Beer is one of the most popular and widely consumed beverages ever invented, and today it can be found in every corner of the globe. Far from just being a pleasant drink, beer is a cultural touchstone, an important piece of human history and the driving force behind a global industry valued at well over half a trillion dollars. For all of its popularity and importance, though, most people don’t know nearly as much as they should about beer. Following is a complete rundown of the basics of beer, including its history, the brewing process used to manufacture it and the characteristics of the many different brews that are available on the global market today.
A Brief History of Beer
The origins of beer are so ancient that they predate written language, the establishment of cities and even the invention of the wheel by up to several thousand years. It was long believed that the world’s first beer was brewed in China around 7,000 BCE, but an archaeological site recently identified in Israel has pushed the earliest known beer back as far as 11,000 BCE. Interestingly, this site places the first beer before both the earliest known bread and the first known cultivation of grains by humans. This fact has led some archaeologists to speculate that it may have been a desire for beer rather than a need for food that first prompted ancient humans to develop agriculture.
Thousands of years after it was first created, beer was a ubiquitous drink throughout the major civilizations of the ancient world. In Egypt, beer was a dietary staple of such importance that it was believed to have been created by the god Osiris himself. Ancient Mesopotamian civilizations also relied on beer as a major component of their diets, and an ancient Sumerian tablet dating to approximately 3,300 BCE suggests that it may even have been used as a currency for paying workers their wages prior to the invention of standard money. Beer was known, made and consumed in ancient Greece and Rome, though wine is believed to have been the beverage of choice. The Romans did, however, make one extremely important contribution to the history of beer, as the Latin word “bibere,” which means “to drink,” is the root word from which the modern English word “beer” is derived.
During the Middle Ages, a major development took place in the making of beer. While large-scale brewing had existed to some extent in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Rome, most European beer was still made in small batches by farming families. Beginning in the 5th century, though, monasteries throughout Europe began making their own beer using precise and highly systematized brewing methods. As one of the only educated classes in Europe at the time, monks kept records of their brewing enterprises and curated specific recipes which they gradually improved through continuous trial and error. Among the improvements these monks hit on was the addition of hops to the malt, creating for the first time a beer that would be familiar to modern drinkers.
After the end of the Middle Ages, nations that had seen extensive monastic brewing remained the dominant forces in the making of beer. While Germany, Belgium and the modern Czech Republic were arguably the most important continental brewing regions, Britain had also developed a strong tradition of manufacturing and consuming beer. With the rise of the British Empire, that tradition would spread to locations as far away as India, Australia and the American colonies. The need to ship beers over long distances during this time period also led to the creation of entirely new types of beer that were better suited to long-term storage and transportation. Some styles that were developed for this purpose remain popular to this day, including India pale ales and Russian imperial stouts.
In America, English-style beers remained a staple both before and after the Revolutionary War. A major shift, however, took place as increasing numbers of German immigrants arrived in America throughout the 19th century. These new arrivals brought with them the German tradition of brewing lagers, a style of beer which slowly overtook the ales, stouts and porters that had been popular among the descendants of English colonists.
The 19th and 20th centuries would also see great advances in commercial beer production. Throughout this period, German immigrants founded huge numbers of breweries in cities throughout the United States. Though many of these breweries were small and sold their products locally, a handful grew into massive businesses that were capable of selling beer nationwide and even internationally. As with many other industries of the time, the brewing industry benefited from technological developments that made it possible to make beer at scales never before imagined.
Very recently, the beer industry has entered a new chapter of its history. Today, craft beers made by small breweries are taking a prominent place in the market as consumers broaden their horizons and search for new flavors and styles. As of April 2019, craft beers made up about 24 percent of the American beer market. While almost unimaginably different from the earliest beers found in Israel and China, these craft brews mark the latest development in a history that stretches back to the very dawn of human civilization.
How Beer Is Made: A Glimpse Into Brewing
Though beer makers in ancient times used much more primitive brewing and fermentation techniques, modern beer manufacturing is a rigorous and systematized production process designed to produce beers of consistently high quality. Below is a brief primer on the ingredients and brewing techniques that go into making modern beer.
What Are the Ingredients of Beer?
