Friday, July 20, 2007

Beer (Originally published August, 2004)

Even Though he had the reputation of being an interminable drunk, Edgar Allen Poe hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today.”

Whether ale or lager, steam or lambic, traditional beer is one of the most diverse, complex, tasty and ancient forms of drink (some actually classify it as a food) known to man.

For at least 100 centuries beer has been a critical component in the human diet. A valuable source of vitamins and protein, a kind of liquid bread, beer may well predate wine and bread. Early written references to beer date from 4,000 B.C., and many anthropologists believe that the development of brewing led directly to the first human settlements. Recent findings in Amazonia indicate the brewing of beer was underway some 10,000 years ago in what is now the Brazilian rain forest where the farming of manioc and corn, two of the most basic ingredients in primitive beers, was a regular occurrence during the Pleistocene Age.

In all of these ancient societies, the brewing of beer was the exclusive domain of women. The creation of this important form of sustenance helped raise women to positions of respect amongst their people. From the Egyptian beer called "Hekt" to the "Aul" of the Vikings; from the "Chung" and "Chang" of Tibet and Mongolia, beer was celebrated in yearly festivals that focused on both the female brewer and the goddesses who gifted these cultures their beer.

The tradition of female brewing extended into the modern cultures of Europe and eventually the Americas. In Europe the involvement of the medieval church with commercial brewing and tavern keeping became so pervasive that by the 17th century few female brewers remained in the beer trade. However, household brewing survived and was transported with the colonists to the New World.

The log of the Mayflower gives evidence of the importance of beer to the survival of the pilgrims. According to Andrew Bar, author of “Drink: A Social history of America,” pilgrims chose to land at Plymouth rather than continue on to their original destination, Virginia, because they had run short of supplies, especially beer.

In the colonies brewing remained the domain of women. These resourceful brewers brewed with whatever materials were at hand. Records from the early 1700s tell of beers made from corn, bran, persimmons, potatoes, squash and Jerusalem artichokes.

The first commercial brewery in America was built in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (New York City) on what is now Wall Street. Rural household brewing did persist into the 1800s despite the more than 2,000 commercial breweries in the U.S. by that time.

Brewing hit its low point in America in the 1920s with the passage of prohibition and came to a head in the 1960s when fewer than 34 breweries remained (largely a result of postwar corporatization). Of the more than 100 basic beer styles once being brewed in the U.S., only the lager (Budweiser, Coors etc…), introduced from Germany in the 1860s, remained in the marketplace by the late ’60s.

Thankfully, beginning in 1978 (when the Carter administration legalized home brewing nationwide) and continuing throughout the early 1990s a large number of craft breweries and brew pubs sprang up throughout the United States and Canada as part of a consumer revolt against bland, watered-down beers. The happy result of this revolution has been that dozens of nearly forgotten beer styles came back into production.

Although the furor of craft brewing has died down some, there are now thousands of really good traditional beers available to American consumers. When these domestic beers are combined with the growing number of imported European specialty beers, the United States has become a beer drinkers’ mecca.

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