Bottoms Up!: Snippets in the History of Beer


Beer. It’s the third most popular drink in the world. If you're wondering, water and tea are first and second.  Beer is made from fermented malted barley, wheat, corn, rice, or other cereal grains. Hops, when added to beer, is a natural preservative and stabilizer. It's a shared experience amongst people from all cultures and all walks of life.

Beer Consumption per Capita

1.     Czech Republic (Europe)

2.     Seychelles (Africa)

3.     Austria (Europe)

4.     Germany (Europe)

5.     Namibia (Africa)

6.     Poland (Europe)

7.     Ireland (Europe)

8.     Lithuania (Europe)

9.     Belize (North America)

10. Estonia (Europe)

The U.S. ranks at 17th.

Alcohol Consumption per Capita

1.     Belarus

2.     Moldova

3.     Lithuania

4.     Russia

5.     Romania

6.     Ukraine

7.     Andorra

8.     Hungary

9.     Czech Republic

10. Slovakia

The U.S. ranks at 48th.

Islamic countries rank at the bottom due to religious prohibition of alcohol consumption. Often, there are also laws against the consumption of alcohol in these countries. In some, the law only applies to Muslims, so religious minorities or visitors may partake.

The Quran says: "They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: 'In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.'" (Al-Baqara; 2:219)

The Bible speaks of alcohol similarly: "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: ... drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians; 5:19–21)

Religion, including both Christianity and Islam, is frequently the reasoning behind alcohol prohibition. Counties and cities in the U.S. are dry. These places are usually in predominantly Christian areas. 

A receipt for beer in Sumerian.

A receipt for beer in Sumerian.

Origins of Beer

It is interesting, then, that the first known instances of beer appear in Iran in 7000 BCE. We know beer was in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) by 6000 BCE, China by 5000 BCE, and Europe by 3000 BCE. Some determinations are based on residue analyses of pottery. Others are based on depictions and recipes from these civilizations. Sumeria, a civilization in Mesopotamia, honored Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing. Because she was female, the majority of brewers were women. Later in the region, the Bablylonian Code of Hammurabi (1754 BCE) refers to beer.

A 19th century cartoon in favor of the temperance movement.

A 19th century cartoon in favor of the temperance movement.

Beer in the Old World

The Old World refers to Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Ancient Rome, wine replaced beer in popularity, though beer was not forgotten. It was simply relegated to lower classes. In Medieval Europe, beer was a drink for all classes. It was during this time that the beneficial addition of hops was discovered. It was noted by a Frankish Abbot (head of a monastery) in his writings in the 9th century. Indeed, beer wasn’t wholly disdained by religious Christians at this point in time.

Wine continued to be a more popular drink in Southern Europe due to its abundant grape production. However, beer was more popular in the working class.

Chicha Morada

Chicha Morada

Beer in the New World

The Americas were not left out of discovering the enjoyable effects of fermented grains. In the New World, however, it was usually a combination of fermented grains and corn to create chicha. Chicha was in the stomachs of people from Mesoamerica to South America. They offered it to gods and their ancestors like many civilizations across the ocean.

We know a lot about Incan chicha consumption. In the capital of Cuzco, the king poured chicha into a bowl at the “navel of the universe” to feed the sun god. Human sacrifices were rubbed with the dregs of chicha, then tube-fed more chicha through a hole in the ground as they were buried alive.

Disposal of liquor during Prohibition.

Disposal of liquor during Prohibition.


Alcohol was banned in the United States from 1920-1933 by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. This legislation was pushed by the “drys” (pro-prohibitionists). The drys were predominately Evangelical Protestants in the South. They believed that alcohol was the source of many evils befalling the United States in the early 20th century. However, this outlook was not popular among the general American public, who found many ways around the law.

The amendment banned the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol, but not consumption. Many people stockpiled alcohol prior to the act going into effect. During this time, physicians and pharmacists prescribed alcohol for medicinal purposes. They fought with the government to allow medicinal alcohol. Within six months, the government issued 72,000 prescription alcohol licenses to doctors and pharmacists. Even if you didn’t stockpile alcohol or get a prescription, there were other ways to get alcohol. There were speakeasies, moonshiners, and even your local grocery. Grape juice fermented into wine with 12% alcohol content after 60 days. There were no restrictions on grape juice.

Unfortunately, the laws unfairly targeted the working class. In the beginning, the working class was unable to amass the same stockpiles as the wealthy. When enforcement of the laws began, the working class was penalized more harshly in comparison to their upper class counterparts. More often, they were subject to raids and arrests.

The 18th Amendment was later repealed by the 21st Amendment. However, states, counties, and cities were allowed to create their own prohibition laws. Mississippi was the last dry state, repealing the law in 1966. Still today, there are dry counties and municipalities. 


Do you love beer and wine? Then you should toddle on down to the Brew-Ha-Ha at the Museum Center at 5ive Points! Get your tickets here: