Everything you need to know about beer

3 Jun 2020

Alcohol gifts Food + Drink Summer

You might be partial to knocking back a few pints of real ale, or perhaps you’re a craft beer aficionado, but how much do you really know about your drink?

A foaming pint of real ale or a chilled, hoppy glass of IPA in a beer garden; beer is a huge part of British culture. We’ve put together an ultimate guide to tell you everything you need to know about beer. 

Who invented beer?

It may be a British classic, but the first brewed beer-like drink was most likely drunk thousands of miles away from our green and pleasant lands. Although it is almost impossible to work out when the first beer was produced, it was likely after humans started to settle and develop cereal agriculture.

As tribes settled down and started relying on staple crops such as barley, rice, wheat and maize, it is possible that they stumbled upon the fermentation process, and realised that it could produce an alcoholic drink.

The first evidence of ale production

According to History Magazine, although we were drinking beer for thousands of years before this, the first written recipe for beer dates back around 5000 years to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia, where modern-day Iraq now stands. Archaeologists have found sticky beer residue in ceramic pots dating back to 3400 BC, and the Sumerians even had a goddess of beer named Ninkasi.

In fact, according to the beer historian Jane Peyton, there is evidence that women started brewing the liquid around 7000 years ago, mixing cereals and herbs with water to create a nutritious drink. But, as it fermented in a spontaneous manner and created alcohol, it became some of the first iterations of “beer”. However, this was a sweet and malty alcoholic drink, and would have tasted very different to the beers we drink today.

According to the British Beer and Pub Association, Neolithic farmers from Orkney added henbane, hemlock and deadly nightshade, which are deadly in large quantities but would have given the drinker powerful hallucinations if consumed in moderation.

wheat crop growing for beer brewing

Bringing hops in the to mix

During the Middle Ages, beer production became more widespread and an important ingredient was added; hops. Hops are bitter flowers that, when added to the brewing process, give beer the characteristic flavour that balances out the sweetness of the malt.

Beer and Brewing magazine states that it was Abbess Hildegarde de Bingen who first added hops into the brew at the Benedictine Convent in Germany, during the 12th century. The Abbess wrote that hops gave preservative qualities to beer, and studied the effects of hops and barley on the human body.

As the Middle Ages wore on, more and more breweries appeared, both in monasteries and secular establishments, growing both the beer-making tradition and inventing different flavours and beer types.

Beer in the New World

Before European contact, both Native Americans and civilizations in Latin America had their own versions of alcohol that were brewed using maize or plants. However, it was only after the European colonists arrived in the late 15th century that they were introduced to a hopped version of beer, as well as grain spirits such as whisky and moonshine.

In the United States, the majority of beer available was heavily influenced by British beer styles, but as European immigration grew, they were also introduced to Pilsens and other Germanic style beers.

Demand grew exponentially, until there were an estimated 2000 small breweries in the US by the 1900s, but this growth suffered a massive blow when Prohibition – where the consumption of alcohol was illegal – began in 1920. Even after it was repealed in 1933, the Great Depression meant people didn’t have money to buy beer, so only a few hundred breweries survived, and those that did (like Budweiser) mass-produced their beer to make it as cheap as possible.

no alcohol from ban on beer after prohibition in America

It was only around the 1980s that restrictions on selling alcohol on brewery premises were relaxed and small artisan breweries again started gaining popularity; there are now over 7500 breweries in the US alone.

Different types of beer; from IPAs to Pilsners

In Europe, there were originally two separate hubs of beer brewing; Belgium and Britain.

Traditional Belgian beers are often still attributed to the monastery where they were created, and are more likely to have higher levels of alcohol; it’s not unheard of to drink bottles of 8-9% beer. Dark dubbels, golden tripels and cloudy wheat beers grew alongside lambics, a type of sour and refreshing beer that was often mixed with fruit.

