The reversal of historical perspectives about beer


The adoption of a generic technical definition of beer, rather than a cultural and relative one, puts all the brewing traditions of the world on an equal footing.

The history of the brewery treats all beer families with the same respect due to beverages with a long history. These families are cousins. They all come from the same technological core: the fundamentals of beer brewing. As early as the protohistory of human societies, this early biotechnology makes enzymes work to convert starch into fermentable sugars and transform the latter into ethanol. It lays the technological foundation for the brewery.

All beers, ancient and modern, respond to the same economic fundamentals (transforming starch into a fermented beverage) and the same general social rules: to bring about drinking manners uniting a more or less large human community. Since its origin, the brewery has been transforming its own techniques on the five continents where it has developed. Whatever the times, the brewery adapts its organisation and responds to the social evolutions of its time.

The Western tradition and its modern industrial outcome have no prerogatives compared to Asian, African or Amerindian brewing traditions. All these traditions are alive, rich with a millenary history and adapted to the cultures they bring to life.

The history of beer on five continents is a long-lasting story. Beer is not a modern industrial invention. Its history cannot be reduced to recite the irresistible expansion of industrial brewery launched in the th century, and preceded by some ancient fermented porridges barely drinkable. Some ancient brewing schemas were as sophisticated than modern processes and able to brew high quality beers.


These results produce a reversal of perspective.

The western brewing tradition has to be looked at from the global point of view of a world brewery several thousand years old. As one looks at the earth from the sky. At this height of view, comparing modern brewing patterns with those of some traditional beers (present or disappeared) leads to two important conclusions. On the one hand, the complexity of the brewing patterns is not exclusive to modern brewing, which belies the idea that old beers have remained as primitive beverages. On the other hand, the complexity of brewing patterns has been decreasing throughout the history of beer worldwide, contrary to the popular belief that brewing has been "perfected" over the centuries.

Technical complexity in brewing is not unique to industrial brewing. The ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese or Indian brewers mastered this know-how, without however having the explanatory scientific knowledge and the accompanying industrial capital (Industrial brewing in the 20th century). But this does not cast any doubt on the quality of the beers they produced and the perfect adequacy of their brewing techniques, much less rudimentary than we think.

The brewery's technical formulas have become more uniform and impoverished over the centuries. Instead of using all starchy plants, the dominant brewing formula is reduced to cereals alone. And of all the different kinds of grain, barley and wheat take the lion's share. Even the Asian industrial breweries prefer barley to rice, which is the culmination of the ancient know-how of Chinese, Japanese and Korean rice brewers. The same applies to American corn beers or African sorghum beers. As for the aromatics, only the female hop flower remains on the trail. A very impoverishing technical narrowing.

Among the 6 possible ways of brewing, the western industrial brewery has chosen only one, the path no 2 of malting. The narrowness of these technological choices leads to the complete standardisation of modern beer, compared to the infinite richness of its traditional counterparts. The very diminished organoleptic diversity of modern beer is its corollary, which the very elaborate design of the labels cannot hide.


In a strange irony of history, indigenous beers - at least those that have survived - have become sanctuaries of new flavours for the western drinker used to the uniformity of industrial lager. Industrial beer is no exception. Until now, this little cousin has overshadowed the larger and more prestigious history of its great ancestors. The great cousin brewing traditions of Asia, Africa or South America have something to say about the history of beer in general. These traditional beers do not obey the fussy regulations of the mega-state structures, offering at the same time new ranges of flavours and aromas.


Beer History is going on ...


11/10/2012  Christian Berger