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Beer—The Story of the Golden Beverage

Beer—The Story of the Golden Beverage

 Beer​—The Story of the Golden Beverage

By Awake! writer in the Czech Republic

WHAT is often the dream of a really thirsty man? In many lands, whether a laborer or a businessman, he may think of a glass of his favorite golden beverage. He may imagine the rich, white head of foam and the delicious bitter taste. He may then say to himself, ‘What I would give for a glass of cold beer!’

Beer is almost as old as mankind itself. For millenniums it has kept its popularity, and in many areas it has become an integral part of local culture. Sadly, especially in some European countries, beer has become a source of problems for those who overindulge in it. However, consumed in moderation, its unique qualities and flavor make drinking it quite enjoyable. Let us examine the history of this popular beverage.

How Far Back Does It Go?

As indicated by cuneiform tablets found in the territory of the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia, beer was available there as early as the third millennium B.C.E. During the same period, this beverage was also to be found on the tables of Babylonians and Egyptians. In Babylon, where 19 different types of beer were known, brewing was even regulated by laws included in the Code of Hammurabi. These standards defined, for example, the price of beer, and any breach of them was punishable by death. In ancient Egypt, brewing was widespread, and beer was a favorite beverage. Archaeological excavations there revealed the oldest written recipe for the brewing of beer.

The technology of brewing eventually found its way to Europe. Some Roman historians in the beginning of the Common Era mentioned that Celts, Germans, and other tribes enjoyed beer. The Vikings believed that even in Valhalla​—according to Nordic mythology, the hall where brave warriors went after death—​the men’s cups would overflow with beer.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the brewing of beer moved to the monasteries. European monks improved the technology of the process, using hops as a preservative. Industrialization in the 19th century brought in the mechanization of brewing and proved to be a milestone in the history of this popular drink. Then, some very important scientific discoveries took place.

 The French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur found that the yeast that caused the fermentation of beer consisted of living organisms. That discovery made more precise control of the conversion of sugar to alcohol possible. The Danish botanist Emil Christian Hansen became one of the greatest personages in the history of brewing. All his life he researched and classified different species of yeasts. Among other things, his research was concerned with cultivating a pure strain of brewer’s yeast. In this way, Hansen literally revolutionized the brewing industry.

But is brewing such a great challenge? It may sound unbelievable, but it really is. Let us briefly consider the secret behind a great-tasting glass of beer.

Before It Reaches Your Glass

Brewing technology changed considerably over the centuries and even today varies from brewery to brewery. But, in general, almost all beers contain four main ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast. The entire process of brewing can be divided into four steps: malting, preparation of the wort, fermentation, and maturation.

Malting. During this stage, barley is sorted, weighed, and purified of foreign matter. Afterward, it is steeped in water​—a necessity if the barley is to germinate. The germination takes between five and seven days at a temperature of about 58 degrees Fahrenheit [14°C]. The end product of this process is green malt, which is transported to special ovens for kilning, a drying procedure. The moisture in the green malt is reduced to between 2 and 5 percent to stop the germination. After kilning, the sprouts are removed from the malt, and the malt is milled. It is then ready for the next step.

Preparation of the wort. The milled malt is mixed with water to produce mash, which is then gradually heated. At certain temperatures the enzymes start to convert starches into simple sugars. This step lasts more than four hours and produces the wort, which is then filtered to remove impurities. Next comes the boiling process, which arrests the activity of enzymes. During the boiling, hops are added to the wort to provide the typical bitterness of beer. After some two hours of boiling, the wort is cooled to the required temperature.

Fermentation. This is probably the most important stage of the brewing process. Simple sugars contained in the wort are, by means of the yeast, converted to  alcohol and carbon dioxide. The duration, one week at the most, and the temperature of the process depend on the type of beer​—ale or lager—​being produced. The so-called green beer is then transferred into tanks in a lagering cellar to mature.

Maturation. During this stage, beer acquires its typical taste and aroma; released carbon dioxide also gives the beer its sparkle. Beer matures during a period that can range from three weeks to a few months, depending on the type of beer. Finally, the finished beer is packaged into casks or bottles and is ready to be sent out to its final destination​—perhaps eventually reaching your table! But which type of beer would you like to try?

