Beer History

The art of brewing is as old as civilization. Through hieroglyphics, cuneiform characters and written accounts, historians have traced the roots of brewing back to ancient African, Egyptian and Sumerian tribes, some 6,000 years ago. Written on clay tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, the making and drinking of beer are described in detail, sometimes listing a selection of different types. These early accounts, with pictograms of what is recognizably barley, show bread being baked then crumbled into water to make a mash, which is then made into a drink that is recorded as having made people feel “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful!”

As the cultivation of barley spread north and west, brewing went with it. As time passed, the production of beer came under the watchful eye of the Roman Church. Christian abbeys, as centers of agriculture, knowledge and science, refined the methods of brewing. Initially in the making of beer for the brothers and for visiting pilgrims, later as a means of financing their communities. However, there was still very little known about the role of yeast in completing fermentation.

By the fifteenth century, there was a record of hops used in Flemish beer imported into England, and by the sixteenth century hops had gained widespread use as a preservative in beer, replacing the previously used bark or leaves.

Perhaps the most widely known event in brewing history was the establishment of German standards for brewers. The first of these regulations was the inspiration for the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 – the most famous beer purity law. This pledge of purity states that only four ingredients can be used in the production of beer: water, malted barley, malted wheat and hops. Although it was found in beer, yeast was not included in this list because in the days before microscopes, it was not recognized. The “Reinheitsgebot” was an assurance to the consumer that German beers would be of very high quality.

Another great development occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, through work done by Louis Pasteur, the first to propose an explanation of how yeast worked. Shortly thereafter, samples of Bavarian yeast provided the successful identification of a single-cell and strain of the bottom-fermenting lager yeast.

German brewers had started to make beer by lagering in 1402. Brewing was not possible in the warm months because wild yeasts prevalent in the warmer weather of summertime would sour the beer. Brewers discovered that brewing in the cool months and storing the beer in caves in the nearby Alps imparted stability to the beer and enhanced it with a cleaner taste, although they did not know why. Today, we know that the reason the beer was clearer and cleaner was due to the cool, slow fermentation process the beer underwent: bacteria and undesired yeast strains responsible for clouding beer were unable to thrive. Over years and decades, brewers were emphasizing clean-tasting lager yeast by providing conditions in which these strains thrived.

In 1880, there were approximately 2,400 breweries operating in the US embracing many of the classic brewing styles. Then came the Volstead Act of 1919 – this Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution ushered in Prohibition. During this time, the smaller breweries lay idle as the larger establishments limped by with the production of cereal malts and near-beers. Most breweries didn’t reopen after Prohibition; the following decades led to other changes in the industry: World War II, with corresponding food shortages and therefore increased substitution of adjuncts for malt, led to the brewing and marketing of lighter beer. With a large part of the male population off fighting the war, the work force in America was made up largely of women; thus marketing to this population solidified the hold of a lighter-styled beer. Following the war, the large national breweries catered to the tastes of this expanded beer market.

Economies of scale played a role, and many smaller breweries closed or consolidated with larger breweries. By 1980, there were about 80 breweries – ranging from large to truly huge – in the US.

The US beer revolution began around this time, and Merchant du Vin is proud to have a role in introducing the concept of beer flavors across a range of styles to Americans. Great restaurants, bars, and stores have been a key link as well . . . and today the beer culture in America is as strong as anywhere in the world: classic beer styles from all nations are sold here, and there are now over 3,000 American breweries in business.

The Brewing Process

The brewing process consists of eight key components: malting, milling, mashing, brewing, cooling, fermentation, racking and finishing.

Malting: The grain is added to a vat along with water and allowed to soak for about 40 hours. Next, the grain is spread out on the floor of the germination room for about five days where rootlets begin to form. At the end of this step, the grain is called green malt. During this process, the starch in the barleycorn – essentially food for the baby barley plant – becomes enzymatiaclly active. Finally green malt goes through drying in a kiln. It is important that temperature increases are gradual so that the enzymes in the grain are not damaged. After kilning, the result is a finished malt. There are different types of malts: pale malts are kilned at a low temperature; mild ale malts are kilned to a slightly higher temperature and produce a deeper color in the final beer. The highest temperatures are used to produce very flavorful and aromatic malts, generally called “specialty grains.”

