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Larger quantities of beer foam than shown atop this glass caused a stir in when people received less than a (568 ml) of beer for the price of a pint.
Larger quantities of beer foam than shown atop this glass caused a stir in 1990s England when people received less than a pint (568 ml) of beer for the price of a pint.

Beer refers to any variety of alcoholic beverage produced by the fermentation of starchy material derived from grains. The production of beer and some other alcoholic beverages is often called brewing. Historically, beer was known to the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, and dates back at least as far as 4,000 BC, but these beers were absolutely different from today's Budweiser or Heineken. Because the ingredients used to make beer differ from place to place, beer characteristics (type, taste, and colour) vary widely.



The main ingredients of beer are water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. Other flavoring or sources of sugar, such as fruit or other grains, are called adjuncts, and are not uncommon.

  • Because beer is composed mainly of water, the source of the water and its characteristics have an important effect on the character of the beer. Many beer styles were influenced or even determined by the characteristics of the water in the region.
  • Among malts, barley malt is the most widely used owing to its high amylase enzyme content (which facilitates the breakdown of the starch into sugars), but other malted and unmalted grains are widely used, including wheat, rice, maize, oats, and rye.
  • Hops, a relatively recent addition to beer (see History, below), contribute a bitterness that balances the sweetness of the malt, and also have an antibiotic effect that favours the activity of brewer's yeast over less desirable microorganisms.
  • Yeast is used in a process called fermentation to metabolize the sugars extracted from the grains, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. The average beer contains 4–6% alcohol, although alcohol content can be as low as 2% and as high as 14%. There are three main kinds which are used (see Styles of beer, below): ale yeast, lager yeast, and wild yeasts.

Some brewers add clarifying agents to beer that are not required to be published as ingredients. Since these ingredients may include animal extracts, vegans and others concerned with the use or consumption of animal products may wish to contact the brewer for specific details of the filtration process. Isinglass finings are a common animal-derived clarifying agent, extracted from fish. Alternatively, Irish moss is a commonly used plant-based clarifying agent.

The brewing process

Though the process of brewing beer is complex and varies widely, the four basic stages are outlined below. Note that there is also generally a filtration step before and after each stage.

Mashing: In the first phase of brewing, the malted grains are ground and soaked in warm water in order to create a malt extract.
Boiling: Next, the extract is boiled along with any remaining ingredients (except the yeast) to create what is called the wort. The hops are placed in bags and brewed like tea, or a hop extract is added.
Fermentation: The yeast is added and the beer is allowed to sit for at least a week while it undergoes the process of fermentation. Like most fermented drinks, the beer may be allowed a second fermentation, called conditioning, which gives the beer a more complex taste.
Packaging: At this point, the beer contains all of its alcohol, but not very much carbonation. The brewer has a number of ways of getting the beer to its final state, such as adding carbonation directly as CO2 gas and kegging the beer, or adding extra sugar and bottling in order to allow the yeast to naturally create carbonation.


This column of beer and taps behind dispense beer for bartenders to serve patrons in .
This column of beer and taps behind dispense beer for bartenders to serve bar patrons in Brussels.

Almost any sugar or starch-containing food can naturally undergo fermentation, and so it is likely that beer-like beverages were independently invented in cultures throughout the world. In Mesopotamia, the oldest evidence of beer is on a 6000-year-old Sumerian tablet which shows people drinking a beverage through reed straws from a communal bowl. Beer is also mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a 3900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring the brewing goddess Ninkasi contains the oldest surviving beer recipe, describing the production of beer from barley via bread. Beer became vital to all the grain-growing civilizations of classical antiquity, especially in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Beer was important to early Romans, but during Republican times wine displaced beer as the preferred alcoholic beverage, and beer became considered a beverage fit only for barbarians. Tacitus wrote disparagingly of the beer brewed by the Germanic peoples of his day.

Most beers until relatively recent times were what we would now call ales. Lagers were discovered by accident in the sixteenth century when beer was stored in cool caverns for long periods; they have since largely outpaced ales in volume. (See below for the distinction.) The use of hops for bittering and preservation is a relatively recent addition. Prior to the use of hops, in the Middle Ages many other mixture of herbs were often employed in beer (often this mixture of herbs is referred to as gruit ). Hops were cultivated in France as early as the 800s. The oldest surviving written record of the use of hops in beer is in 1067 by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen: "If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops." In 15th century England, an unhopped beer would have been known as an ale, while the use of hops would make it a beer. Hopped beer was imported to England (from the Netherlands) as early as 1400 in Winchester and hops were being planted on the island by 1428. The popularity of hops was at first mixed -- The Brewers Company of London went so far as to state "no hops, herbs, or other like thing be put into any ale or liquore wherof ale shall be made — but only liquor (water), malt, and yeast." However, by the 16th century, "ale" had come to refer to any strong beer, and all ale and beer were hopped.

Beer largely remained a homemaker's activity in medieval times. By the time the 14th and 15th century rolled around, beermaking was gradually changing from a family-oriented activity to an artisian one, with pubs and monasteries brewing their own beer for mass consumption.

With the invention of the steam engine in 1765, industrialization of beer became a reality. Further innovations in the brewing process came about with the introduction of the thermometer and hydrometer in the 19th century (allowing brewmasters to increase efficiency and attenuation). Prior to the late 18th century, malt was primarily wood roasted (contributing a darker color and smoked flavor); the usage of coal lightened beer color and eliminated the smoke flavor for all but a handful of styles. The invention of the drum roaster in 1817 by Daniel Wheeler allowed for the creation of very dark, roasted malts, contributing to the flavor of porters and stouts. The discovery of yeast's role in fermentation in 1857 by Louis Pasteur gave brewmasters methods to prevent the souring of beer by undesireable microorganisms.

