Let's talk beer. Not the kind you buy, but the kind you make at home. My friends Gui Yingling and Dennis Witnauer are part of a brew club in Wellfleet, and the other day, we sat down with a homebrewed pint and talked our way through the process—from history to ingredients to brewing itself. Let's start with a timeline.
According to Dennis, the current consensus is that beer brewing started with the Sumerians about 5,000 years ago. They think it happened by accident—someone left some barley out in the rain, it started to spore and grow, and in an effort to save it before it went bad, they heated it up. This led to the discovery that you could extract sugars from it, and malt was born. The Sumerians wrote out the earliest known beer recipe on a tablet—in the form of a prayer called Hymn to Ninkasi, who was the goddess of brewing. Goddess? Yes, because originally, women were the brewers.
Fast forward a few thousand years. It's the Middle Ages, and women are still the brewers. They're making beer at home the way people used to make bread: constantly, routinely, as part of running the kitchen and the home. Farmhouses all have their own brews just like they have their own loaves, and the beer is used mostly to serve to workers in place of water. Water might be contaminated with bacteria, but beer is mildly alcoholic and therefore clean.
By the time the Pilgrims set sail for the new world, Europeans were still making and using beer this way. It's rumored that the Pilgrims came ashore when they did because the Mayflower crew was worried that otherwise, there wouldn't be enough for them to drink on the sail home. The colonists learned to brew with new local grains like corn, so in a way, beer was one of the first locally produced artisanal foods in New England.
The number of beers and breweries in the United States grew fast—from 1 in 1612 to a record of 4,131 in 1873. Then came Prohibition, which changed everything.
I never really thought about it before, but as Gui pointed out, homebrewers are what made the American beer landscape so big. When homebrewing was outlawed, the number of beers and breweries in the United States plummeted. For a while there were basically just two kinds of beer—simple ales and simple lagers—and things were pretty boring. And because of a clerical error (making wine at home was legalized when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but making beer at home wasn't because the words "and beer" were apparently accidentally left out), homebrewing wasn't allowed again until 1978. Obviously, there were probably some people making beer at home during this period, but they weren't talking much about it.
Since Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing again in the late 1970s, the number of homebrewers and micro-breweries has exploded. As Gui explained, the two go hand-in-hand, because a lot of micro-breweries are started by homebrewers who get passionate enough about their hobby to turn it into a business. If you want to see it as a graph, check out this cool timeline. As you can see, the number of breweries in the U.S. has climbed from under a hundred in the early 80s to over 1750 today! And as you can see from the breakdown, most of the growth in recent years has been in regional, craft, and micro-breweries, which is exciting.
Dennis says he sees the homebrewing movement as tied up with the local food movement, and he thinks the next step is for homebrewers to start growing their own grains and hops and learning to malt. Next week, we'll talk about who's doing what in local beer production.
In the meantime, if you're interested in learning more about beer history, I highly recommend checking out www.beerhistory.com. It has all sorts of interesting (and hard to find) excerpts from books about the history of brewing in America, and a few specific to the northeast. My favorites excerpts are this one about George Washington, this one about Narragansett beer, and this one from the diary of a 19th century brewmaster.
Happy reading—and let me know if you find some other good ones!