Milling: This is the cracking of the grain which the brewer chooses for the particular batch of beer. The husks are cracked to allow water and malt to mix fully, and the crack is somewhat coarse because the husk will also serve as a natural filter bed.

Mashing: Converts the starches, which were released during the malting stage, to sugars that can be fermented. The milled grain is dropped into warm water in a large cooking vessel called the mash tun. In this mash tun, the grain and water mix to create a cereal mash and held at a specific temperature for a set period of time. (Some mashes involve two or more temperature points and time periods.) During the mash, naturally-odduring enzymes convert the starch from the malt to sugar. This sugar-rich liquid, now called sweet wort, is then gently filtered and rinsed through the mash bed and into the brew kettle, leaving the husks behind.

Brewing: In the kettle, wort is boiled for an hour or more. The boil allows unwanted proteins to coagulate; also the heat kills any unwanted microorganisms. And the boil allows brewers to spice the wort with hops, in their many varieties: some hops are added early in the boil, so the bitter elements can be dissolved fully into the wort. Hops are generally added near the end of the boil as well – these “finishing hops” add aroma and flavor.

Cooling: The wort is transferred quickly from the brew kettle through a device to filter out the hops, and then through a heat exchanger to be cooled. The “chiller” quickly cools the wort to a point where yeast can safely be added.

Fermentation: After passing through the chiller, the cooled wort goes to the fermentation tank. The brewer now selects a type of yeast and adds it to the fermentation tank. This is where the real magic of brewing happens: the yeast ferments the wort sugars into alcohol and flavor; carbon dioxide is also produced by the yeast during fermentation.

Racking: After the activity of fermentation is finished, or nearly finished, the brewer moves, or racks, the beer into a new tank called the conditioning tank. The brewer then waits for the beer to complete its aging process.

Finishing: Some finished beer is filtered and carbonated before bottling or kegging; other varieties are bottled with live yeast and get their carbonation naturally in the bottle. An important part of finishing is packaging: crowning & labelling bottles, filling kegs, or filling serving tanks.

Food and Beer

The craft-brewing renaissance has brought beer aficionados nationwide fine styles that have been known in Europe for centuries. Beer drinkers in the United States, in increasing numbers, are pulling away from American-style light lagers and choosing imported and domestic craft beers. Beer connoisseurs are exploring the great versatility of beer, including the wide varieties in color, aroma, body and taste . . . and they are pairing food with beer.

The right beer/food marriage can make an unforgettable and pleasurable dining experience. How to choose? Begin by thinking in general of contrasting flavors or complimenting flavors.

For example, roasted beef with rich, deep flavors and hints of caramel, maybe even with a bit of char, can be complimented by a dark, rich, malty beer – a beer that might be described with the same adjectives: caramel, char, roast. Or, go with a contrast – say a light-bodied, crisp beer with floral hops and a dry finish. Cream soup could be complimented with doppelbock, porter or stout; or contrasted with an effervescent golden lager or Bavarian weissebier. Chocolate dessert? Imperial stout to compliment; raspberry lambic to contrast.

And barbecue? For beef, it’s tough to beat the soft nuttiness of Sam Smith’s Nut Brown Ale – try that with brisket, where the dark malt flavors will compliment the smoke and char from the barbecue. Pork, with higher fat content, might call for a contrast – clear your palate between bites with a crisp Samuel Smith’s Pure Brewed Organic Lager, a Pinkus Pils, or a dry & complex Orval Trappist Ale.

Experimenting is recommended, and certainly a lot of fun! How about hosting a beer lover’s dinner? You can select a variety of beers and practice pairing them with the food that you serve. A couple of tips: First, you should choose your beers so that you serve the gentlest and most subtle before the big, bold beers. Second, in order for you and your guests to enjoy everything, don’t feel as if you need to serve a whole bottle with each course – start with a small pour; people can always choose to pour more and might not feel obligated to finish a large portion. Another concept that was lost in our country during the years of prohibition is the idea of using beer as a recipe ingredient. Many pub dishes in Britain use ales, porters and stouts as ingredients; the fine cuisine of Germany and Belgium are closely married to beer; and in recent years American chefs are cooking with beer more and more.

We have a wide range of recipes prepared with beer on our recipe page.