While the exact ingredients can vary considerably from recipe to recipe, the basic components of all modern beers are water, grain, hops and brewer’s yeast. Most beers use barley as their parent grain, though wheat and rye beers are far from uncommon. In some cases, more unusual grains such as corn or rice may be added in small quantities, though these are not suitable for making beer on their own.
The hops used in beer can be broken down into three main categories. The first type are bittering hops, which are typically added at the start of the boiling process and which produce the bitter component of any given beer’s flavor profile. Aroma hops, sometimes also called finishing hops, are added later on and only boiled for a short time. These hops are less acidic than bittering hops and are responsible for more of the beer’s final flavor. A third class of hops can be used either as bittering or aroma hops, depending on the flavor the brewer is trying to achieve. Extra hops can also be added later in the fermentation process in a step known as dry hopping, which gives beer a more intense hop aroma without adding to its bitterness. This step is traditionally used in making hop-heavy beers such as pale ales.
Finally, a yeast must be added to convert the sugars stored in the grain into alcohol. Although hundreds of individual strains exist, brewer’s yeasts are usually categorized as either lager or ale yeasts. These terms, however, are somewhat deceptive, as each of these two types can be used to make many different varieties of beer. Ale yeasts, for instance, are also in brewing porters and stouts, while lager yeasts provide the alcohol for Pilsners and Bocks.
Beyond these core ingredients, other flavoring agents may be added to give the beer a taste that can’t be achieved using grain, hops and yeast alone. Flavors such as coffee or fruits are frequently used in modern craft beers, but more exotic flavoring agents are also used in some specialty beers. These extra flavors can be added either during the boiling stage or while the beer is fermenting.
The Process of Brewing Beer
The first step in creating any beer is a process known as malting, in which the grains from which the beer will be made are heated in order to dry them out and crack them open. Malting helps to isolate certain enzymes contained within the grains that are essential for successful brewing.
After the grains have been malted, they are then placed in hot water for approximately an hour. This step, called mashing, causes the malted grains to release the sugars stored within them into the water. At the end of the soaking time, the liquid is separated from the grain. This liquid is known as wort and acts as the base of the beer. The solid grains may also be rinsed with hot water to capture any remaining sugars in a step called sparging.
Once the wort has been separated from the mash, it is boiled for about an hour. This is the stage at which hops are added to the beer. It is also at this point that additional flavoring agents may be added, though this can also be done later on during the fermentation process.
After it has been boiled, the wort is strained and allowed to cool down to about 80 degrees before the yeast is added. Allowing the boiled wort to cool sufficiently at this stage is critical, as yeast will die if added when the temperature is still too high. Care must also be taken not to allow other microorganisms to colonize the wort before the yeast has been added.
The addition of the yeast after the wort has reached the proper temperature begins the fermentation process, which usually lasts between one and two weeks. During fermentation, yeast cells consume the sugars in the wort and release carbon dioxide and alcohol as waste products. By the end of the process, the yeast will have converted most of the sugars that were present in the wort into alcohol, and the resulting product will be a true beer.
The final missing component of a great beer at this stage is carbonation. Although carbon dioxide is produced by the yeast during fermentation, it isn’t captured in the liquid. For the beer to become properly carbonated, it must be bottled. Once placed in a sealed bottle, the yeast will continue to produce carbon dioxide from the remaining sugars, and that carbon dioxide will dissolve into the beer until the bottle is opened.
In the cases of certain craft brews, the beer may be placed in used barrels to age between fermentation and bottling. The purpose of this step is to impart some of the flavor from the barrel’s former contents to the beer for an extra dimension of flavor. Bourbon barrels are often used for aging such beers, though scotch, wine and even brandy barrels can also be used to achieve different flavors.
Statistics Used to Measure and Rate Beer
Brewers and connoisseurs today use a variety of different metrics to measure and rate certain characteristics of beer. Following are three of the most important metrics that can be used to describe any given beer.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
A beer’s ABV rating is a measurement of its alcohol content expressed as a percentage of its overall volume. For example, a 12-ounce beer with an ABV of 6 percent would contain 0.72 ounces of alcohol.
