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December 2001
Vol. 10, No. 12,
pp 41–42.
Chemistry Chronicles
David M. Kiefer
Brewing: A legacy of ancient times

Modern technology has greatly enhanced an age-old craft.

opening art
The craft of brewing, one of humanity’s earliest efforts to harness the science of biochemistry, can be traced back to ancient times. Although an exact date for the discovery of the first brew is not known, perhaps it occurred 10,000 years ago or more when a jar containing bread became soaked with water and the resulting slop began to ferment. Someone then had the curiosity to sample the resulting liquid and found it good.

Whenever the first beer may have been sipped, Sumerian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back more than 5000 years allude to its production. Initially, brewing was, for the most part, a household project carried out by women. The well-known legal code drawn up by the Babylonian King Hammurabi nearly 4000 years ago forbade brewers from diluting their beer and also put a ceiling on the price they could charge for it. An Egyptian papyrus dating to 1400 B.C.E. warns about getting drunk on beer “for fear that people repeat the words which may have gone out of your mouth.” Egyptian pharaohs provided their laborers with a daily ration of four loaves of bread and two jugs of beer. Rameses III took pride in consecrating to the gods more than 400,000 jars of beer. Among the funeral banquet relics dating to about 700 B.C.E of a king of Phrygia in central Turkey—perhaps the legendary Midas—are vessels containing traces of calcium oxalate that scientists attribute to beer.

Preparation of beer in ancient times was similar to brewing procedures used today (See also Tapping Chemistry: The brewer's art.). First, a grain, typically barley or emmer (an early type of wheat), was malted. The grain was dampened with water and allowed to germinate. Natural enzymes converted some of the starches into fermentable sugars and the resulting malt was heated to dry it. Frequently, the dried malt was formed into small, lightly baked loaves. When a batch of fresh beer was to be brewed, these beer breads would be crumbled, mixed with cereals, and soaked in water. This “mash” was allowed to ferment—a process dependent on wild yeast spores or other microorganisms carried on the wind or already present on the grain husks. After fermentation, a liquid containing between 6 and 12% alcohol could be filtered from the mash. Laborers and peasants often used hollow reeds to suck the liquid out of unfiltered mash.

Just how this concoction tasted can only be surmised. It likely had little resemblance to the refreshing beverage found today in a tavern mug or six-pack. It probably had some sweetness from unfermented sugars, but was frequently flavored with herbs, spices, dates or other fruits, or mixed with mead, a beverage fermented from honey. The Sumerians made about 20 different types of beer; the Egyptians at least 6. Ancient texts reveal the lyrical names given to the beverages: “joy-bringer”, “heavenly”, and “beautiful-good”.

Ancient Brewers
Brewers of Egypt and the Middle East passed their skill on to the ancient Greeks, who shared it with the Romans. The Greeks and Romans, however, lived in a climate where grape vines flourished, and wine was the beverage of choice for them. Many Greeks, in fact, considered beer a drink only for barbarians. According to Greek myth, Dionysus, god of wine, fled Mesopotamia in disgust when he saw that the people there preferred beer. (Winemaking, too, can be traced to prehistoric times and was widely practiced in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Date wine, in particular, was very popular in the Near East.)

After the fall of Rome, brewing continued as a household task during the Dark Ages. The traditions of brewing were carried on and thrived under the Catholic Church. Nearly every major monastery in medieval Europe contained a brewery that served not only the monks but also pilgrims and the surrounding villages (perhaps as an inducement for attending mass). One large monastery in Switzerland had three breweries, each adjacent to a bakery. Brewing and baking, in fact, were closely related activities in ancient and medieval times. The monasteries did much to advance cleanliness as a necessity for preparing good beer and to generally improve the brewing process. Later in the Middle Ages, relatively large, independent breweries began to spring up in bigger towns. The Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, still in operation in Freising, Germany, dates to about 1040.

Also about this time, a major brewing advance started to take hold. Hops were first widely used both for flavor and as a preservative. Hops made beer a more tasty drink, with a flavor closer to that of contemporary beer. It is quite possible that hops, the dried flowers of a vine-like plant, were added to the brew mix even before the birth of Christ, but the record is not clear. By the 9th century at least, hops were probably a common part of the fermenting mixture, although the earliest definite reference dates to 12th-century Germany. By the 13th century, mention of their use is widespread in German reports. Use spread south into France and, more slowly, into England during the 15th century.

