The History and Meaning of Beer
A Taste of Beer: Origins and Meaning
Beer, that age-old favorite brew, originated over 10 000 years ago, and has provided that thirst-quenching end to a summer’s day ever since.
Beer, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented cereal grains, usually but not only barley, typically has an alcohol content of between 2 and 6 percent. The slow fermentation process was especially common in northern climates not conducive to grape cultivation for wine. The beer, usually made of malted barley, is also often flavored with hops which provide the slightly bitter flavor.
Lager beers, of German origin, are bottom-fermented, where the yeast falls to the bottom of the barrel, and stored at a low temperature for several months. Most are light in color with high carbonation, medium hop flavor and an alcohol content of 3-5%.
Top-fermented beers, popular in Britain, include ale, stout and porter. They are characterized by a prominent head of released carbon dioxide and a sharper, stronger hop flavor than the lagers. They have an alcohol content of 4-6.5%.
Early beer makers used a simple process and fermented beer for only a day or two. By the 10th century brewing techniques had become more sophisticated and in Europe brewers banded together to form guilds to protect their trade and to set standards for beer making.
For centuries, brewers heated grain over open fires and this resulted in dark, smoky malt that produced equally dark beer. By the mid-1800s, brewers had invented a way to dry malt in large rotating heated drums that left the grain light in color and produced a pale, golden beer. By the late 19th century with the invention of compressed gas refrigeration, brewers were no longer subject to the vagaries of the weather or even the climate. This also meant that beer could be shipped great distances to new markets and still be drinkable.
With continued technological developments the mass production of beer began. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the American brewing industry consolidated and by 1983, six breweries alone accounted for almost 90% of all beer sold in the USA. By the early 1990s, the largest American breweries such as Miller Brewing Company, were producing almost 60 million barrels a year.
More recently, brewers the world over have returned to some of the older ways of making beer, such as brewing smaller batches and forgoing some of the filtration and pasteurization processes to produce beers that retain more of the flavor and character imparted by the yeast during fermentation. Microbreweries and brewpubs are proliferating and increasing in popularity. In South Africa this is shown by the increase in local small breweries, with well-known beer such as Forrester’s Lager and Bosun’s Bitter from the Knysna area, and a host of breweries in KwaZulu-Natal. Some of the delightful names of beers in the Zulu Kingdom are the Tiddley Toad which is a lager, the Pie-Eyed Possum pilsner and the Whistling Weasel pale ale. Sorghum beer is also popular in KZN and is a traditional drink of the Zulu people.
There are many types of beer and these include Lager, Pilsner, Ale - Pale ale, Stock ale, Mild ale, Bitter ale, Stout ale and Porter such as Barleywine and Wheat beer.
There are over 70 styles of beer available with each style deriving its unique characteristics from its ingredients and brewing process. Today beer is a major industry worldwide with millions of barrels being consumed by a thirsty market every year.