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Beer - Ancient Art and Modern Science

Updated on October 28, 2009

Brewing is an ancient art dating back to about five thousand years ago. It was likely discovered by accident in the area called the Fertile Crescent, an area where barley, along with other wild grasses grew in abundance. Brewing has come a long way since those days and is now a blend of art, science, and technology. However, the emergence of science on the scene was relatively recent. Small-scale brewers of today take for granted many advances made in the field of brewing science just a few centuries ago. 

When the people of the Middle East discovered that many wild grasses, including barley, provided nourishment and could be stored for times of need, they started making earthen containers to store their food. It has been hypothesized that when some of these containers got wet during a rainstorm and the contents were dried, that these early people discovered the malting process. People eating the baked loaves made from grains processed in such a way would have recognized that they were sweeter than usual. Thus, malting became common practice.

Similarly, the first crude beer likely came about as the loaves made from malted barley got wet and went unnoticed. When windborne wild yeast got into such a container fermentation began, quickly filling the container with thick, foamy bubbles. The brave soul who first tasted this strange mixture must have been pleasantly surprised, as a variation of the process has been duplicated for centuries. Through the years brewers have learned through trial and error the techniques that affect beer quality. Things that worked were repeated and things that didn't were avoided.

However, early brewers knew nothing about the scientific parameters of brewing that we understand today. They had no idea what yeast was, where it came from, or how it affected their beer. They knew nothing about water chemistry, the biochemistry of the malting process, or the chemical reactions that take place during the brewing process. They knew that certain procedures, ingredients, and conditions were favorable for beer production and following these, they could make beer that was suitable for their use. Certain areas became famous for their beer thanks to the use of local ingredients, the quality of their water, the local micro flora, or unique processing techniques.

Many monasteries throughout northern Europe established breweries since they were required to produce all the food and beverages they consumed. Because these monasteries were the early centers for learning they also became the first institutions where brewing science was studied. They learned about the effects of different brewing techniques and how different ingredients affected the final product, carefully noting the results of their experiments.

Beer was produced in these monasteries, at royal palaces, and in small taverns that were essentially early brewpubs. But for the most part, it was produced in homes. Brewing was viewed as an extension to cooking. In fact, most early brewing was carried out by the woman of the house. Thomas Jefferson was fond of beer and built a small brewery at Monticello but it was his wife, Martha, who was the brew master of the house.

Continued In: Beer - Brewing Started At Home

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