International Bitterness Units (IBUs)
The IBU rating assigned to a beer is a chemical measurement of how bitter the beer will be. IBUs provide a measure of bittering agents present in the beer expressed in parts per million. While the taste perception of bitterness depends to some extent on other aspects of the beer’s flavor profile, the IBU scale provides a fairly objective measurement of how bitter a beer will taste. The majority of beers fall within a range of about 15-80 IBUs, but there are some specialty craft beers which have been brewed specifically for high IBU ratings.
Standard Reference Method (SRM)
The SRM scale is used to measure the color of a beer. This scale ranges from 0 to 40, with darker colors corresponding to higher numbers. Some beers, such as very light lagers, can rate as low as a 2 on this scale, while darker stouts typically range anywhere from 30 to 40.
Beer Styles and Their Characteristics
Thanks to its long history and massive geographic distribution, modern beer takes many different forms. From light, crisp ales to incredibly robust stouts, beer today can vary widely in terms of flavor, bitterness, ABV and color. Here are some of the most important categories of beer, as well as the specific beer styles that fall into each category.
Pale ales are light-colored beers that trace their roots back to 18th century England. These ales are lighter than stouts or porters but darker than light lagers. Their flavor tends to be fairly malty with a relatively pronounced hop profile. IBU ratings for these ales usually fall between 20 and 40. An increase in the popularity of pale ales is largely credited with beginning the modern craft brewing movement in America. Styles categorized as pale ales include:
- Belgian Saison
- Belgian Pale Ale
- Belgian Blonde Ale
- Irish Red Ale
- American Blonde Ale
- American Pale Ale
- American Amber Ale
- English Bitter Ale
- English Pale Ale
- English Pale Mild Ale
Stouts are dark, full-bodied beers typically associated with the Irish brewing tradition. Although very similar to porters, stouts tend to have a higher emphasis on roasted flavors and are usually a bit heavier than their porter counterparts. Stouts also boast a rich, complex flavor profile that makes them a favorite among many beer connoisseurs. Despite their full body, stouts can vary considerably in terms of both alcohol content and bitterness. IBU ratings for stout beers can fall anywhere from 20 on the low end for sweeter stouts to 90 on the high end for more bitter Russian imperial stouts. Styles categorized as stouts include:Irish
- Dry Stout
- Oatmeal Stout
- English Stout
- Foreign Extra Stout
- Milk Stout
- American Stout
- American Imperial Stout
- Russian Imperial Stout
Dark ales are a somewhat ill-defined category of beers, and the term is only rarely used in today’s beer market. During the 1980s, however, the term “dark ale” was often used to describe beers that were uncharacteristically dark for the time period. Today, the term is occasionally applied to a handful of particularly dark ale-style beers that do not fit readily into other classifications. Because of the lack of unifying traits beyond color, there is no characteristic IBU range for these beers. Styles categorized as dark ales include:
- Scottish Ale
- American Black Ale
- Belgian Dark Ale
- Belgian Dubbel
- German Roggenbier
As their name suggests, brown ales are a family of ales noted for their characteristic brown color, which can run the spectrum from light amber tones to very dark brown. Brown ales emerged in England in the late 17th century, but were largely overtaken in popularity by more pale beers in the 18th century. Today, brown ales are broadly divided into American and British varieties. While both share the same brown color and a malt-heavy flavor, American versions of this traditional beer usually boast a stronger flavor of hops. IBU ratings for English brown ales tend to fall between 12 and 30, while American browns have a typical range of 20 to 40. Styles categorized as brown ales include:
- English Brown Ale
- English Dark Mild Ale
- American Brown Ale
- Flanders Brown Ale
- German Altbier
Extremely similar to stouts, porters are typically dark and full-bodied beers with rich flavor profiles. Historically, the main distinction between stouts and porters was the fact that porters were brewed in and around London, while stouts were primarily an Irish phenomenon. Porters were extremely popular in the 18th century, and were even a noted favorite beverage of George Washington. Their popularity endured into the early 19th century, when the developments of the Industrial Revolution allowed them to become one of the first beer styles to be commercially produced on large scales. Most porters are moderately bitter, with IBUs ranging between 18 and 50. Styles categorized as porters include:
