What is beer?

woman at beer barrel, ancient Egypt

Though “beer” and its cognates or derivatives in many other languages have come to refer rather narrowly to northern European beverages fermented from malted grains (barley, wheat, rye), among anthropologists it is used much more widely for any beverage where the majority of the alcohol derives from a grain or starchy vegetable. This is the sense in which I use it too, though so far my own experiments haven’t gone too far beyond barley and wheat. Wine-making involves fermenting sugars that are already present in fruit; brewing is a more complex art in which starches must first be converted to sugars and then fermented, with or without first sprouting (malting) them. The sorghum and millet beers of Africa are clearly close cousins of European beers and ales, but Chinese jiu and Japanese sake are in the family, too — nothing but snobbery has persuaded generations of translators to call them “rice wine.” Undistilled poteen (potato beer) and chicha or tesguino (maize beer), fermented beverages made from manioc/cassava, agave and quinoa — all beers.

As with all things cultural, though, there’s still plenty of room for fuzziness. Most contemporary American homebrewers recognize a close kinship between brewing and making mead, based in part on a knowledge of ancient and pre-modern Eurasian brewing traditions in which varying proportions of honey and malted grain would be used depending on preference and availability. In parts of southern Britain, braggot was still made at farmstead breweries through the 19th century, and has been revived at various American microbreweries today. (Here’s a recipe I came up with for yarrow gruit braggot.)

Then there is the fuzziness that resulted from traditional American homebrewing practices: thanks to the scarcity of malted grains in the colonial period and the easy availability of sugar, it became common to refer to all kinds of undistilled beverages made with cane sugar or molasses as beer. (Here’s a “beer” I made with nothing but cane sugar. Much to my surprise, the beer yeast did the job, and the end result tasted very much like a spiced, light beer.) Cider was the preferred drink up through the 19th century, but apples weren’t always at hand. And incidentally, the word “beer” may in fact derive from words that referred to cider or perry:

It is clear from Old English and Old Norse sources that ale (Old English ealu, Old Norse öl) was produced from malted grain. However, literary analysis shows that Old English beor and Old Norse björr are terms used for sweet alcoholic beverages. Until the last ten years or so, philologists thought that beor and björr were derived from the word for barley, and it is only recently that it was realized that the term almost certainly referred to cider (whether from apples or pears) during the Viking Age (Hagen pp. 205-206; Roesdahl, p. 120).

“To sow further confusion,” adds the Viking Answer Lady, “in the Eddaic poem Alvíssmál verses 34 and 35, a variety of Old Norse terms related to fermented beverages appear and are implied to be synonyms,” and she quotes a fusty old translation:

Thórr said:
Tell me, Alvís – for all wights’ fate
I deem that, dwarf, thou knowest –
how the ale is hight, which is brewed by men,
in all the worlds so wide?

Alvíss said:
‘Tis hight öl (ale) among men; among Aesir bjórr (cider);
the Vanir call it veig (strong drink),
hreinalög (clear-brew), the giants; mjöð (mead), the Hel-Wights;
the sons of Suttung call it sumbel (ale-gathering).

At this point, I’m tempted to give up and say about beer what I usually say about poetry: if that’s what its maker and its consumers call it, that’s what it is! I’m definitely not interested in purity — in the sense of the Reinheitsgebot — where brewing is concerned, so why worry about purity in definition? I think craft brewers need to keep their minds as open as possible. And I think Sam Calagione, head brewer at Dogfish Head, has the right idea:

You might not know it, but medieval Germans nearly ruined beer forever.

In 1516, a purity law called the Reinheitsgebot mandated that beer be made with only water, hops and barley. (The role of yeast hadn’t yet been discovered.) Thanks to that bit of brewing censorship and the bastardized recipes of modern brewing conglomerates, beer drinkers have been subjected to bland lager for a long, long time.

In 1995, Dogfish Head broke the shackles and started brewing extreme, exotic, extraordinary beers, and we’ve been thumbing our noses at the Reinheitsgebot ever since. We experimented with whatever ingredients we found in our brewpub pantry, things like chicory, licorice root, maple syrup, honey, pumpkin, raisins and brown sugar. People called us freaks, but we loved those full-flavored beers and so did our customers, so we stuck to our guns.

And then they really went crazy (click through to read the rest). So here’s to creative brewing! Cheers.

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