A Brief History of Beer

Beer isn’t so much about the liquid in the bottle than the culture, ideas and history that it represents

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The history of beer is so tightly woven into the history of human civilisation itself that it’s impossible to cover every interesting twist and turn in a 100-page magazine. For as long as there’s been organised agriculture, people have been slurping on soggy grains, enjoying the fizz and getting their buzz on. And while modern craft brewers have far greater understanding of the biological processes at work, as well as access to ingredients cultivated over many generations to provide the best flavour and yield, the fundamental mechanics of brewing aren’t really so different. So why are we still so interested? Why subscribe to a beer club, collect bottle caps and beer mats, or log onto Twitter and rail against the stupidity of this week’s brewing villain?

The answer, I believe, is that beer isn’t so much about the liquid in the bottle (as delightful as that is) so much as the culture, ideas and history that it represents. Speaking to the breweries for this issue, the real passion and interest came when we stopped talking about the capacity of their kettle and started talking about how their brewing had evolved, where they’d exchanged ideas with those coming from different traditions, and how those ideas might continue to develop in the future.

At this point in the history of our favourite drink, it’s hard not to view every development through the lens of the US-led craft beer movement, but as Barry O’Neill of Ireland’s O Brother points out; that the movement that started in California is now so global, and so characterised by the cross-pollination of techniques and ideas, that it can’t really be seen as belonging to any one country now. What we call US-style brewing, over even ‘craft brewing’, might now be better described simply as ‘modern brewing’ argues Barry.

This might sound a little unsettling, conjuring images of a dystopian future of homogenised beer and brewing, in which a kind of entropy has done away with local character and everyone’s just brewing NEIPAs; but I don’t believe that’s what Barry meant, and absolutely don’t believe that’s where we’re heading.

The major historical brewing traditions – British/Irish, Belgian, German and American – are today expressing themselves more clearly than at any point in the past 50 years. Not in CAMRA’s wildest ‘70s dreams would so many great new breweries have been opening up each year, rediscovering neglected British styles and even embracing cask ale. Who would have thought that the dominance of sweetly insipid lager and the multinationals could have been challenged in the US? And would you have bet 20 years ago that Belgian Lambic would reach a level of demand and respect on par with the best Champagnes?

We’re not only discovering new flavours, but encouraged to learn from the best ideas that other cultures have to offer. Should we in the UK accept battered and mismatched glassware in the pub? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get some of that Italian aperitivo? How come the Americans do taprooms so much better than us?

In creating a generation of informed, passionate drinkers who demand quality and seek out new, authentic experiences, the craft movement isn’t consuming the unique beer histories of these countries, but putting them back on track and giving them the creative fodder to continue their evolution. Craft brewing – modern brewing – is not a blip after all, and the seemingly unstoppable march of macro lager has not brought about the end of history.

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