Academic journal article Manitoba History

To Brew or Not to Brew: A Brief History of Beer in Canada

Academic journal article Manitoba History

To Brew or Not to Brew: A Brief History of Beer in Canada

Article excerpt

"The story of beer is the story of Canada" (1)

Beer has been a significant element in human history, including the history of Canada. Defined generally as an alcoholic beverage made from a malted grain (usually barley), water, possibly a herb or spice for flavour such as hops, the whole being fermented with yeast, beer has been brewed for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence abounds--hieroglyphics, statuettes, written records--illustrating the human occupation of making beer going back six to nine thousand years. (2) Brewing was arguably one of the first scientific endeavours. (3) Indeed, brewing is widely regarded as both an art and a science. (4)

Although certainly not accepted wisdom, an argument can be made that the civilisation of man is itself related to the production of beer. (5) The argument goes something like this: the production of beer requires the input of some grain, such as barley. Barley grew naturally in the Fertile Crescent, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Once beer was established as a desirable drink, it became necessary to cultivate the basic raw materials to ensure an adequate supply. Furthermore, given the influence of annual variations in the local climate, and their impact on crop growth and development, it became important to devise the calendar to help regulate barley production. Supporting this line of thought, barley is known to have been cultivated in Mesopotamia at least 4000 years ago; coincidentally (or not!) Sumerians and Mesopotamians were also the first people known to have made beer. The shift from hunter-gatherer to cultivator could therefore conceivably have taken place to serve the needs not of food production, but of beer production. (6)

Whether this is an accurate account or not, it is now evident that all the great civilisations in human history brewed some beverage that bears a relation to beer, including Scottish, Irish, English, Norse, Egyptian, Aztec, Chinese, and virtually every other. This includes a tremendous variety of distinct types of beer, although they all share the basic defining characteristics described above. In some cases, it was shrouded in mystery, tied to religious beliefs and practices--in Sumeria, for example, Ninkasi was the goddess of beer. (7) The Greeks and Romans called beer "cerevisia" (similar to the Spanish "cervesa", alternatively spelled "cerveza," still in use), derived from "Ceres", the Roman goddess of agriculture, and "vis," Latin for strength. (8) In English speaking societies, brewers in the past have referred to yeast as "God-is-good," (9) a reflection of their reverence for the mysterious process that produced their drink, and in Medieval Europe, brewing was largely the domain of monastic orders. (10) On the other hand, brewing was a practical response to the poor quality of accessible water supplies, though the reasons for beer's relative safety remained a mystery until more recently. (11) Indeed, Arnold, the patron saint of brewing, was known for promoting beer as a relatively safe drink in comparison to unclean water. (12) In addition, archaeologists have proposed that beer was a nourishing beverage that may well have been a significant component of workers' diets in ancient times as they toiled long hours in the desert heat. (13) While categorized as beer on the basis of the basic characteristics of their production process and ingredients, the beers brewed in ancient times would probably be unrecognizable as beer to the modern consumer. The drink gradually evolved over time to become the beverage so popular today.

Modern beer--that is, beer made from malted grain rather than bread, more or less by the techniques that continue to be practised today, according to recipes similar to those used today--was developed in the 1800s, principally in Germany and Austria (lagers and wheat beers) and England and Ireland (ale and stout), but also in other parts of Europe. Its transplantation to North America followed the movement of communities of Germans to the United States and British to Canada. …

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