Beer is ubiquitous in this world. The vast majority of countries — large, small and in-between — brew and drink it in large quantities, reflecting its status as an integral part of many local cultures. In more than a few nations, including (but not limited to) Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, beer is a culture unto itself.
Due to the importance of beer to human society, tracing its origins and development in some ways parallels the history of the world. Also, the seriousness with which the most passionate brewers and drinkers take beer means that as you examine its past, you stumble across more than a few fascinating insights about invention, classification and IP.
Beer in antiquity: Poems, laws, grains and… spices?
Scholars and enthusiasts have generally cited the Sumerian civilization of ancient Mesopotamia as the drink’s provenance, where evidence of its production in the region dates back to about 5000 BCE. It has also been traced to ancient China: A 2016 research report examining ingredients and artifacts at an archaeological dig in Shaanxi Province concluded that the materials were most likely the remnants of a brewery dated to approximately 3000 BCE.
Mesopotamia’s significance in beer history cannot be overstated. For one thing, the world’s oldest existing paycheck, a cuneiform document from around 5000 BCE found in ruins of the Sumerian city of Uruk, was a certificate redeemable for beer. This reflects the trend for some of civilization’s oldest writings to pertain to the drink, as seen in the Hymn to Ninkasi, a recipe for beer recorded in 1800 BCE that is believed to date back orally to at least 3000 BCE. When the Babylonians conquered the region, they adopted the Sumerians’ devotion to beer. For instance, the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal text composed around 1750 BCE, contains specifications regarding beer, including one stating that a tavern-keeper could be killed for refusing to accept grain of equal value as payment for a drink.
Throughout history, beer kept cropping up in many cultures. It was essential to the Egyptians, Germans, Britons and Celts through the final years before the Common Era and beyond, but was mostly disdained by the Greeks and Romans, who preferred wine. Though beer remained popular in southern Europe throughout the early Middle Ages, it did so more among the working class and poor than society as a whole. A myth even developed stating that these social classes regularly drank beer instead of water because the latter was unsafe. This has been disproven in various ways, including through documented accounts by the period’s physicians, but there is reason to believe that people preferred alcoholic beverages to water during that time.
The hop revolution and the purity law
Beer of the ancient world shared basic ingredients with today’s brews, like barley and various types of wheat. It also often contained herbs the modern beer drinker would find surprising, including oregano, thyme, rosemary, mugwort and even poppy or hemp. (In other words, more than a few ancient beers were hallucinogenic.)
Notably missing from that list are hops, which are essential to modern brewers as a preservative, flavoring agent and antimicrobial. The flowers of the hop plant did not show up in a beer until the 9th century and were not at all common until the 13th, mostly appearing in monastic brews. After that time, they began to displace their predecessor, gruit, a mixture of herbs including sweet gale, mugwort, ground ivy and others, though unhopped ales remained dominant in England for some time.
It will most likely come as little surprise that Germany produces about one-third of the world’s hops, most of it in the famous Hallertau region in Bavaria, given the importance of beer to German culture. Germany has also given us one of the best-known “purity laws,” establishing what could and could not be called “beer.” The 1516 Reinheitsgebot specified that only “hops, water and barley” could be used to make beer. Anyone who broke this law by selling beer with other ingredients would have their brew confiscated. (Though used in the brewing process, yeast would not be added to the Reinheitsgebot’s list until the 19th century as it was not regarded as an ingredient per se.)
Diversification and innovation
In time, logistical necessity and cost-cutting measures brought about tectonic shifts in the development of beer — and a few lessons in the importance of protecting IP!
Porter and stout, dark ales made with roasted barley, emerged in England and Ireland in the 18th century. They were incredibly popular among the working class for being cheaper and more richly flavored than the other beers readily available to them. The terms were used interchangeably for much of both beers’ early history, with the main difference being the latter’s greater strength. A London brewer named Ralph Harwood was often credited with the 1722 invention of porter, but this claim is increasingly disputed. Meanwhile, it remains unclear who invented stout, though Arthur Guinness is undoubtedly responsible for popularizing the variety with the dry stout that bears his name.
India pale ale (IPA) has a similarly strange backstory: George Hodgson of London’s Bow Brewery was once widely believed to be the inventor of IPA, but this, too, is not precisely true, according to renowned beer historian Martyn Cornell. What is known for certain is that Hodgson brewed a bitter ale that was bought in large quantities during the 1790s by merchant ship captains for transport to India. They bought from him because Bow Brewery was close to where they docked and because he allowed them to make purchases on credit. It is reasonably likely that Hodgson added extra hops to this beer before shipping it, but there is no proof of that. Even if he did, London brewers had used similar tactics since the 1760s. Hodgson’s brew matured well in casks during its journey to India, which led to its well-liked flavor, but this seems to be just a case of good fortune.
The beer was quite a success on the relatively small Indian market, though it was not named IPA until 1829, and Hodgson did not come up with it. In fact, the brewer was more focused on unscrupulously attempting to monopolize the market, which led him to lose control of it. Hogdson’s competitors, notably Bass, either adapted his methods or adopted them outright for other beers (e.g., Guinness’s Foreign Extra Stout). Had he indeed developed a revolutionary process, it would have behooved him to try to protect it by securing IP rights, but he never attempted to do so.
IPA would fizzle out somewhat as the British Empire began to crumble, but it had a dramatic resurgence in the late 20th century as a pivotal element of the American craft beer movement. It remains one of the most commonly drunk beer styles in the United States, United Kingdom and many other countries. The modern use of hops as one of beer’s defining taste notes — as opposed to a necessary preservative — and the ongoing development of new hop varieties has only strengthened the popularity of IPAs.
The branding of brews
In the modern beer landscape, there is a dramatic contrast between the sheer market force of the juggernaut brewers of pale or adjunct lagers and the resourcefulness of the world’s microbreweries.
The former stay in their top spots through a combination of being “too big to fail” and colossal marketing budgets: for the layman, it is often easier to differentiate these brands by their TV commercials than their taste. The latter, meanwhile, must rely on the creativity of their products and a more direct form of branding — their packaging, which continues to grow more distinct and colorful. (So much so that the bigger brands have attempted to poach it!) Craft breweries also have the beer aficionado aesthetic on their side, which brings in a relatively small, but consistent and dedicated consumer base.
The history of brewing is rich and varied, with many different countries having their unique styles. As the world’s thirst for beer continues to grow exponentially, competing brewers must fight tooth and nail for customers in liquor stores worldwide.
If your brewery has an unmistakable logo or revolutionary production process that sets you apart from the crowd, take action to get complete protection under IP law before someone else takes advantage of this opportunity! That is where our team at Dennemeyer comes into play – we want to help ensure that the heritage of great breweries is preserved long into the future and that their beers will continue to be enjoyed around the globe for generations to come.