In 1953, New Zealander Morton W Coutts developed the technique of continuous fermentation. Morton patented his process which revolutionized the industry by reducing a four-month long brewing process to less than 24 hours [1]. His process is still used by many of the world’s major breweries today, including Guinness.

In 1516, the duchy of Bavaria adopted the Reinheitsgebot, perhaps the oldest food regulation still being used. The Reinheitsgebot ordered that the ingredients of beer be restricted to water, barley, and hops (with yeast added after Louis Pasteur's discovery). The law soon spread throughout Germany, and has since been updated to reflect modern trends in beer brewing. To this day, the Reinheitsgebot is (controversially) considered a mark of purity in beers.


Of the two terms, ale is the elder in English. It comes directly from the proto-Indo European root *alu-, through Germanic *aluth-[2]. Beer, on the other hand, is considered to come from the Latin bibere (to drink)[3]. Old English sources distinguish between "ale" and "beer" but do not define what was meant by "beer" during that period, although there is some speculation that it refers to what would now be called cider (alcoholic form). The Old English form of "beer" disappeared shortly after the Norman Conquest, and the word re-entered English centuries later, in exclusive reference to hopped malt beverages.

In Slavic languages, beer is called "pivo", from the verb "piti" — to drink. So, "pivo" could be translated to English as "the drink".


The Finnish epic Kalevala (collected in written form in the 19th century but based on oral traditions many centuries old) devotes more lines to the origin of beer and brewing than it does to the origin of mankind.

The British Drinking song "Beer, Beer Beer"[4] attributes the invention of beer to the presumably fictional Charlie Mopps :
A long time ago, way back in history
When all there was to drink was nothin’ but cups of tea,
Along came a man by the name of Charlie Mopps
And he invented the wonderful drink, and he made it out of hops.

The mythical Flemish king Gambrinus is sometimes credited with the invention of beer.

Styles of beer

There are many different types of beer, each of which is spoken of as belonging to a particular style. A beer's style is a label that describes the overall flavor and often the origin of a beer, according to a system that has evolved by trial and error over many centuries.

Most beer styles fall into one of two large families: ale or lager, according to the type of yeast that is used in the beers fermentation process. Beers that blend the characteristics of ales and lagers are referred to as hybrids.


Main article: Ale

An ale is any beer that is brewed using only top-fermenting yeasts, and typically at higher temperatures than lager yeast (60-75F). Because ale yeasts cannot fully ferment some sugars, they produce esters in addition to alcohol, and the result is a more flavorful beer with a slightly "flowery" or "fruity" aroma resembling, but not limited to apple, pear, pineapple, grass, hay, plum, or prune. Stylistic differences among ales are more varied than those found among lagers, and many ale styles are difficult to categorize.


Main article: Lager

Lagers are the most commonly-consumed category of beer in the world. They are of Central European origin, taking their name from the German lagern ("to store"). Lager yeast are bottom-fermenting yeast. Typically, lager yeast undergo a primary fermentation at 45-55F (the "fermentation phase"), and then are given a long secondary fermentation at 30-40F (the "lagering phase"). During the secondary stage, the lager clears and mellows. The cooler conditions inhibit the natural production of esters and other byproducts, resulting in a "crisper" tasing beer.

Modern methods of producing lager were pioneered by Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger (who perfected dark brown lagers at the Spaten Brewery in Bavaria) and Anton Dreher (who began brewing a lager, probably of amber-red color, in Vienna in 1840-1841). These days, with improved fermentation control, most lager breweries use only short periods of cold storage of 1–3 weeks.

Most of today's lager is based on the Pilsner style, pioneered in 1842 in the town of Plzen, Czech Republic. The modern Pilsner lager is light in colour and high in carbonation, with a mild hop flavour and an alcohol content of 3–6% by volume.

Spontaneous Fermentation

Main article Lambic

These are beers which use wild rather than cultivated yeasts. All beer before the cultivation of yeast in the 19th Century were closer to this style, characterised by the sour flavours.

Hybrid beers

Hybrid beers are brewed using a combination of ale and lager ingredients and/or techniques.

Mixed beers

Mixed style beers use untraditional techniques and materials instead of, or in addition to, traditional aspects of brewing. Although there is some variation among sources, mixed beers generally fall into the following categories.

  • Fruit beers and vegetable beers are mixed with some kind of fermentable fruit or vegetable "adjunct" during the fermentation process, providing obvious, yet harmonious, qualities.
  • Herb beers and spiced beers add herbs or spices derived from roots, seeds, fruits, vegetables or flowers instead of or in addition to hops.
  • Wood-aged beers are any traditional or experimental beer that has been aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood.
  • Smoked beers are any beer that whose malt has been smoked. A smoky aroma and flavor is usually present.
  • Specialty beers are a catch-all category used to describe any beers brewed using unusual fermentable sugars, grains and starches.

Related drinks, ordered by region

Beers, and similar beverages made from raw materials other than barley, include:

Brewing industry

Brewing beer is now a huge global business, although it grew from multitudes of smaller producers. To find individual brewers see List of breweries and Category:Brewers and breweries. For individual brands of beer, see either the article for the brewery, or for especially notable beers, List of commercial brands of beer and Category:Brands of beer.


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