As a Milwaukee native, I don’t think there is any way for me to NOT dedicate a post to beer. Ironically, I have hated beer for most of my adult life. I’m not a fan of the bitterness derived from hops, and generally prefer wine at social gatherings.
Recently, however, I have at least grown to appreciate the brew for its exceptional applications in cooking and its fascinating history. Plus beer was one of the only true winners in last week’s unequivocally terrible Super Bowl (see this adorable commercial and you’ll understand why).
You see, without beer, there would be no us. Originating in as early as 8000 B.C.E., it is among the most influential beverages on earth, perhaps only rivaled by water and tea.
Historians cannot agree as to whether barley, one of the primary ingredients used to make beer, was first cultivated to eat or drink. They are in general agreement, however, that beer likely originated in the Middle East between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. And by now it should come as no shock to you that ancient Egypt soon followed. Egyptians limited the consumption of beer (which was sweetened with honey, ginger, and date sugar) to royals.
Ancient Greeks referred to beer as “barley wine,” and helped the drink spread across the region. Eventually beer made its way to early Europe, where it was consumed by men, women, and children alike. As evidenced by events such as the Black Plague, water was often contaminated and filled with harmful (and frankly downright disgusting) bacteria and illnesses. Beer, which required brewers to heat and ferment the liquid, removed many of these dangerous toxins. Brewing was primarily the responsibility of women, who took on the chore as part of their household duties.
During the Middle Ages, monasteries were Europe’s brewing centers (hence names such as abbey and trappist). Beer was valued for its medicinal properties, sanitation (compared to the icky contaminated water), and overall cheer. Monks even developed special brews to help nourish them through lent and fasts!
Equally important to beer were the taverns and social halls where the beverage was consumed. After all, it was in taverns that the great minds of the day could discuss new ideas and theories, conduct business transactions, and engage in political discourse.
How beer arrived to America and transformed our social and political lives is another story, one which I will get back to in a later post. Long story short, beer got here with the pilgrims, survived prohibition, and gave birth to gigantic companies.
Today, beer is more popular than ever in the United States. And it is not just Miller and Bud Light making ripples. Microbreweries, such as Sprecher (my hometown favorite that also makes fantastic root beer) and DC Brau use Old World methods to make their beer. At a recent conference at the D.C. Historical Society, I was delighted to hear about a new brew by DC Brau that seeks to replicate a lager by the Christian Heurich Brewing Company, the last brewery in Washington, DC (closed 1956). Local home brewer Mike Stein researched in the Smithsonian’s archives, looking up original Heurich receipts and documents to piece together Heurich’s lager. D.C. Brau just released the brew this past fall!
And so, history lovers, drink up (but not so much that you can’t hold you book rightside up please)! Or at least try cooking with beer and see what you think!
For further reading:
Standage, Tom. A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Walker and Company, June 2005.
For those of you who hate complicated recipes, this is one of the most straightforward I have ever made.
Whole Wheat Garlic Herb Beer Bread
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped (do NOT mince-the huge chunks of garlic make this bread!)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bottle (12 ounces) lager (I used Yuengling)
2 tablespoons butter
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan with butter (Tip: Place butter in pan and throw in oven to melt butter and then spread)
3) In a large bowl, mix all tried ingredients and herbs.
4) The fun part: add the beer
5) Pour in loaf pan and bake for 45-55 minutes, until golden at top.
6) Enjoy! (Also cross your fingers that the Packers make it to the Super Bowl next year)