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Beers and Brews


Beers and brews are beverages produced by yeast-induced fermentation of malted cereal grains, usually barley malt, to which hops and water have been added. They generally contain 2 to 9 percent ethyl Alcohol, although some may contain as much as 15 percent. Various types and flavors are created by adding different combinations of malts and cereals and allowing the process to continue for varying lengths of time.


The origin of beer is unknown, but it was an important food to the people of the Near East, probably from Neolithic times, some 10,000 years ago. The making of beer and of bread developed at the same time. In Mesopotamia (the ancient land between the rivers as the Greeks called it), an early record from about 5,000 years ago describing the recipe of the "wine of the grain" was found written in Sumerian cuneiform on a clay tablet. In ancient Egypt, at about the same time, barley beer was brewed and consumed as a regular part of the diet. It was known as hek and tasted like a sweet ale, since there were no hops in Egypt. Egyptians continued to drink it for centuries, although the name was changed to hemki. More than 3,200 years ago, the Chinese made a beer called kiu that was most likely made from two parts millet and one part rice. With water added, the concoction was heated in clay pots; flour and various plants were added to provide the yeast and flavors, respectively.

The ancient Greeks, however, preferred wine and considered beer to be a drink of barbarians. Beer was drunk on special occasions in ancient Rome; Plutarch wrote of a feast in which Julius Caesar served his officers beer as a special reward after they had crossed the Rubicon river. Once the art of brewing reached England, beers and ales became the preferred drink of the rich and poor alike. King Henry VIII of England was said to consume large quantities during breakfast. It was soon discovered that sailors who drank beer avoided scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of adequate amounts of vitamin C. Thus, beer was added to each ship's provisions and was even carried on the Mayflower during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1620. American colonists quickly learned to make their beer with Indian corn (maize), and much U.S. beer is still made with corn, although rice and wheat are also used in the mix with barley malt.


The first step in making beer is to allow barley to sprout (germinate) in water, a process that releases an important enzyme, amylase. Germinated barley seeds are called malt. Once the malt is crushed and suspended in water, the amylase breaks down the complex starch into more basic sugars. The reaction is stopped by boiling, and the concoction is filtered. This clear solution is mixed with hops (to provide the bitter flavor) and a starter culture of yeast (to begin the alcoholic fermentation process). Carbon dioxide gas (the fizz or bubbles) is produced, along with ethyl alcohol (ethanol or drinking alcohol). The malt and hops are then removed (and generally sold for cattle feed) while the yeast is skimmed off as fermentation proceeds. After the desired effect is achieved, the beer is filtered and bottled, or it is stored in kegs for aging. During the aging process (2 to 24 weeks) proteins settle to the bottom or are digested by enzymes. The carbonation (fizz) that occurred during fermentation is then drawn off and forced back in during the bottling process.


There are two major types of beers: top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting. Top fermentation occurs at room temperature 59° to 68°F (15°-20°C) and is so named because the yeast rises to the top of the vessel during fermentation. This older process produces beers that have a natural fruitiness and include the wheat beers, true ales, stouts, and porters. Their flavor is most completely expressed when served at moderate (i.e., room) temperatures. The development of yeasts that sank during this process resulted in brews that were more stable between different batches. Most of the major brewers have switched to the bottom yeasts and cold storage (lagering). The significance of using yeast that sinks during fermentation is that airborne yeasts cannot mix with the special yeast and contaminate the process.

The most popular type of beer in the United States is lager, a pale, medium-hop-flavored beer. It is mellowed several months at 33°F (0.5°C) to produce its distinctive flavor. Lager beers average 3.3 to 3.4 percent ethyl alcohol by weight and are usually heavily carbonated. Pilsner is a European lager (that originated in medieval Pilsen, now the Czech city of Plzen) that is stored longer than other lagers and has a higher alcohol content and a rich taste of hops. Dark beers are popular in Europe but are not generally produced in the United States. The dark color is achieved by roasting the malt; dark beer has a heavier and richer taste than lager beer. British beers are many and varied, both pale and dark; some have a number of unique additives, including powdered eggshell, crab claws or oyster shells, tartar salts, wormwood seeds, and horehound juice. Porter, popular in England, is another dark beeroriginally called porter's beer, it was a mixture of ale and beer. The porters of today are a sweet malty brew and contain 6 to 7 percent alcohol. Malt liquors are beers that are made using a higher percentage of fermentable sugars, resulting in a beverage with 5 to 9 percent alcohol content; the mild fruity flavor has a spicy taste and lacks the bitterness of hops. Low-calorie (sometimes called "light" or "lite") beers are produced by decreasing the amount of grain used in the initial brew (using more water per unit of volume) or by adding an enzyme that reduces the amount of starch in the beer. These light beers contain only about 2.5 to 2.7 percent alcohol.

Brewing is subject to national laws concerning allowable ingredients in commercial products. Although chemical additives are allowed by some countries (e.g., the United States), German and Czech purity laws consider beers and brews a natural historical resource and disallow anything that was not part of the original (medieval) brewing tradition. Individuals sensitive to U.S. or Canadian beers are often able to drink pure beers.


About 128.6 billion liters of beer were commercially produced in the world in 1997 according to the World Drink Trends, 1999 Edition (cited in Alcoweb). The United States led the world in beer production, producing 23.6 billion liters of beer in 1997. China followed with 17.0 billion liters, and Germany rounded out the top three in beer production volume with 11.5 billion liters. For the same year, World Drink Trends reports that the Czech Republic drank the most beer, consuming 161.4 liters per person. Other countries leading in beer consumption were the Republic of Ireland (152.0 liters per person) and Germany (131.2 liters per person). A 1999 study conducted by Euromonitor cited in Prepared Foods reported that the United States led the world in beer consumption, consuming over 17 billion liters. Beverage World International cites another Euromonitor study that lists the top three brewers for 1997 as Anheuser-Busch, Heineken, and Miller Brewing. Figures 1-3 show the relative distribution of the top drinking and brewing nations, as well as the top brewing companies.

(See also: Alcohol: History of Drinking )


Able, B. (1976). The book of beer. Chicago: Henry Regnery.

Alcoweb (1996a). Beer production by country (1995-1997). Alcohol, Health: Beer production (Cited 22 August, 2000). Available from

Alcoweb (1996b). Consumption of beer by country between 1995 and 1998. Alcohol, Health: Evolution of beer consumption (Cited 22 August, 2000). Available from

Beverage World International (1999). First annual top 10 global brewers report. May-June, 24.

Jackson, M. (1988). The New World guide to beer. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Prepared Foods (1999). Beer-bellied yanks. (Beer consumption increases in the U.S., Spain, UK, and Germany.) Aug, 37.

Scott E. Lukas

Revised by Nancy Faerber

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