History of Beer

Beer is one of the oldest products of civilization, and may even have been a stepping-stone to the invention of leavened bread.

Beer’s Beginnings

Historians believe that the ancient Mesopotamians and Sumerians were brewing beer as early as 10,000 BC. Although the product would have been somewhat different from today’s bottled varieties, it would be recognizable. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese also brewed beer, as did pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, who used corn instead of barley. Interestingly enough, women were the master brewers. In ancient Babylon, women brewers were also priestesses.

Beer remained popular with the Romans and Greeks until the availability of wine increased. In Rome, the wine was believed to be ambrosia from the god Bacchus. Beer soon became known as a barbarian drink and quickly lost its popularity. Beer was only brewed in the outer areas of the Roman Empire where wine was scarce.

In the middle ages, European monks were the guardians of literature and science, as well as the art of beer making. They refined the process to near perfection and institutionalized the use of hops as a flavoring and preservative.

However, it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur came along that a final, important development was made. Until that time, brewers had to depend on wild, airborne yeast for fermentation. By establishing that yeast as a living microorganism, Pasteur opened the gates for accurately controlling the conversion of sugar to alcohol.

Beer in America

Beer first arrived in America with Christopher Columbus. When he landed, he noted that the natives were making a brew “of maize, resembling English beer.” Beer was of major concern in the new land, even for the pilgrims. The pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, instead of further south as planned, partly because they were out of beer.

Beer continued to grow in popularity until 1920 when Prohibition took effect. Many breweries went out of business or switched to the production of soda pop. Of course, not everyone stopped drinking, but gangster-controlled operations were not known for high-quality products.

Late in 1933, Congress passed the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the unpopular law. The beer quickly regained its popularity, however, the new breeds of American beer that came after World War II were generally mass-produced and very bland. Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing, ushering in the age of microbreweries, beer hobbyists, and beer snobs.

Pub Origins: A Great British Tradition

Britain’s pubs are famous worldwide for both their unique character and the fundamental role they play in urban and rural community life. Popping down to the pub for a pint and a chat is inextricably woven into the fabric of modern British society.

City dwellers head for the nearest pubs and bars to unwind after a hard day’s work, friends gather to gossip and villagers in remote areas visit their local to put the world to rights over a pint of their favorite brew.

Bars selling impressive varieties of beer exist in many different countries around the world. None, arguably, can beat a great British pub for cheery, friendly ambiance and a traditional welcome. Most pubs are also family-friendly and serve affordable pub grub (food).

Public Houses Under Threat

Traditional British pubs and regional, independent brewers are going out of business at an alarming rate. Their demise is attributed to a combination of factors, including untenable competition from larger pub companies and major global breweries.

CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) recently launched a campaign to “Save Britain’s Independent Brewers” and the great British institution, the local pub.

Origin of Pubs

Public houses or “tabernae” (taverns) originated in Roman Britain over two thousand years ago when humble roadside inns were set up to cater to travelers’ needs. These taverns provided accommodation, warm hospitality, and basic food and drink. Interestingly, the Romans also gave us the first pub signs, in the form of vine leaves, to indicate their trade.

Early Inns

The popularity of the original Roman style tavern dwindled over the centuries, re-emerging in the Middle Ages as monastery-run inns catering to travelers and pilgrims. Pilgrimages like the one Chaucer depicted in The Canterbury Tales were a common feature of British life. Monasteries were renowned for their generous hospitality. However, the sheer volume of customers led to the establishment of numerous secular inns around Britain, to cope with the monastic overspill.

English Inns

During the Middle Ages, inns run by innkeepers flourished throughout Britain. Inns, hostelries and public houses in market towns also thrived, serving traders who required overnight accommodation, food, and liquid refreshment.


Because water pollution was a big problem in the Middle Ages, ale became the top alcoholic drink as it was considered safer to drink because of the brewing process.

Alehouses began to flourish: brewers sold beer from rooms in their homes as well as in village alehouses. Ale was generally served in a single large vessel that was handed around, with portions marked by pegs. This peg system was open to abuse and drunkenness was rife.

Early Taverns

A precursor of the modern wine bar, the Elizabethan tavern catered to the professional classes, initially selling only wine and quality food to well-heeled city workers. Thanks to increased international trade and Britain’s commanding position in world affairs, Britain’s public houses began to flourish as city taverns, during the Elizabethan period.

Traditional English taverns, however, fell into decline towards the end of the eighteenth century. An increase in drunken behavior was a major reason the professional classes turned their affection to the newly emerging gentlemen’s clubs.

Heyday of Coaching Inns

Coaching Inns flourished as travel by horse and carriage became increasingly popular throughout Britain during the Industrial Revolution from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century.

Coaching, however, fell out of favor with the introduction of the railways. Coaching inns could no longer compete with the new public houses and bars served by the railway network springing up in major cities. However, certain coaching inns on major routes continued to survive, albeit on a lesser scale. Today, some of these original coaching inns are trendy rural pubs, decorated with memorabilia and oozing postcard nostalgia.

Nineteenth-Century Beerhouses

The abolition of the beer tax in 1830 meant that any ratepayer could sell beer without a beer license. This led to the establishment of numerous beerhouses and backroom bars across Britain.

However, in 1869, regulations were introduced to control the burgeoning and often illicit brewing trade. Many small brewers were forced out of business as the larger breweries took over. Commercial breweries began to control the beer market; indeed, they continue to do so today. The Victorians coined the term “pubs” for public houses.

Pub Signage Explained

Ever wondered why pubs have such imaginative names and signage? Some names are clearly derived from historic events, myths, legends, royalty, topography, landmarks, trades or local connections. Other pub names seem inexplicable. However, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation: customers who frequented the early public houses were generally illiterate and therefore needed a picture sign to point them in the right direction.

Funky, contemporary pub signage, with names including Slug & Lettuce, Pitcher & Piano, Spinning Wheel, Plough & Harrow, Smokin’ Dog and Bank Statement, has more to do with clever marketing than heralding the existence of beer purveying establishments!