Many different herbs and spices were used to flavor beers in these unique mixtures. Historian Tesoro says, "Among other things, juniper berries, sweet gale, blackthorn, oak bark, wormwood, caraway seed, aniseed, bay leaves, yarrow, thorn apple, gentian, rosemary, tansy, Saint-John's-wort, spruce chips, pine roots - and above all henbane found their way into these Grut mixtures" (Tesoro). Many of these herbs could be dangerous in even small amounts, and some, like henbane, could provide hallucinations. Because of this, beer began to be viewed superstitiously.
One of the superstitions that began to swirl around beer and beer brewing was the legend of the "beer witch" or "brew witch." Supposedly, these witches cursed the ingredients and could spoil a batch of beer. Superstition surrounded the brewing process, and of course, sanitation was not what it is today, which also contributed to the failure of many a batch of early beer. Since brewing was largely a woman's job in early history, it became normal to blame the beer witch for a bad batch, and the common penalty was death by fire. The last written record of a beer witch being burned was 1591 (Tesoro). The practice faded away as hops became acceptable additions to the brew mixture, which made the brew more stable and acted as a preservative, so the brew lasted longer. Historian Tesoro writes, "With the use of hops the beer revealed its 'clear character.' Beer began to closely resemble the modern product range, both in taste and appearance" (Tesoro). To maintain this newfound clarity, many areas began to develop beer purity laws, which regulated a brew's consistent quality.
The German Beer Purity Law was passed in 1516, and it "established for the first time that only barley (later malted barley), hops, and pure water could be used to brew beer. The use of yeast was not yet known at that time" (Tesoro). However, the fermentation of the finished product depended on yeast molecules in the air, something brewers had no idea of yet. This law is still on file today, and it holds the record of being the oldest still legal food law in the world. However, beer can be imported into Germany that does not comply with the law today, as long as that is stated on the beer (Tesoro). This law helped guarantee the purity of the beer, and helped brewers trade their beers in wider areas across Europe.
In the late 1700s, beer began to be an acceptable court beverage and new inventions such as the steam engine and artificial cooling helped streamline the brewing process. Steam power gained popularity and became an integral part of the brewing process all over Europe and American. An American beer historian notes, "An expert on this period in British brewing comments that 'the advantages of steam-power were proved immediately. Apart from the most concrete saving in the expense of horses, the uninterrupted, rapid work made possible by the engine added efficiency and convenience to its initial economy'" (Baron 157). In addition, brewers came to understand the science of brewing more thoroughly, and they learned the right temperatures to brew perfect beer, and how to brew beer year round. (Previously, brewers could only be made during the winter, as there was no cooling available all summer long.) Breweries relying on steam power for their machinery were called "steam beer breweries" (Tesoro).
Another very important innovation took place in the late 19th century, when Louis Pasteur began studying beer and learned more about microorganisms in the process. Eventually, Pasteur developed pasteurization from his studies. This process helps purify a number of foods, from milk to cheese, and during his studies, Pasteur also uncovered the fact that beer (and other foods) could be contaminated by unsanitary brewing conditions (Tesoro).
Finally, modern metal keg barrels were not introduced for beer until 1964. Previously, beer was still transported in traditional wooden kegs. The metal kegs are easier to clean and sanitize, and fit under bars much easier than the old kegs. The beer can originated in America in the 1930s, and modern beer brewing has turned into an art form, especially in brewpubs and houses around the world (Editors). In America, beer is practically the national drink, holding a place in the hearts of sports fans and bar patrons from coast to coast.
Beer has a long and varied history in America. The first settlers brought beer with them as they crossed the Atlantic from Great Britain, and some of our founding fathers were brewers as well. (Thomas Jefferson is just one example). Just as in Europe, early brewing tended to be done at home by women, because they were the ones who baked bread, and beer and bread making went hand in hand (Baron 31). However, the need for beer (and other supplies) was so great in the Virginia Colonies after arrival in 1607 that the London Company supplying the colonists aspired to build a brewery there, not only to quench the colonists, but also to bring in revenue back to England (Baron 4). Just as in England, there were strict controls on the brewing process. In fact, in early Boston, Puritan elders decreed just how much of each ingredient should go into a brew (Baron 35).
While beer has a long history in the country, it really came into being in the mid-1800s, when German immigrants began streaming into the country, bringing their beer-making skills with them. The Germans did not bring beer with them, as many people believe. Instead, they modified the way Americans were already making beer. Beer historian Stanley Baron notes, "The modern lager, with its emphasis on lightness, dryness and sparkle, is an American adaptation of the original German brew and may be considered, in both its character and its method of production, as an indigenous creation" (Baron x). Thus, German ingenuity and American innovation combined to create some of the most common American beers. (Think Adolph Coors, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Anheiser-Busch just to name a few.) the distinction between dark and light beer came about sometime during this time, and American beers have developed into lighter, brighter versions of many of their European cousins.
What is the difference between beer and ale? Ale is a stouter, heartier brew, and can trace its roots back to European roots, specifically Great Britain. Beer historian Baron continues, "Only the ale we drink today, and -- in special localities -the stout and porter, can in any way be identified with the English brewing tradition that preceded the German. Those drinks, so dear to our eighteenth-century forebears, were lustier, more alcoholic, darker and flatter than the ruling beverage of today" (Baron x). Thus, beer had metamorphosized from the earliest civilizations to a drink at least relatively similar to the drink we enjoy today by the end of medieval times. Beer continued to evolve in Europe, and then America, and is still evolving today. It can be light, dark, heavy, or "lite," but beer, and the culture surrounding beer, is so prominent it is difficult to imagine society without this beverage. What would the Super Bowl be without Bud Light ads, after all?
In conclusion, beer is more than a beverage. It is an historic drink used to conjure up and appease the gods, make solitary life more bearable, and add to the overall enjoyment of a meal. The first beers were far different from beer we know today, they were cloudy, bitter, and perhaps even filled with mash. And yet, those ancient beers transformed, little by little, into the drink the world knows and loves today. So, the next time you pop the top on an ice-cold beer, stop and think about all the history that came before, and you may appreciate this malty thirst-quencher just a little bit more than usual.
Baron, Stanley. Brewed in America: A History of Beer and Ale in the United States. Boston: Little Brown, 1962.
Editors. "Beer." CBCNews.ca. 21 July 2004. 22 Feb. 2007. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/beer/
Hajar, Rachel. "Friend and Foe - the Middle Eastern Origins of Beer." World and I Nov. 2001: 206.