Sunday School: The origins of beer

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The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.

Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware is known for its ancient ales series – beers brewed using recipes that date back thousands of years. To create these inspired libations, the brewers at Dogfish teamed up with an expert, Dr. Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist who specializes in the study of the ancient origins of beer and wine (read: coolest job ever).


Although slightly controversial, most experts date the beer to about 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. The oldest known beer recipe was in an almost 4,000-year-old Sumerian poem worshiping the goddess of brewing, Ninkasi. The poem describes making beer from barley bread. Anchor Brewing even used the recipe as part of its Sumerian beer project.

The Egyptians are the ones who really democratized beer consumption. Beer was used for medicinal purposes, in religious ceremonies and as gifts to the pharaohs. But it wasn’t just for the elite, as Dr. McGovern noted in a Smithsonian magazine article: “For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five liters … It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.”

It is worth noting that throughout beer’s ancient history and into the Medieval period, it was primarily brewed by women. Yes, beer brewing was “women’s work,” but more on that in another post.

The Egyptians likely taught the Greeks how to make beer, and Germanic and Celtic tribes spread the art of beer brewing throughout Europe. During the Medieval period, beer became more popular in the northern part of Europe because it was difficult to grow grapes for wine.


With the rise of Christianity in Europe in the 7th century, beer became an important part of the religious culture as monks started brewing, buying and trading beer. Monasteries would provide beer to those on pilgrimage, but would also sell beer; monks were some of the first to commercialize the product. The oldest commercial brewery that is still operating today is Weihenstephan, started by Benedictine monks in 725. The monastery obtained its official brewing rights in 1040.

In the 9th century, brewers started trying to add hops to ale for both flavor and as a preservative, but the art of hopping a beer wasn’t perfected until the 13th century in Bohemia. By the 15th century the notion of hopping beer spread through Germany to Holland and England.


In 1516, William IV, the Duke of Bavara, adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law) that restricted the ingredients used in beer to water, barley, and hops (yeast was added later after its discovery). The law is one of the oldest regulations for food still used today. The 16th century also marks the accidental discovery of bottom-fermented beers, or lagers, after beer was stored in cool places for extended periods of time.

The Industrial Revolution in the 1700s brought about the mass production of beer, and moved brewing techniques from small, artisanal operations, to large-scale production.

Today, beer is the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. Different countries have unique histories with brewing specific styles of beer, from the farmhouse saisons in France to the pale ales in England, but today American craft brewers, in particular, are experimenting with a variety of styles.

Of course, none has capitalized on the ancient brewing styles and ingredients like Dogfish has. It’s amazing to think about the thousands of years and ancient recipes that go into a Midas Touch, Chateau Jiahu, Ta Henket, Theobroma, and the “newest” ancient ale, Birra Etrsuca Bronza. Cheers.

Sara Bozich
Author: Sara Bozich

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