History According to Beer

Atilla Kefeli via Flickr

On Saturday, I visited "Beer Planet," as the Smithsonian Resident Associates invitingly titled their latest program at DC's Brickskeller. Captained by Horst Dornbusch, a crew of about 100 boldly trekked through a global history of beer that featured 13 tastings.

Actually, I think the title was a bit overzealous. The tasting menu was divided into four categories: Germany, Belgium, British Isles, and North America (Maryland and Maine). Beer...Planet, you say? Well, I guess "Beers of the North Atlantic" doesn't sound quite as cool.

Dornbusch, an engaging speaker who epitomizes the term "beer nerd," attempted to cram a college course's worth of world history into four hours. I groaned and settled in for a long ride when his first Powerpoint slide asked: "How long has homo sapiens been on this earth?" But somehow, we made it rather quickly through evolution, the dawn of civilization, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians, all while still sipping our first beer, a gentle, malty ale called "Old Brown Dog" from New Hampshire's Smuttynose Brewing Co. (Not clear what the connection was between the beer and the topic at that point; other than the word "old.")

No one's sure exactly when beer was invented—it was referenced as early as the 6th century B.C. in Sumeria—or how. Dornbusch's personal theory, that beer was invented by accident during bread-making, goes something like this: One day, someone was making bread outdoors when their work was interrupted by a big rainstorm. They ran for shelter and forgot about the dough for a day or two, then came back to discover a soupy, fermenting liquid in the bowl. They tried it, got tipsy, and said, "hey, this is good."

Eh, that seems like a bit of a stretch, but as I don't have a better theory to offer, we'll go with it. Dornbusch says brewing spread to Egypt and continued to grow until Cleopatra instated a beer tax (at this, a rumble of "booooo" went around the room—the tasting seemed to be taking effect) and declined drastically after Arab conquest of the region in the 7th century, since Islamic laws proscribe drinking alcohol.

But while beer's popularity waned in the Middle East, it was gaining ground in northern Europe. People there somehow figured out brewing (perhaps via another soggy-bread epiphany) by at least 800 B.C., based on beer residues in a Celtic amphora found in modern Bavaria. Dornbusch says the Romans were the first to invent the modern brewing process—involving malting and mashing—based on the ruins of a 179 A.D. brewery discovered in a Roman settlement near what is now Regensburg, Germany.

For this portion of the tasting, we started with a Hefeweizen from Weihenstephan, which claims to be the world's oldest continually operating brewery, founded in 1040 A.D. by Benedictine monks. I've been a fan of this beer since I lived in Germany a few years ago, so I was happy to taste it again; there's a spicy, sweet quality to it reminiscent of banana bread. Then we moved onto a Jever Pilsener—crisp and refreshing, but unspectacular—and a Reissdorf Kölsch, a pleasant, light-bodied brew which Dornbusch compared to a British pale ale.

In the early years, German beer was flavored with whatever was available to cover up its rank taste in warmer months: herbs, bark, mushrooms, or even chicken blood and bile! In 1516, Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV issued the now-famous edict restricting the ingredients of beer to barley, hops and water. For the past century this edict has been commonly referred to as the Reinheitsgebot, or "purity law," which irks Dornbusch. ("Ninety-five percent of it was about price fixing; this was no 'purity law!'" he told us, pointing out that it excludes wheat and even yeast, which hadn't been discovered yet.)

Eventually we moved on to Belgium, whose more anti-authoritarian culture is reflected in its more inventive and eccentric beers. I was sure I'd find my favorite in this country, and I was right...sort of. The beer I liked best—a dark red ale called Ommegang—is named for a Belgian festival, inspired by Belgian Trappist ales and even made with Belgian yeast, but the brewery is actually in Cooperstown, New York. Ommegang's spiced-fruit flavor reminded me of the "drunken fig preserves" I made a few months ago, and I imagine a bottle of it would disappear from my fridge even more quickly than those did! Same goes for the two true Belgians we tasted: Saison Dupont, a bottle-conditioned farmhouse ale with coriander and orange notes, and Liefmans Kriek, a cherry lambic that tastes like fruitcake (in a good way).

In Great Britain, archaeological evidence suggests that fermented beverages date back to Neolithic times, and brewing became an industry during the Roman occupation. Ale was drunk widely in medieval Britain (hey, it was safer than water), and hops had become part of the brewing process by the 16th century.

Although not as exciting as the Belgians, the two British ales we tasted (Fuller's ESB, and Boddington's Mild) were highly drinkable, and the O'Hara's Irish Stout from Carlow Brewing was every bit as good as Guinness, my first love in terms of beer.

Finally, we landed (tipsily) in North America, where we tried two brews from nearby Maryland: Flying Dog Double Dog, an "insanely hopped" IPA which I found too bitter too drink, and Clipper City's Great Pumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale, which tasted like, well, pumpkin pie that someone spilled beer on. The real star of the show was the Maine-brewed Allagash Curieux Tripel Ale, which had hints of coconut, bourbon and vanilla in it after aging for two months in Jim Beam barrels.

If you could plot a trip to your own "Beer Planet," what countries would your tastebuds pull you toward?

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