Beer is an alcoholic beverage produced by the saccharification of starch and fermentation of the resulting sugar. The starch and saccharification enzymes are often derived from malted cereal grains, most commonly malted barley and malted wheat. Most beer is also flavoured with hops, which add bitterness and act as a natural preservative, though other flavourings such as herbs or fruit may occasionally be included. The preparation of beer is called brewing.
Beer is the world's most widely consumed alcoholic beverage, and is the third-most popular drink overall, after water and tea. It is thought by some to be the oldest fermented beverage.
Some of humanity's earliest known writings refer to the production and distribution of beer: the Code of Hammurabi included laws regulating beer and beer parlours and "The Hymn to Ninkasi", a prayer to the Mesopotamian goddess of beer, served as both a prayer and as a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a culture with few literate people. Today, the brewing industry is a global business, consisting of several dominant multinational companies and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewpubs to regional breweries.
The strength of beer is usually around 4% to 6% alcohol by volume (abv) although it may vary between 0.5% (de-alcoholized) and 20%, with some breweries creating examples of 40% abv and above in recent years.
Beer forms part of the culture of beer-drinking nations and is associated with social traditions such as beer festivals, as well as a rich pub culture involving activities like pub crawling and pub games such as bar billiards.
If you’re searching for an original brewmaster to toast the next time you knock back a cold one, you might be out of luck. It’s difficult to attribute the invention of beer to a particular culture or time period, but the world’s first fermented beverages most likely emerged alongside the development of cereal agriculture some 12,000 years ago. As hunter-gatherer tribes settled into agrarian civilizations based around staple crops like wheat, rice, barley and maize, they may have also stumbled upon the fermentation process and started brewing beer. In fact, some anthropologists have argued that these early peoples’ insatiable thirst for hooch may have contributed to the Neolithic Revolution by inspiring new agricultural technologies.
The earliest known alcoholic beverage is a 9,000-year-old Chinese concoction made from rice, honey and fruit, but the first barley beer was most likely born in the Middle East. While people were no doubt imbibing it much earlier, hard evidence of beer production dates back about 5,000 years to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia. Archeologists have unearthed ceramic vessels from 3400 B.C. still sticky with beer residue, and 1800 B.C.’s “Hymn to Ninkasi”—an ode to the Sumerian goddess of beer—describes a recipe for a beloved ancient brew made by female priestesses. These nutrient-rich suds were a cornerstone of the Sumerian diet, and were likely a safer alternative to drinking water from nearby rivers and canals, which were often contaminated by animal waste.
Beer consumption also flourished under the Babylonian Empire, but few ancient cultures loved knocking back a few as much as the Egyptians. Workers along the Nile were often paid with an allotment of a nutritious, sweet brew, and everyone from pharaohs to peasants and even children drank beer as part of their everyday diet. Many of these ancient beers were flavored with unusual additives such as mandrake, dates and olive oil. More modern-tasting libations would not arrive until the Middle Ages, when Christian monks and other artisans began brewing beers seasoned with hops.