The Complete History of Homebrew

For thousands of years there was no concept of “homebrewing”, there was only brewing.  As ancient mankind learned to ferment wine, then grapes, and finally grains to create an alcoholic beverage it was a process that was done in the home.  This begs the question... when did mankind start brewing?  Well, we don’t really know. Historians currently believe that the first fermented beverages were around 12,000 years ago; close to when humans began developing crops.  But we have hard evidence of brewing about 6,000 years ago in the form of a Sumerian tablet and a 3,900 year old poem that contains the oldest known recipe.

Of course homebrewing was not the process that we know today.  There were no books, internet, or podcasts to teach the process.  The secrets of brewing were passed on via songs.  Not having as much scientific knowledge as we do today, there was not any specific malting of barley, or selecting of specific yeast strains.  In the earliest homebrewing a barley bread was used instead of a grains and the same container was used again and again, little did they know they were developing their own culture to ferment with not to mention that there was not a lot of cleaning or sanitation going on, but lets just skip ahead a few millenium.

On to the middle ages!  When the monks started brewing in the Middle Ages, since it was in the monastery, it could be argued that it was homebrewing. But it could also be put forward that that was the beginning of the brewing industry. Since we are talking about homebrewing, we’ll leave the monks to their endeavours and head back to the medieval home.  Our homebrewers, mostly women, had learned to boil their brews.  While the people of the time didn’t know it, they were sanitizing their drink.  During these times beer was not only one of the few safe forms of hydration, but it was also a source of nutrition. As the age of exploration began, people carried their beers and supplies to make beer with them as they explored.  The wealthier people in society could bring an elaborate brewhouse set up, but most people found a way to brew their beer at home since it was still the safest thing to drink.  It was in 1587 that the first beer was brewed in the new world, in Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in Virginia. Though, since they didn’t have access to fresh ingredients they had to send back to England asking for more beer, and we’ve all heard the tale of the pilgrims having to land in Plymouth since they ran out of beer. They had to build their homes in order to get that brewing! The history of beer in America begins with the first European settlers here.

While the first commercial breweries in America started popping up in the 1600’s, the majority of the brewing was still done in the home.  Many of the founders of the country were homebrewers, or perhaps more accurately, beer was brewed on their estates. When Thomas Jefferson designed Monticello he planned spaces specifically for the brewing and storage of beer.  Mr. Jefferson originally let his wife handle the brewing and she would produce about 15 gallons every 2 weeks.  He eventually became interested in brewing at his home and would experiment with his brews, but unfortunately never left us any recipes, however in his notes they have found that he was not opposed to using corn in his brew. Beer was also a way of life at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. It was noted by Martha Washington’s grandson that Washington would often drink a homemade beverage with dinner.  Mr. Washington left a recipe for a small beer, to be made for children  and servants.  Washington’s cousin’s who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution left notes about brewing a beer with persimmons. The homebrew was not only for the Washington’s table however, in Washington’s contract with one farm manager the manager was promised as much “bran as is sufficient to brew beer for family use”.

Lets hop forward in time a bit further, onto the Industrial Revolution.  This revolution gave a number of gifts to the brewer.  No longer having to rely on an open fire, beer for the first time didn’t necessarily have a smokey flavor and temperature was easier to control. Also thermometers and hydrometers gave the homebrewer more control and a better way to produce a more consistent product.  This time also saw the rise of the larger commercial brewery.  Homebrewing was still a way of life, but now beer was being produced at a higher quality and lower cost outside the home.

Prohibition and the Eventual Legalization of Homebrewing

And then we come to Prohibition.  This nation flirted with the idea of being dry... but it just drove brewing back into the home.  In 1919 it became illegal to make, buy, or sell intoxicating beverages. However, had it not been for Prohibition we might not have malt syrups and there may not be wide scale extract brewing.  Since the large breweries could not make beer, they simply started turning out these malt extracts and selling them for “baking”.  The American homebrewer was excited to do some “baking”, as in 1926 438 million pounds of malt extract were produced and the next year it was up to 450 million.  In a single year during Prohibition hop sales for this home “baking” exceeded 13 million pounds.  By 1929 the Prohibition Bureau estimated that approximately 700 million gallons of beer was made at home. Then in 1933 a funny thing happened.  Prohibition was done away with, the 160 breweries (down from 2,300 in 1880 and 1,400 in 1914) in the country could once again start churning out beer. 

Alas, due to an oversight in the way the law was written, while making wine at home was legal, brewing a batch of beer at home remained forbidden.  This didn’t stop people completely, of course,  this only built higher and higher levels in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  As more and more groups of people broke the law to brew at home the US government got around to correcting its “oversight”, only a mere 45 years later.  President Jimmy Carter signed HR 1337 into law and at a federal level Americans over 21 were again allowed to brew beer in their homes. The late 1970’s did not share the same brewing landscape we enjoy today.  With no internet there were no podcasts, no webpages, no forums.  If you wanted to learn to brew you had to find someone who knew what they were doing or read a book.  Additionally the hop growers and maltsters were not set up for dealing with anyone at a home brew scale, they were used to dealing in large quantities for macro breweries (remember craft beer wasn’t here as we know it).  Though there were some bright points for the American homebrewer, within months Charlie Papazian helped form the American Homebrewer’s Association and In 1984 Mr. Papazian released the first edition of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.

Now, the 1978 law only applied at the federal level.  The states were allowed to make their own laws regarding homebrewing.  Groups like the AHA have fought over the years to protect homebrewers and their rights.  Since 1978 the beer industry has boomed.  To support the homebrewer more maltsters, hop growers, yeast labs and shops have popped up across the country.  The homebrewing movement has provided the growing craft brew industry with many of its brewers and customers.  With the internet we now have the ability to pull information on brewing from the other side of the planet.  Finally in 2013 Alabama and Mississippi have voted to legalize homebrewing, meaning that for the first time since 1919 it was legal to brew in your home in every corner of the country.

There seems no better way to close than with the words of Plato, “He was a wise man who invented beer”.

All contents copyright 2024 by MoreFlavor Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this document or the related files may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.