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A History of the World According to Beer

Crack a cold one along with this new brewography by the Wall Street Journal's beer critic.

Crawford Kilian 17 Jan

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Beer has long been a moneymaker. In the 18th century, Dr. Samuel Johnson said that to become a brewer offered "the potentiality of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice." But when you've made your money by whatever means, what better way to spend your time than exploring the remarkable variety of beers now available?

William Bostwick, the author of The Brewer's Tale: A History of the World According to Beer, is the beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, which in itself tells us something about the renewed importance we attach to beer these days. While the general quality of mass-produced beer is pretty good, we're now into the second generation of ''craft beers,'' made by brewers who want to explore both its ancient past and its very promising future.

The rise of craft brewing seems like an innovation, but it's actually a reversion to thousands of years of individual and small-group production. In 2012, Simon Fraser University archaeologists made the case for brewing as the foundation of civilization itself. The Natufian culture, in the eastern Mediterranean 13,000 years ago, was growing, stockpiling and processing grain and had the technology to make beer.

Grain-based agriculture made settled communities possible, and population growth triggered more grain production. Essentially, Bostwick tells us, beer is just liquid bread -- made from grains, yeast, and whatever plants might be available to add flavour. He writes that by the time of the first Middle East empires, brewing was a thriving cottage industry -- and usually a housewife's job. "A good wife, a Sumerian saying went, was a good brewer: 'The house where beer is never lacking, she is there!'"

By the time of the Babylonian and Egyptian empires, armies of workers were fed from industrial-scale bakeries and breweries. We wouldn't have recognized their beer: warm, usually low-alcohol, and likely flavoured with dates and local spices.

A staple food and social glue

The rise of the Greeks and Romans pushed beer-making out into the grape-hostile barbarian lands of northern Europe and central Asia. It took many forms, from Germanic mead to Mongol kvass. It was used by shamans (often laced with ergot, a fungus producing chemicals resembling LSD) to enter the spirit world. It remained, in effect, a staple food and a social binding agent, served at feasts and friendly gatherings.

Rather than plod chronologically up to the present, Bostwick often jumps ahead to show us modern brewers, craft and industrial, who are engaged in the same kind of research and development as their ancient predecessors. Some are even bottling their versions of pharaonic industrial beer. He also travels around the U.S. and to Europe, explaining the problems that brewers of the18th and 19th centuries had in scaling up local production to meet the demands of growing populations.

Pilsner, for example, was the happy result of specific conditions in the Czech city of Pilsen: the local grains and water produced a beer that conquered Europe. But alternative grains and water were found as far away as the U.S., enabling Pilsner to extend its conquests.

Similarly, India pale ale was designed to be alcoholic enough, and hopped enough, to survive transport around Africa to thirsty Britons in Calcutta and Bombay.

The triumph of lager

The German diaspora in 19th century U.S. flourished as brewers and triumphed as the creators of lager -- a light, clear beer. They created lager in part from corn and turned themselves into millionaires in the process. Beer gardens sprang up as healthy alternatives to the whisky-dispensing saloons, and lager was even touted as a great food for kids.

Governments relied on beer as a tax-revenue source, but the First World War changed things. With an income tax now in place, they didn't need beer, and its association with Germany made it unpopular. Beer gardens became collateral damage from the anti-saloon movement, and postwar Prohibition forced most breweries out of business. Yet when Prohibition ended, the beer industry rebounded to meet pent-up demand.

Beer snobs now look down their noses at modern mass-produced beers as bland and tasteless. In the postwar boom years, brewers learned that North American women bought most of the household beer, and lipstick tended to ruin the head and affect the flavour. So they tinkered until it was acceptable to the purchasers, if not always to the consumers.

Even so, Bostwick tells us, today's craft brewers have the highest respect for their colleagues like those at Budweiser. They know how to maintain consistency for years. (I once met a Danish brewer in Guangzhou who spent three months of the year advising Asian beer makers on keeping their own stuff consistent. It was an uphill task apart from the German-founded Tsingtao brewery, which had sustained its quality through wars and revolution.)

While he bills his book as a "history of the world according to beer," Bostwick doesn't say much about beer outside Europe and the U.S. But Latin America and Africa have long traditions, as does Canada, and we are now well on our way back to beer as a cottage industry, if not as yet another chore for Mum.

'As beer changes, it endures'

Wikipedia tells us that U.S. beer consumption in 2012 was 28 gallons (110 litres) per capita. In that year, craft brewers (defined as producing under six million barrels a year) brought in $33.9 billion, generating 360,000 jobs in the process. But the U.S. craft-beer Brewers Association tells us that while overall beer production fell by 2 per cent in 2013, craft beer rose by 17 per cent.

In Canada, according to, beer in general supports 163,000 jobs, produces $14 billion in GDP, and supplies $5.8 billion in tax revenues. Beer Canada's 2014 Annual Statistical Bulletin reports craft breweries made up 8.6 per cent of annual production in 2013, up from 5.7 per cent in 2008.

The B.C. Craft Brewers Guild has 40 members, though many more must be producing. Simon Fraser, having argued for 13,000 years of brewing, is belatedly getting on the bandwagon by launching a Continuing Education program in Craft Beer and Brewing Essentials. The program will begin Oct. 15.

"Our tastes are wide open," writes William Bostwick, "and so is beer's future. Its story has always been one of reinvention. As the brewer traveled to new lands and new times, transplanting traditional recipes into new earth, he, his wares, and their drinkers would become something else entirely. As beer endures, it changes."

His entertaining and informative book deserves a widespread audience, who will appreciate it best while simultaneously consuming a nice cold bottle of a local craft beer.  [Tyee]

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