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All About Beer

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Old 03-20-2008, 07:39 AM
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Default All About Beer

In the words of an old joke I'm a "common sewer" of beer.

I know the prehistoric origins of beer, the anthropology of beer, the chemistry of brewing and the development of beer from a beverage drank by the first farmers in history to the commercial brews of today. I learned how to brew my own beer when I was 18 and I've made better beer than anything you can buy in a store.

For a few thousand years beer meant civilization. They went hand in hand after humans abandoned a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and began farming wild grains they had hybridized. Barley was among the earliest cultivated crops.

The first beer was probably made by accident at least 8,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Leftover cooked barley fermented in a pot and the farmer noticed it had a pleasant flavor and lifted his spirits.

(Personally, I think barley is God's way of saying beer, although it is also used in bread and breakfast cereals. English "porridge" is either boiled barley or boiled oats.)

Although barley is the basis of most modern beer, it has been made from any grain that can be malted. Malting is the process of sprouting grain seeds until they develop enzymes that convert starch into fermentable sugar.

Barley doesn't grow well in tropical regions, but that didn't stop inhabitants from brewing beer with other grains. Africans use millet, for example. (I once made millet beer and it tasted like Fresca soda without all the added sugar.) Wheat beer is popular in modern Germany. South American natives brew beer with corn. Called cheecha, it played a vital role in the ancient Inca Empire.

Inca citizens paid taxes to the empire through labor rather than money or goods. The laborers who built the Inca road system were given a daily ration of cheecha and if the beer ran out, construction stopped.

The first and only ancient civilization that switched from beer to wine was the Roman Empire. Romans drank some beer, but they preferred wine. In the modern world France has a major subculture devoted to wine making like the Romans.

The national drink of Russia today is vodka, but beer pre-dates it by centuries. Medieval Russians made beer from dark rye bread.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, people drank an alcoholically weak ale in villages where the drinking water was contaminated by pathogens. They didn't know about the germ theory of disease, but they noticed that people who drank beer instead of water got sick less often and lived longer.

Beer was originally flavored with spices. During the Dark Ages, European monks were the first to use hops as a bittering agent. Hops have anti-biotic properties that help preserve beer. They also contain a soporific (sleep-inducing) drug which adds to the sedative effect of alcohol.

The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock because the passengers and crew had run out of beer. These Massachusettes settlers had no luck in their first attempt to grow barley, but the Indians taught them to brew with native crops like maize and pumpkin.

Barley to make ale was one of the biggest crops in colonial America. Practically every land owner brewed his own on the premises. George Washington drank a quart of home-brewed ale every morning with his breakfast. Thomas Jefferson had a large brewery at Monticello.

Prohibition ended beer brewing in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933 when the law was repealed. Hundreds of breweries went out of business and never re-opened. A handful survived by switching to soda and barley syrup to stay afloat during Prohibition and they came to dominate the American beer industry -- Budweiser, Pabst, Schlitz, Miller and Coors.

Until 1982, homebrewing was illegal in the U.S., mainly because beer undergoing fermentation could be distilled into high-quality (and untaxed) whisky. Now up to 200 gallons per year may be homebrewed for each adult in a household (although this limit is never enforced.) The finest Scotch whisky is made from fermented barley malt, the same ingredient as Scotch ale.

The biggest-selling brands of American beer today are all one style called pilsner lager, a pale beer brewed and aged at low temperature. Unlike European brewers, the large commercial brewers in the U.S. substitute rice, corn and other adjuncts for part of the barley. This is cheaper than using all barley and it gives the lager an extra light body which most American drinkers seem to prefer.

Before food was transported by refrigerated railroad cars, Budweiser built ice houses along rail routes to keep its beer cold and extend shelf life (indicating that beer was more important than food in late 19th centry America.) With the advent of ammonia-based refrigeration, lager could be brewed year-round rather than only in cooler months and shipped coast to coast by railroad.

Czech brewers who invented lager 150 years ago used a special yeast and brewed it underground in cool caves. Lagering refers to the process of aging beer at low temperature. Lager has a smoother, cleaner taste than ale, which is brewed at room temperature.

Czech-made Pilsner Urquell is widely considered the best lager in the world today. (I rate German Lowenbrau lager a close second.)

Beer is legally classified as food in Germany, where it is nicknamed liquid bread. Since the 17th century, German brewing has been governed by a purity law that restricts brewing ingredients to grain, hops, water and yeast only. Homebrewing is illegal in Germany.

"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
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