Home brewing goes back millennia. Beer has the distinction of being one of the first of many alcoholic beverages created when man began settling down and growing grain.
A Sumerian tablet found in archaeological sites contained an almost 4,000-year-old poem that mentioned the earliest-known Western civilization beer recipe. The history of homebrewing points to a liquid thick in consistency that developed alongside mead, rice wines, and fruit wines.
Home Brewing in Ancient Times
Ancient home brewing was very much a DIY craft – a skill passed down through the generations by oral traditions. The natural fermentation of carbohydrates, such as barley, wheat, and bread, produced a pleasant feeling when enjoyed as a drink.
The very first documented craft beer, however, was brewed by the ancient Chinese around 7000 B.C. and was known as kui.
The ingredients used to make ancient Chinese beer included grapes, rice, honey, and hawthorn fruits.
Ancient Chinese people used beer principally in ancestral worship and other rituals during the Shang, Xia, and Zhou dynasties. After the Han Dynasty in the third century, Chinese beer faded. People did not reintroduce modern beer brewing into China until the end of the 19th century.
The Sumerians began the homebrewing revolution with their recipes. The Egyptians then took homebrewing one step further and enhanced the brew, making it lighter and smoother, and consuming it in specially made glasses.
Ancient Greeks and Romans famously favored grape wine. Although beer did not have the same popularity, the ancients did partake in it.
During the Viking Age, mead was the beverage that people used to celebrate the gods and was the drink of choice for the upper classes. Ordinary people drank beer as an everyday accompaniment to meals and in association with traditional social contexts.
Homebrewing came into its own during the Medieval period; indeed, the first breweries in Europe took root this way. Beer and ale gained popularity as a safe and sterile drink, more harmless than water in some instances, as well as a nutritional supplement to complement the often mediocre and poor diets of the common people.
English brewers favored ale, boiling the liquid extract before the fermentation process, which was not the case elsewhere. This process led to better preservation and taste, depending on the brew.
Germans further instituted strict laws, which governed what could be called a beer and what couldn’t. They introduced the Reinheitsgebot, a medieval food safety precaution that stipulated what constituted a beer—water, barley, hops, and, later, yeast, and nothing else.
Munich’s Duke Wilhelm IV decreed this law in 1516 because unscrupulous brewers added harmful, often poisonous substances like poisonous roots, sawdust, and even soot to the liquid during the fermentation process. As a result of these medieval laws, known as the “purity laws,” the history of Germany’s national brewing has resulted in some of the strictest standards today.
The Industrial Revolution and Home Brewing
Early Industrial era brewing techniques leveraged open fires with severe temperature control conditions, giving the final product a smoky taste.
The invention of steam engines in the 1800s, along with thermometers, hydrometers, and later on electricity, gave brewers better control over the brewing process, resulting in finer liquids and beers such as pale and amber ales, with none of the unpleasant smoky taste.
Prohibition – How it Catapulted Home Brewing in America
The introduction of Prohibition in 1920 in the US outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, which made home brewing illegal. Prohibition-era home brewers often found it hard to source their ingredients from within the country, and faced competition from organized crime, which resulted in “watered-down beer.”
Although Prohibition was repealed in 1933, making beer privately at home that had alcohol by volume of more than 0.5 percent remained illegal in the United States until 1978.
President Jimmy Carter, in that year, signed a bill in the White House that allowed any adult to craft beer and wine in their home for personal use and not for sale within the country.
Home Brewing Today – The Legalization of Home Brewing and President Jimmy Carter
After legalization in 1978, homebrewing became even more popular. Nonetheless, according to federal U.S. laws you still require a permit to distill spirits such as moonshine, and individual states maintain the power to formulate and pass local homebrewing laws. For example, in 2013 Alabama and Mississippi finally passed laws that permitted brewing beer at home.
While homebrewing is today legal in all 50 states, existing statutes in some states prevent homebrewers from removing their craft beer from their household, effectively restricting the commercialization of homebrewed beer. But, these restrictions also prevent homebrewers from (legally) showing off their brews at gatherings outside their home.
Charlie Papazian further propelled the homebrewing movement. He started the popularity of the homemade American beer industry when he founded the Association of Brewers and wrote the reference book The Complete Joy of Home Brewing in 1984. He had a lot to do with legalizing homebrewing and lobbied Washington to make it legal in America.
Charlie Papazian also founded the American Home Brewers Association or AHA, a professional body that helps homebrewers perfect their brews, and gives tips and the latest information on the practice.
Homebrewing is in a bit of a renaissance (which is why this site exists!). Whether you’re practicing this ancient technique as a hobby or as a means of producing an exceptional beer or ale to your own tastes, it has never been easier to become a homebrewer, given the technology and the ease of finding information on the craft.
If you want to try out homebrewing yourself, check out two of our top articles on homebrewing: