Beer has been around since the beginning of civilization—in fact, it’s likely that beer had something to do with civilization getting started in the first place. Beer’s long story is a heady brew, but aficionados the world over agree that a cold mug of suds can strongly influence politics, history, art and, perhaps especially, the sense and sensibleness of individual drinkers. Go ahead, take a sip.
Nobody knows definitively who brewed the world’s first beer, but the milestone probably happened in Mesopotamia (located mostly in present-day Iraq). History textbooks will tell you Mesopotamia was the birthplace of civilization, where systematized agriculture led to the world’s first city-states and the development of written language. What those textbooks don’t say is that human beings may have left behind their nomadic, hunting-and-gathering ways and started growing cereal crops at permanent settlements about 10,000 years ago mainly to guarantee themselves a steady supply of beer.
For ancient Mesopotamians, brewing was as important as baking. Both techniques convert raw, indigestible grain into nourishing, carbohydrate-rich foods. Mesopotamian literature praises beer as a wondrous gift from the gods that turned untamed, semi-human animals into civilized human beings. Enkidu, a character from the Epic of Gilgamesh, was the first character in literature to wear beer goggles. This “wild man” began to understand what it meant to be human when he bedded a prostitute and then ate the food and drank the seven jugs of beer that some convenient shepherds laid before him. After the sex, the victuals and especially the beer, he “became expansive and sang with joy!”
Two decades ago, University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor Solomon Katz, who copublished an important article positing that beer rather than bread might have been behind the development of agriculture, teamed up with craft brewer Fritz Maytag of Anchor Steam and re-created the beer “recipe” found in a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian ode to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi. Katz encouraged the archaeologists at Penn’s museum to allow his colleague Patrick McGovern and other molecular archaeologists to analyze the residues in ancient cooking pots, storage jugs, drinking jars and other vessels. McGovern, whose scholarly work falls under the rubric of organic archaeology, has identified the ingredients in residues from various parts of the ancient world. He teamed with Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, to re-create the recipes for some of the fermented beverages of extreme antiquity he had analyzed. The resulting age-old brews are Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series, the most successful of which is the Midas Touch Golden Elixir, whose basic recipe of honey, muscat grapes and saffron hails from Gordion—home of the legendary king Midas. Dogfish Head Brewery resurrected Midas’s “elixir” by taking residues from actual vessels found at the Gordion site in Turkey.
Sam Calagione’s Dogfish Head Brewery began its life in 1995 as a brewpub in the Delaware seaside resort of Rehoboth Beach. By 2002 the company had grown so successful that it opened a modern, technologically sophisticated brewery in the nearby town of Milton, but its brewpubs—the one in Rehoboth and three newer ones in the Washington, DC, suburbs—have remained central to its business. Menus at the Dogfish Head brewpubs weigh heavily toward the comfort foods Americans tend to eat with beer, such as chicken wings, pizza, burgers and fish-and-chips.
The mission of opening foodies’ eyes (and mouths) to beer’s true range of culinary possibilities has lately become part of Calagione’s portfolio. He has coauthored a book, He Said Beer, She Said Wine, with sommelier and wine educator Marnie Old, that argues beer is every bit as versatile a mealtime beverage as wine. He has also taken the brewpub concept into new gustatory territory: Calagione was part of the international team that developed a rooftop brewpub, with a menu by celebrity chef Mario Batali, for Eataly, the Italian-eatery complex that opened in New York City’s Flatiron district in 2010.
Just as industrial brewing has long played the globally dominant role in beer making, industrial agriculture and food processing have for decades dictated what people around the world eat. The success of the craft-brewing movement, which values wholesome, traditional ingredients, compares to that of the Slow Food movement, which places strong emphasis on eating nourishing, artisanal foodstuffs. Good “real” beer and good “real” food go together, and an ever-greater number of “beer chefs” work at the intersection of the craft-brewing and culinary worlds. Wisconsin chef Lucy Saunders, for example, has authored books on beer cookery and tirelessly promotes Midwestern brews.
Ironically, barley and hops are still mostly grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and organic beers remain relatively rare. Still, the number of beers made from organic ingredients is gradually rising—there’s even an annual organic brewers’ festival in Portland, Oregon. Among the participants is the New Belgium Brewery of Fort Collins, Colorado, whose Mothership Wit is an American organic take on the classic Belgian lambic. Even when they can’t produce organic beers, however, craft brewers often engage in sustainability initiatives, such as distributing their “spent” grain (left over after the mash) to local farmers to use as livestock feed.
The history of India pale ale (IPA) began in the 1700s on English country estates that brewed October beer, a “stock” or “keeping beer” with more alcohol and hops—both preservatives—than other ales. The recipe made its way to London brewer George Hodgson, who began making and selling it to the British East India Company, which needed a beer that could survive the six-month sea voyage from London to India. Not only did it not spoil, the beer improved during the long journey.
IPAs’ popularity dwindled after the 19th century, but in the past few decades American craft brewers jump-started a revival. Perhaps because of their proximity to the prime hop-growing areas of the Pacific Northwest, California beer makers such as Anderson Valley, Sierra Nevada and Stone all produce well-regarded IPAs. But the revival has spread across the country, and U.S. brewers now produce some 2,000 India pale ales. Relatively few hew to the historical English India pale ale style. Many are bolder, brasher and more potent; some double, triple and imperial India pale ales surpass 10 percent alcohol by volume, testing the limit of how bitter a beer can be while remaining potable.
All India pale ales are hoppy beers. Many are hopped at three discrete points in the beer-making process: Hops are added to the kettle near the beginning of the boil (to bitter the beer), then again near the end (to spice it) and yet again when the wort is transferred to the fermenting tank (to intensify the beer’s aroma). Sam Calagione decided to exploit the full spectrum of hops’ flavor potential by continuously hopping the brew kettle. He hand-built a large colander-like contraption, filled it with hop pellets and shook it above the kettle nonstop. The device—dubbed Sir Hops Alot—looked primitive, but the technique worked.
Sir Hops Alot has since been retired, replaced by a higher-tech apparatus, but the method remains the same, resulting in Dogfish Head’s 60-Minute, 90-Minute and 120-Minute IPAs—each name denoting the amount of time the beer has spent in the kettle. Respectively, these three beers are of increasing alcoholic strength, with the 120-Minute IPA, at 18 percent alcohol by volume, truly qualifying as a monster of a beer. It may be the strongest and hoppiest IPA in the world—a definite badge of honor among the “hopheads” addicted to the IPA style.