The History of Beer

From Ancient Mesopotamia to a "Six Pack to Go"

Woman drinking a glass of beer
Enthusiasts Attend Great British Beer Festival. Getty Images Staff

While beer is certainly one of the first alcoholic beverages known to civilization, its exact date of origin has never been determined with any precision. Most archaeological evidence suggests that beverages made from combinations of fermented grains and water were first brewed around 4000 to 3500 B.C.

Historians theorize that humankind's fondness for beer played a significant role in our evolution from a society of nomadic hunters and gatherers into an agrarian society that would settle down to grow crops. Indeed, evidence shows that the brewing of beer likely began soon after people started growing cereal grain crops to make bread.  

Evidence collected from the ancient Mesopotamian trading outpost of Godin Tepe in present-day Iran shows that a beer made from fermented barley was already being brewed there some 7,000 years ago. Around the same time, Sumerians were believed to be making beer, and people of the Nubian culture of Ancient Egypt were fermenting a crude, ale-like beverage known as bousa. Hence the famous old Egyptian proverb: “The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer.”

Historians also believe beer may have been brewed in Neolithic Europe as far back as 5,000 years ago. At this time, beer was brewed mainly in the home as a byproduct of making bread. Indeed, until the commercialization and industrialization of brewing occurred, women dominated the production of beer.

According to the Ebla tablets, discovered in 1974 in Ebla, Syria, beer was produced there in 2500 B.C. In ancient Syria as well as Babylonia, beer was brewed mostly by women and often by priestesses. Some types of beers were used in religious ceremonies. In 2100 B.C., the Babylonian King Hammurabi included regulations governing tavern keepers in his code of laws for the kingdom.

In 450 B.C., Greek writer Sophocles discussed the concept of moderation when it came to consuming beer in Greek culture, and believed that the best diet for Greeks consisted of bread, meats, various types of vegetables, and beer.

Ancient Beer Recipes

Nearly every culture developed their own version of beer using different grains. Africans used millet, maize, and cassava. The Chinese used wheat. The Japanese used rice. The Egyptians used barley. However, hops, now the main ingredient in beer beverages, was not used in brewing until 1000 B.C.

The modern era of brewing beer could not begin until the invention of commercial refrigeration, methods of automatic bottling, and pasteurization.

Beer During the Industrial Revolution

Commercial beer production began to grow shortly after the advancement of the steam engine in 1765. The invention of the thermometer in 1760 and the hydrometer — a device for measuring the volume of alcohol in liquids — in 1770 allowed brewers to improve the consistency and quality of their product.

Before the later 18th century, the malt used in beer was usually dried over fires made from wood, charcoal, or straw. The prolonged exposure of the malt to the smoke from the fires resulted in a beer with a decidedly smoky flavor considered undesirable by brewers and detestable by drinkers.

The solution came in 1817 when Daniel Wheeler obtained a British patent for “A New or Improved Method of Drying and Preparation of Malt” using the recently-invented drum roaster. The drum roaster and Wheeler’s process allowed the malt to be dried without being exposed to the smoke.

According to historian H.S. Corran, Wheeler’s so-called “patent malt” began the history of porter and stout beers, and put an end to the old tradition of using the term “porter” to distinguish any brownish-colored beer from pale ale.

Effective and economical, Wheeler’s drum roasted malt process produced a more flavorful product that freed brewers of charges of selling tainted beer.

In 1857, renowned French biologist Louis Pasteur discovered the role of yeast in the fermentation process, leading brewers to develop methods of preventing the souring of beer by undesirable microorganisms.

Beer in the United States

Before the start of Prohibition in January 1920, the thousands of commercial breweries in the United States were producing heavier beers with higher alcoholic content than most modern U.S. beers.

While Prohibition put most legitimate U.S. breweries of business, hundreds of illegal “bootleg” brewers took advantage of the situation. To increase their profits, bootleg brewers often produced a “watered down” beer lower in alcoholic content than pre-Prohibition brews.

Noting the popularity of the bootleg beer, brewers continued the trend to produce weaker beer after Prohibition ended in 1933. Today, light beers are among the most popular and heavily advertised beers on the market.

The end of World War II in 1945 brought a period of mass consolidation of the U.S. brewing industry. Brewing companies would buy their rivals solely for their customers and distribution systems while shutting down their brewing operations.

Since the mid-1980s, the number of U.S. breweries has grown steadily. In 2016, the Brewers Association reported that the number of breweries in the U.S. had passed the 5,000 mark. During the early 1980s, when the industry was dominated by the huge mass-market companies, there were fewer than 100 U.S. brewing operations in business. Then, Americans discovered – and loved – specialty, or “craft” beers.

The popularity of craft beers spurred a steady growth in the American brewing industry. Between 2008 and early 2015, the number of breweries grew from about 1,500 to 3,500. By late 2015, America's brewery count topped 4,131, the previous all-time high reached in 1873, decades before Prohibition and consolidation transformed the industry.

Beer and the ‘Honeymoon’

Some 4,000 years ago in Babylon, it was an accepted practice that for a month after a wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead or beer he could drink. In ancient Babylon, the calendar was lunar-based (based on the cycle of the moon). The month following any wedding was called the "honey month" which evolved into "honeymoon." Mead is a honey beer and what better way to celebrate a honeymoon?

And a Six Pack to Go

Today, the iconic “six pack of beer” stands forever chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of product marketing. But who invented the six pack?

According to the American Beer Museum, the six pack came on the scene after the repeal of prohibition, when beer sales shifted from establishments dedicated to consumption, like bars and breweries, to retail or “take home” outlets like grocery stores.

In the early 1950s, when to-go beer packaging started, fewer than 7% of breweries offered a take-home option. Instead, beer was primarily distributed in bulky and heavy wooden crates or barrels.

Many historians credit Pabst Brewing with being the first American brewery to package its beer in six packs in the mid-1950s. One theory holds that Pabst conducted studies showing that six cans or bottles resulted in the ideal weight for the average housewife to carry home from the store. However, it is also suggested that size, rather than weight, was the reason for the six pack. A six pack of beer turned out to be the perfect size to fit in a standard paper grocery bag.

Other historians contend that the now-defunct Jax Brewing Company of Jacksonville, Florida, was the first U.S. brewer to offer the six pack. The Jax theory suggests that as aluminum canned beer took over the market after World War II had depleted the nation steel supplies, the brewery was unable to keep up with cost. Their solution was to sell its beer in sacks labeled “Jax Beer” each holding six bottles. The “six sack.”

Pabst or Jax aside, the first six pack did not hold beer. Instead, soft drink giant Coca-Cola introduced the six pack in 1923, over 30 years before the breweries got on board. According to Coca-Cola’s official history, “The carrier helped encourage people to take bottles of Coca-Cola home and drink Coke more often. Imagine carrying individual bottles of Coke — in glass bottles, no less — home. You just wouldn't do it, or you wouldn't buy as many bottles! The carton was a relatively simple idea that really helped change our business.” 

Edited by Robert Longley