Ale is one of the oldest beverages humans have produced, dating back to at least the 5th millennium BC. Its production is recorded in the written history of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
A 3900-year-old Sumerian tablet contains a poem honouring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing. It is the oldest surviving beer recipe, describing the production of beer from barley, via bread.
The Dark Ages
The pagans of northern Europe called their beer "öl", which is the root of the modern word "ale". But unfortunately they could neither read nor write, and there is no firm record of the beginnings of their ale.
Between the 6th and the 9th centuries, the tribal societies of central Europe became both Christianized and organised into countries united by language and customs. This set the stage for a power struggle between the secular feudal lords and church elders for control over all facets of life...including brewing!
By the 12th Century, the largest brewers were monasteries. The refreshing beer made a welcome break in a very austere lifestyle and could be enjoyed while fasting. Monks acquired a taste for ale and records show that in some monasteries consumption of up to five litres a day was allowed.
Monks, Money and Brewlords
The commercialisation of the monastic brew not only propelled it to high standards but also led to its eventual downfall.
Once it became apparent that brewing monks and their cloister breweries had generated great riches, secular lords seized the brewing rights so they could establish commercial breweries, such as the Den Hoorn brewery, first established in Leuven, Belgium in 1366. The Den Hoorn brewery has since developed into the world renowned Stella Artois brewery.
Science, Pasteur and The Cold
As secular and scientific thought progressed, brewers began to understand the brewing process in much greater detail. The brewing process was refined and perfected, meaning consistency and quality improved as a far greater variety of beer was produced.
Louis Pasteur not only unravelled the mysteries of yeast in the fermentation process, but he also developed pasteurisation to stabilise beer, 22 years before he applied the very same process to milk.
The industrialisation of society in the 19th century meant that production of beer moved from artisanal manufacture to industrial manufacture. Innovations in rail transportation and refrigeration allowed beer to travel far greater distances, challenging the traditional domestic brew.
Prohibition and Change
With the introduction of prohibition in America in the early twentieth century, brewers looked for viable legal alternatives to generate wealth and keep their companies afloat.
Many brewers had to close their doors but, thinking outside the box, Adolphus Busch, the father of the Budweiser brand, developed a naturally fermented cereal drink, Bevo, which could be considered the very first non-alcoholic beer!
Beyond Traditional Brewing
The twenty first century has seen a resurgence in local and speciality brewing. The development of micro-breweries, alongside the innovation and reach of global brands means that consumers can now enjoy and experience a huge variety of beers from around the world. No-alcohol and low-alcohol beers are also more widely available, and are rapidly becoming a key growth area in the beer sector.
All this means we now have more styles and types of beer available than ever before. This has begun to give beer a newfound respect - as an intricate and varied beverage crafted with the unique savoir-faire of skilled brew masters around the world.