Belgian beers and British ales

In Britain, pale ales, porters and stouts were classic offerings in pubs across the country, and were such an integral part of life that soldiers were issued daily beer rations. During the Victorian era when the British Empire stretched across vast swathes of the globe, beer was delivered to soldiers and expats as far afield as the Falklands and India.

However, this meant beer had to survive these long journeys, and many struggled to keep beer from going off. It was this dilemma that sparked the creation of one of our most popular beers today; the IPA, or India Pale Ale. Brewers realised that, by increasing the alcohol percentage and the amount of hops used in the process (both natural preservatives), the beer would last longer and arrive unharmed in the tropical climes of British overseas territories.

Beer today

Beer has come a long way from its malty origins, but it is still one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in the world. Over the last couple of decades, hundreds of craft breweries have been founded in the UK, with a 64% rise from 2013 to 2017. This newfound love of small-batch craft beer from microbreweries has incited an interest in what ingredients you need to make beer, and how the process affects the flavour. Breweries are also becoming more inventive with the ingredients they add to their beer.

IPAs infused with grapefruit, beer using peppermint instead of hops, and even banana-flavoured beer are all on the market today – we even sell our own Cocoa Beer, infused with the shells of cocoa beans to create a wonderfully malty and bitter taste.

With so many small breweries making beer, why can’t you? Beer making is a fairly simple process, as it only has four or five ingredients, many people have started trying to make beer at home.

brewing beer and pulling beer pints

What is beer made from?

  • Hops. There are many different types of hops, and they add the bitterness in beer, as well as being used as aromatics. British hops have less bitter, more traditional flavours, whereas New World hops (often grown in New Zealand and the US) are newer and more varied, sometimes adding citrus or floral aromas.
  • Grains (often malted barley). The malt extract taken from processing the grains creates the sweetness in the beer that balances out the bitterness in the hops. It also provides the natural sugars that serve as food for the yeast – without barley, you would have no fizz in your beer and no head at the top of your glass.
  • Yeast. This is the microorganism that is responsible for the fermentation process in beer, creating those bubbles and making it alcoholic.
  • Water. Breweries look for pure, clean, filtered water to make their beer, as you don’t want your beer to have an aftertaste of chlorine or other contaminants that could be present in tap water.

Making beer at home with a brewing kit

For those who aren’t sure whether they want to invest in a lot of new equipment, or just want to try the beer-making process to see if it works for them, a beer-brewing kit is a good idea. One kit usually makes around 40 pints, and should contain around three kilos of malt extract. You’ll still need to buy a 30-litre bucket, a pressure barrel with a pressure release valve, a siphon, a paddle for mixing and steriliser to make sure all your equipment is clean before using.

Just like when you’re making bread, you’ll need a warm space in your home that averages about 27-30℃ during the fermentation process. When the beer has finished brewing though, you want a cool place to store it in, preferably around 12-14℃. This is the optimal temperature for drinking real ale, and the temperature a pub cellar will generally be kept at.

selection of beer and ale and IPA

Making beer from scratch

If you want to make beer from scratch you’ll have to make your own malt extract, instead of relying on a ready-made one which you get in a home-brewing kit. This is a complex procedure of milling and mashing malt, separating the wort from the grains, and boiling the mixture.

To make a thicker liquid ready to brew with, vacuum evaporation is used, as reducing the mixture with heat would take too long and use too much energy. This also requires more equipment than a brewing kit; so if it’s your first time, we recommend using a kit to home your own beer.

hotel chocolat cocoa beer dark ale

If all this sounds like much too much effort and you’d rather sit in your garden with an ice cold beer, then we’ve done the brewing for you! Unable to leave cocoa out of any of our recipes, we’ve mixed cocoa shells with our malted barley to create a rounded, not-too-dark porter style ale with undertones of bitter chocolate. Don’t take our word for it – our Cocoa Beer won a Taste Award for its unique but delicious flavour.

Now that you’ve read all there is to know about beer, grab a bottle, sit back and relax – after all, reading can be thirsty work!