- Baltic Porter
- English Porter
- Robust Porter
- Smoke Porter
- American Porter
- American Imperial Porter
India Pale Ales (IPAs)
India pale ales, often abbreviated as IPAs, are beers noted for their extremely hop-heavy flavor profiles and strong, complex aromas. IPAs were invented by London brewers in the 18th century as a less-perishable variety of beer that could be shipped to soldiers and sailors throughout the vast British Empire. Although their popularity faded considerably throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, IPAs experienced a renaissance as a result of the explosion of craft brewing in America beginning in the 1970s. IPAs tend to be light in color and boast mid-range ABVs. Bitterness, however, is a defining characteristic of this family of beers. IBU ratings for India pale ales typically range between 50 and 70, with some specialty IPAs reaching as high as 120 IBUs. Styles categorized as India pale ales include:
- English IPA
- Belgian IPA
- American IPA
- Imperial IPA
- New England IPA
Dark lagers are a family of predominantly German beers characterized by their shared dark color. Despite typically looking similar to a porter or a stout, dark lagers tend to have lower alcohol concentrations and lighter flavors, though they do still boast some of the roasted flavor that is more prevalent in heavier beers. Though exported internationally today, German dark ales were traditionally associated with certain cities or regions, including Vienna and Munich. Most of these beers have IBU ratings of between 15 and 30. Styles categorized as dark lagers include:
- German Oktoberfest
- Munich Dunkel
- German Rauchbier
- German Schwarzbier
- Vienna Lager
- European Dark Lager
- American Red Lager
Pilsners originated in the Kingdom of Bohemia, today the Czech Republic, and rapidly became a favored variety of beer throughout central Europe. Pilsners were popularized by German brewers who later brought them to America. These beers are characterized by a medium body, rich aromas and an IBU rating of between 25 and 45. They are typically light in color and are known for being more carbonated than many other types of beer. A distinct difference exists between Czech and German pilsners, as the German brews are usually lighter in color and less bitter than the traditional Czech offerings. Styles categorized as pilsners include:
- Bohemian (Czech) Pilsner
- German Pilsner
- American Imperial Pilsner
Pale lagers are an offshoot of Czech and German pilsners that account for the majority of mass-produced beers in the world today. These beers are typically very light in color and low in bitterness. IBU ratings for pale lagers can be as low as 8, though some premium varieties may range as high as 30. They are also low in alcohol content, with ABVs rarely exceeding 5 percent. Styles categorized as pale lagers include:
- American Lager
- American Light Lager
- American Adjunct Lager
- European Dortmunder Export
- European Strong Lager
- European Pale Lager
- German Zwickelbier
- German Helles
- Malt Liquor
Bock beers originated in the 14th century in the German town of Einbeck. Unlike many beers in the Middle Ages, the first bocks were exported widely throughout Europe due to Einbeck’s status as a regional center of trade. The brewing of bock beers also spread throughout Germany, establishing a brewing tradition that remains strong to this day. Bocks are typically dark brown in color with strong malt flavors and limited hop bitterness in the 15 to 35 IBU range. Styles categorized as bocks include:
- German Bock
- German Doppelbock
- German Weizenbock
- German Eisbock
- German Maibock
The strong ale category of beer is a diverse group of ales defined largely by their high alcohol concentrations. These beers tend to have a sweet, malty flavor that is accented by fruit notes. Strong ales are principally of British and American descent, and some are allowed to age in barrels or in their bottles for up to several years to achieve enhanced flavor. Styles categorized as strong ales include:
- American barleywine
- British barleywine
- Stock ale
- Old ale
- Scotch ale
- American strong ale
- American imperial red ale
- Belgian tripel
- Belgian quadrupel
Wrapping up: The Bottom Line on Beer
Although many people are content to simply enjoy beer without thinking about its long history, the effort that goes into making it and the huge variety of forms it can take, there’s much more to this unassuming beverage than meets the eye. Believe it or not, this overview only scratches the surface of the huge amount of information that’s out there to learn about beer. For true connoisseurs and enthusiasts, though, the opportunity to constantly learn new things is just another part of what makes beer the world’s greatest drink.