The Beverage of Many Faces

The fact is, beers may differ considerably from one another. You can enjoy beer that is light or dark, sweet or bitter, as well as beer made from barley or from wheat. The taste of beer depends on many factors, including the quality of the water used, the type of malt, the technology employed, and the yeasts used in the process.

One of the most eminent beers is pilsner (or pils), a classic pale-colored lager. This type of beer is produced by hundreds of breweries all around the world. However, authentic pilsner is brewed only in the town of Plzeň, or Pilsen, located in the Czech Republic. The secret to its production lies not only in technology but also in the raw materials used​—soft water, high-quality malt, and the right type of brewer’s yeast.​—See the accompanying box.

Another excellent type of beer is weiss beer, a wheat beer that is especially popular in Germany. The  British specialties are porter and stout. Porter is a strong, top-fermented beer made from roasted malt, which gives this beverage a dark, rich color. Porter was first brewed in London in the 18th century. Originally, it was intended to be used as a “nourishing” beverage for hard workers, such as porters. Stout, a very dark and heavy beer​—made famous in Ireland and the world by the Guinness family—​is a variation of the traditional porter. You can experience either the English sweet stout, which usually contains lactose (milk sugar), or the Irish dry stout, which is bitter and has a higher alcohol content.

Another important factor for many who enjoy beer is how it is consumed, whether it comes from a bottle or a can or is drawn from a barrel. Americans tend to like their beer ice-cold. Others prefer it at room temperature or somewhat chilled and served directly from the barrels stored in the pub cellar.

Truly, beer is a beverage of many faces. By drinking it in moderation, you might gain some health benefits. In fact, it contains various important vitamins and minerals, such as riboflavin, folic acid, chromium, and zinc. According to some authorities, moderate beer drinking can help prevent heart disease and skin disorders. If you make a good choice from the brands and types available, and if you are balanced in your use of it, you may enjoy this delicious and refreshing drink. So the next time you sit before a glass of the golden beverage crowned with a head of white foam, recall its fascinating history!

[Box/Picture on page 13]

The Leading Actors

In times past, a large number of professions had a hand in the production of beer. Here are some of them.

Maltster​—the first actor in the drama of brewing. He was assigned to produce the malt from barley or wheat. He oversaw the germination of grain and the kilning of green malt. On his shoulders rested a weighty responsibility, since the taste of the beer produced depends considerably on the quality of the malt.

Brewer (shown above)​—the man in charge of boiling. First, he mixed the milled malt with water, and then, during the boiling, he added hops. The final product of his work was the wort.

Cellar master​—an experienced specialist who oversaw the fermentation of the beer in the tubs and its maturation in the lagering cellar. Afterward, he transferred the finished beer into smaller vessels.

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S laskavým svolením Pivovarského muzea v Plzni

[Box/Pictures on page 14]

Pilsner​—The Most Imitated Original

It all started in 1295. The king of Bohemia, Wenceslas II, founded the town of Plzeň, and shortly after that, he granted 260 of Plzeň’s burghers the right to brew beer. Initially the burghers brewed the beer in their houses and only in small amounts, but later they formed guilds and founded breweries. In time, however, the economy and culture in Bohemia declined, and this affected the brewing. Ignoring the approved technology and using their own recipes, the brewers often produced a distasteful brew that was not worthy to be called beer.

At that time, two types of beer were produced in Europe. Top-fermented beer was brewed, especially in Bohemia, while a bottom-fermented beer, of far better quality, was popular mainly in Bavaria. There was a huge gulf between the Bavarian lagers and the Plzeň beers.

An important turning point came in 1839. About 200 of Plzeň’s burghers decided to do something about the situation. They founded the Burgess Brewery, where only bottom-fermented, or Bavarian-style beer, was to be brewed. The famous brewer Josef Groll was called in from Bavaria. He immediately set to work to produce a typical Bavarian beer. The result was very different​—but also far better than he had anticipated. Groll’s experience coupled with fine local raw materials helped to produce a beer that took the world by storm. Why? Because of its unique taste, color, and aroma. However, the eminence of Plzeň’s beer also had its drawbacks. Many brewers, desiring to gain from this development, started to call their products pilsner. Pilsner thus became not only famous but also the most imitated of the golden beverages.


Josef Groll

Water tower of a Plzeň brewery

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S laskavým svolením Pivovarského muzea v Plzni

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Egyptian model depicting the preparation of bread and beer

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Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali-Museo Egizio-Torino

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Hops, malt, and a brewing house