Brewers used a top-fermentation process in which the yeast would rise to the top of the vat. In the 15th century, German brewers developed a process in which fermentation occurred at the bottom of the vat. Beer made by the bottom-fermentation method was usually aged to give it a milder taste and clearer appearance. It was named “lager”—a derivative of the German word lagern, which means “to store”. Lager beers soon reigned supreme in continental Europe (and later in North America). But the British remained partial to traditional, heavier-flavored top-fermented brews such as ale, stout, and porter.

Science of Brewing
Until the 19th century, brewing was more of an art than a science. Brewers had little knowledge of or control over the process, so quality varied widely from batch to batch. The introduction of simple instruments such as thermometers, hydrometers, and saccharometers made quality control more certain. Development of refrigeration equipment permitted operations to continue even during hot weather. The microbiology work of French chemist Louis Pasteur during the 1860s helped establish practices that greatly enhanced output. Danish botanist Emil Hansen brought brewing into the modern age by developing methods for growing yeast cultures that were free of other contaminating yeasts or bacteria. In 1883, Hansen supplied the first single-cell yeast culture to Carlsberg Breweries in Copenhagen.

Brewing arrived early to Britain’s American colonies. The first settlers in Virginia, to be sure, complained repeatedly about being forced to drink the local water—a practice most Brits considered unsanitary and disease-inducing. When the Pilgrims set forth for America in 1620, they planned to settle somewhere near the Hudson River. But because of uncertain navigation and autumn storms, they made their first landfall at Cape Cod in November. Rather than proceeding further down the coast, they decided to remain at nearby Plymouth Rock, “our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere.” Not long after the Puritans settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, they enacted laws regulating the price to be charged for beer in taverns or inns and requiring brewers to be licensed by the court.

When the Dutch settled along the Hudson in the 1620s, they were also quick to establish beer-making facilities. A 1660 map of New Amsterdam shows at least 6 brew houses in the town, which had only about 1500 inhabitants. At least a couple of the breweries also contained distilleries. In Pennsylvania, William Penn established a brewery at his manor house near Philadelphia in 1683, shortly after the colony was established.

Brewing After Independence
By the time of the Revolution, brewing was a thriving business in the American colonies, especially in New England and the Middle Atlantic. These areas, in fact, had a prosperous trade in malt beverages with the southern states. Many of the founding fathers had ties to brewing. Samuel Adams’ family fortune was based on making malt, George Washington had a brew house at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson made beer at Monticello.

Until well into the 19th century, most malt beverages consumed in the United States were ales, porters, or stouts brewed in the British top-fermented tradition. By midcentury, however, increased immigration from Germany brought bottom-fermenting yeasts that produced lager beer. Among brewers with German origins who became highly successful in the United States were Jacob Ruppert and the brothers Frederick and Maximilian Schaeffer in New York City; Valentin Blatz, Joseph Schlitz, and Frederick Miller in Milwaukee; Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch in St. Louis; and Adolph Coors in Colorado. By the Civil War, lager output exceeded that of ale and porter.

Several technological advances had an impact on beer making during the late 19th century. The invention of mechanical refrigeration equipment allowed beer to be made during the hottest weather and stored without spoiling. Breweries were among the first plants to install industrial ice-making equipment in the 1870s and 1880s, and many brewers set up a lucrative side business selling ice to the public. Pasteur’s studies of the nature of yeast and the deleterious effect of bacteria, coupled with Hansen’s pioneering work on isolating pure strains of yeast, opened the door to brewing beer of consistent quality. Pasteurization of bottled beers permitted them to be stored longer and shipped farther.

Early in the 20th century, brewing was still primarily a small-scale, local business with a highly restricted marketing area. More than 1500 breweries operated across the country, selling about 60 million barrels of beer annually. But a handful of brewers—Pabst Brewing, Jos. Schlitz Brewing, and Anheuser-Busch—were each turning out more than a million barrels a year and shipping them far and wide, with sales backed by heavy advertising.

A long era of consolidation and concentration began, broken only by the years of Prohibition: 1920–1933. By 1950, with production at a little under 80 million barrels, the number of breweries in the U.S. had fallen to about 400. Five large companies controlled about a quarter of the nation’s sales, led by Anheuser-Busch with an annual capacity of 5.5 million barrels from its single brewery and followed by Schlitz, Pabst, Falstaff, and P. Ballentine.

Three goliath firms—Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing, and Adolph Coors—now share about 80% of the U.S. market, which has annual total sales (including imports) of about 200 million barrels. Anheuser-Busch alone, with 12 breweries across the country, holds nearly a 50% market share. With the advent of a multitude of microbreweries in recent years, however, the industry maintains a healthy—and tasty—diversity.

David M. Kiefer, former assistant managing editor of Chemical & Engineering News until his retirement in 1991, is a consulting editor for Today’s Chemist at Work. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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