Beer Tasting

Beer is a drink of enormous agricultural and commercial significance. Every drop of the millions of gallons made annually, in a myriad of styles, has one final objective: to be consumed. In passing the lips, crossing the tongue and descending the throat, beer is tasted whether or not a conscious judgement is made.

In relation to beer, the word “tasting” refers to a deliberate, conscious and subjective act, the aim of which is to assess the qualities of the beers under review. A whole world of delightful experiences awaits the beer enthusiast as he or she explores the sophisticated taste of real beer. There is no better way to learn about beer or to discover the plethora of new tastes, while at the same time re-exploring old favorites. These flavors are an enhancement to our lives, and beer tasting helps us share experiences, recall them later, and helps direct us to new flavor adventures.

Beer tastings can be organized events that may include printed sheets, formal note-taking, and specific flights of beer; often, tasters remove brand and label bias by tasting beers “blind.” A beer tasting can be as casual as two friends discussing flavors and making comparisons to other sensory experiences – common human ground. Moreover, many tasters post their reviews systematically on to consumer beer websites, or their Facebook page or Twitter feed.

Whether you are tasting beer formally or casually, a few suggestions can help the beer show best:

Temperature: While different styles of beer suggest different serving temperatures, a typical refrigerator is too cold for just about any style of beer. Cold diminishes flavor, so let a bottle from the fridge warm up a bit before serving. Light-bodied lagers show well at 45 degrees F; many bigger lagers and ales are best at 45 – 50 degrees; full-flavored beers usually show the most richness and breadth at 50 degrees or even a bit warmer. In Britain, pub ales are usually served at a “cellar temp” of 52 – 55 degrees. Remember, if the beer you are tasting seems a bit too cold it will warm in your glass.

Glassware: Use a glass, always. Pouring the beer activates the carbonation, which creates a head and releases delicate aromatics. A glass lets the beautiful range of colors in beer show, and it allows your lips to engage with the head – after all, where your lips touch the head is your personal interface with the beer. Many breweries produce a brewery-logo glass, with different shapes for different beer styles. For lighter-bodied, subtler beers a tall beer glass – pilsner style, nonik, or tulip – is appropriate; a Bavarian weissebier glass with a narrow waist and in-curving top allows these effervescent beers with a dramatically big head to show well; strong beers like Scotch ales, Imperial stouts, and Trappist ales are often served in a smaller-volume stemmed chalice or goblet. Whatever styles glass, make sure it is “beer clean” – with no soap residue, surfactant, or dust. Give it a rinse with clear water before adding beer.

Aroma: Put your nose in the top of the glass and slowly inhale. Enjoy, and note some of the most subtle elusive flavor notes. So you can describe the aroma to others, look for comparisons in the aroma: coffee, pine, citrus, toffee, cloves, treacle, leather . . . the list is endless.

Look: Hold the glass up to the light: is the beer golden, amber, brown, or black? Are their reddish highlights? Is it crystal clear (“bright”), or is their perhaps a haze of yeast (“turbid”)?

First impression: Did you have expectations? If so, were they met – or were you surprised? Do you like the beer – do you love it? A first impression is worth noting because your palate will recalibrated to any flavor experience.

Flavor & mouthfeel: Think of other sensory experiences that the flavor of this beer brings to mind – maybe a favorite meal, or the smell of a newly-mown lawn . . . maybe another beer. To be able to recall this beer, to describe it to others, beer tasters use words to describe flavors from malt (“Coffee, caramel, biscuity, roasty, grain”); from hops (“Zesty, spicy, bold, sharp, herbal, piney”); and from yeast (“Fruity, clove-like, estery, tart, sour”). There are no limits to useful terms and allusions; some of course are negative. Mouthfeel describes the body of the beer – thick & viscous, or light on the tongue – as well as the level of conditioning (carbonation) that can range from the enthusiastic sparkle of a wheat beer or Belgian ale to the soft lower conditioning of a Scotch Ale or strong stout.

Finish: After swallowing, what are the aromas and flavors that are the last to remain? They will certainly differ from the initial aroma – is there lingering bitterness? Complex yeast notes? How long does the finish last?

Whether formal or casual, beer tasting with some concentration and thought can enhance any beer. Make it as systematic as you prefer, keep notes if you wish, invite your friends and make it social, and always recall that you are fortunate to have the opportunity to taste beer as a pleasurable part of your life.