in very large quantities. Monks lived pretty frugal lives, particularly during fasting periods, but fortunately for them, consuming liquids did not break their fast. Beer, being boiled, hence sterilised, also provided a source of nutrients. One rule was that monks should provide travellers with something to eat and drink. As a result, during the Middle Ages, monasteries everywhere became stopping off places for travellers who shared the monks’ often meagre food and particularly their robust and sustaining beers. In western Flanders a glass of beer is still referred to as ‘gloazen stutjes’… translated as ‘a sandwich in a glass’. The practice evolved and the monks eventually began to sell the beer in what were rather like medieval pubs.
The basic way to make beer is to boil malted barley with water and let it ferment. Sometimes natural yeasts found floating in the air did the vital work but generally yeast was deliberately to help things along. The resulting mix was usually flavoured with mixtures of various herbs. One of the problems of early brewing was that beer didn’t keep well; it soon spoiled, so couldn’t be transported over long distance or even travel from town to town. This could be overcome to a certain degree by increasing the alcohol content, but that was expensive. In the 9th Century it was discovered that beer could be flavoured with hops, but it was difficult to get the recipe right and it took until the 13th Century to fully perfect the process. Once the Germans discovered that hopped beer lasted longer they introduced standard barrel sizes and started the export trade in beer. These technological leaps meant beer was no longer a small scale cottage industry. Up to 10 skilled and specialist artisans were needed to run a German brewery. By the 14th Century this type of operation had spread through Holland and on to Flanders.
In the nineteenth century, technological discoveries and improvements such as the introduction of refrigeration and the development of pasteurisation techniques dramatically changed beer brewing. By controlling the brewing process, the environment, the type of fermentation, and the type of yeast culture, brewers were able to obtain a ‘standardised’ product, something that could not be achieved previously, thereby providing enhanced opportunities for mass production and consumption as well as large scale packaging and distribution. Between the first and second world wars, beer production and consumption were affected significantly. The war effort resulted in a great shortage in supply for brewers, who had to cope with rising prices of grains combined with a general scarcity of raw materials. Governments issued laws to limit the distribution and consumption of alcoholic drinks, pushing larger brewers to diversify into alternative products such as soft drinks, and smaller producers out of business. These developments led the industry down a path where much modern beer production is now dominated by a handful of multinational companies.
The effects of concentration in the market started to be most significant during the 1970s and 1980s. A number of global conglomerates originated as a result of a series of large acquisitions and mergers. However, most recent times have seen a rise in the number of micro and craft breweries almost everywhere in the world. Trends in Europe show many thousands of smaller producers emerging. Set-up costs are fairly low and the heavy concentration processes in the brewing industry has left space for new entrants and created condition for niche markets. Policies in support of small entrepreneurs, such as rate reliefs and financial grants made available by local governments; and an increased level of sophistication in consumers’ tastes (more inclined to try qualitatively different products) have all added to growth.
Having smaller fixed costs and therefore being less reliant on economies of scale, micro-brewers have been more adept at responding to changing consumer tastes. In addition, because they supply a more discerning market, the craft brewers can afford to be more adventurous in the styles of beer they produce and this has increased their competitiveness even though they are selling at premium prices. The growth of micro-brewers is testament to growing entrepreneurship in this industry.