Through the Lens of History XVI: Beer and Brewing throughout the Ages

13 November, 2010

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision XVI: Beer and Brewing throughout the Ages

Beer and Bread.”
-Ancient Egyptian Greeting

The brewing of alcoholic drinks is one of humanity’s oldest crafts. It paralleled the development of civilization and may have contributed to the gathering of nomadic peoples into larger, more permanent groups – the first villages. The beer-brewing process is a relatively simple one, possibly discovered by accident when cereals underwent spontaneous fermentation, and this simplicity has granted the drink an enduring popularity.

Part I – The History

Brewing Pots from Senegal

Brewing Pots from Senegal

The history of brewing is almost the history of civilization. The earliest recorded reference to brewing is in a Mesopotamian pictogram from circa 4,000 B.C.E., while the first written comment on the matter came some six hundred years later. It is likely that brewing predates both of these by a considerable margin, perhaps reaching back as far as 10,000 B.C.E. when humankind first began harvesting grains as farmers.

And wherever there is grain, there is beer. From Meso-America to Europe, Africa to Asia, beer was and is brewed from native grains. Some modern anthropologists even suggest that it was the desire for beer that lead to the cultivation of grains and thus civilization. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild man Enkidu is partly brought into civilization by being shown how to eat bread and drink beer. The basic day’s wage in Mesopotamia was expressed as bread and beer for a day, making it part of the staple of life.

Beer was also used medicinally, mixed with herbs and drunk or even mixed with into a paste and spread as a poultice. The development of beer seems to have quickly emerged as an important social and medical factor. The boiling process during brewing, when combined with the alcohol in beer, helped to overcome the lack of sanitation and access to clean water in the pre-modern world by killing microbes and other dangerous things within the beverage. This is why children would drink small beer, a weak brew just barely alcoholic.

With time, beer became an important social drink. Sharing a drink is a universal ritual of friendship: by drinking first, the host can show the drink is safe and good, and welcome the guest by this sign of trust. Offering small beer to an adult was considered an insult. Beer was also often incorporated into religious ceremonies. Many cultures saw beer as a gift from the gods, so it only made sense to give it back to the divine. Beer was used as sacrifice, in fertility ceremonies and as gifts to the gods, spirits and the dead.

The process of brewing begins with mashing, where the malted grains are crushed and soaked in warm water. The mash is then held at constant temperature to convert starch into fermentable sugars. Water is poured through the mash to dissolve the sugars, and this creates a sugar-rich liquid called the wort. The wort is then boiled along with any remaining ingredients to remove excess water and, in later years, hops would be added at this stage. Lastly, yeast is added and the beer is left to ferment.

Early beer came in many forms: the ancient Egyptian beer was practically fermented porridge. Mesopotamian beer was drunk through straws to avoid the grain chaff that floated on the top of the surface. Each culture developed multiple styles of beer: light, dark, strong, weak, rich and poor. Skilled brewers were always in demand, often taking their own “mash tubs” (pots used to mix the grain for brewing) with them. While expert brewers were prized, almost every adult knew the basics of brewing and most households would brew beer for their own use.

Beers can be made from all sorts of grains, usually barley, but rice, rye and wheat are also commonly used. Hops, which act as a flavoring and a preservative, are a recent addition to beer first documented in eleventh-century Germany and spread to England by the sixteenth. The addition of hops made for easier transportation of beer, as it kept longer. Before the widespread use of hops, a mixture of flavored herbs known as gruit or grut was often added to beer. The particular blend of herbs used in gruit varied from region to region and from brewer to brewer, and some of the herbs used had limited preservative properties.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

Most characters will grow up in societies where beer drinking is the norm, regardless of the time-period. Beer consumption is simply a fact of life. That does not mean that every character will like beer; some may be repulsed by it. Others may be amateur brewers in their spare time. But beer is omnipresent in most pre-industrial cultures, and provides a wide variety of plot-hooks and ideas to incorporate into your character’s background.

Perhaps one of the characters is questing for the perfect mug or nut brown ale or the lost secret of her family’s recipe for gruit.

Glass of Beer

Glass of Beer

The secrets of brewing, such as proper roasting times and methods and the right blend of herbs to make up a gruit, were jealously guarded by their owners. The most successful brewers did not want others to use their best recipes and steal their customers and livelihood. Characters could be hired to protect – or steal – a particularly famous recipe.

A master brewer could be summoned to serve a rich merchant, noble or even a royal household. Such a suddenly important man would require an escort to bring him and his equipment to his new employer. Equally, there could be rivals who do not wish to see the brewer arrive in a timely fashion . . . or possibly at all.

The characters could be sent on a mission to retrieve a certain type of beer. For example, it is known that the visiting ambassador is fond of a beer only brewed in a little town high in the mountains and it has to be brought back as soon as possible.

A favorite inn, bereft of beer through ill fortune or sabotage, is likely to fail. Perhaps the characters can be convinced to acquire and transport a new supply to save the inn?

Beer is likely to be primarily a background element to a world, but at times, it can assume a greater importance and there is never any harm in having the character knocking back a mug of the local favorite at the inn.

Supplemental d20 Material

New Feat
Master Brewer [General]
You are recognized as among the best brewers, your skill in beer making is unrivaled and known near and far.
Prerequisites: Craft (brewing) 3 ranks, Skill Focus (Craft [brewing]).
Benefit: You receive a +2 bonus on Craft (brewing) checks and your beers and ales can command a 20% premium on price. Among those who are aware of your reputation, you gain a +2 bonus to Diplomacy and you gain a +2 bonus on Appraise checks when appraising ales and beers.  If you have 10 or more ranks in Craft (brewing), the bonuses increases to +4.

Lastly, you gain a +1 bonus to saves against ingested poisons.

Notes: First image by John Atherton, second from Wikimedia commons.



  1. Good to see historic context for brewing alongside some mechanics. If you haven’t visited yet, you might appreciate Fantasy Brewmasters

    • Fantasy Brewmasters is quite amazing and I had not heard of them before. What a great project.

Please share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: