The Babylonians had been brewing beer since at least 4300 years before Jesus was born. Ancient Egyptians served it to royalty, used it to treat ailments, and buried their dead with large vessels of beer for a more tipsy afterlife. The fame and pleasures of beer spread from the Middle East to Europe, and by the dawn of the medieval era, beer brewing had evolved out of the home kitchen and into a professional trade.
Over the course of the following centuries the rapid commercialization of the brewing industry and the growing importance of beer in world trade heavily influenced its craftsmanship. This change in emphasis was particularly poignant in the United States and by the early 1900s beer had become the drink of choice for the working man, college students, and sports fans. This encouraged mass production and an ensuing loss in quality. Taste was hardly a factor, and most production was guided by a simple principle: make as much beer as cheaply as possible.
This coincided with the advent of pesticide use. By the late 1940s pesticides became a staple of agricultural production, and beer was no exception. Hops and cereal grains (two of the main ingredients for beer) got doused in pesticides.
U.S. commercial beers succumbed to the temptations of pesticides and the profit margins of mass production. It wasn’t until the 1970s that discontent with the decline in quality translated to a movement towards European-style craft beers. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter went through the formality of signing home beer-brewing into law, contributing to a craft beer revolution in the United States.
The appreciation for craftsmanship and flavor again came in conjunction with an interest in pesticides, though this time it was more about it’s negative effects on the earth and the human body rather than the positive effects on crop yield. Aside from the potential danger of exposure to certain chemicals, there is also an increased risk of ground water contamination and a host of other environmental problems including loss of species diversity.
Organic standards in the United States are less stringent than in Europe over one very important ingredient: hops. Hops is the prominent, bitter flavor in many beers. Its antiseptic qualities act as a natural stabilizer, leading to a lower likelihood of spoilage. Hops, however, is a delicate plant, and for European beers to be deemed organic, the hops must also be organically grown. This stipulation leaves European brewers at the mercy of small-scale organic hops production – in other words, a shortage. Organic American beers have been bestowed an exemption from the U.S.D.A. Resorting to non-organic hops will still get a brewer that organic label.
Although some breweries use 100 percent organic ingredients and some organic hops farmers have recently cropped up in the U.S., there is no guarantee unless you know the practices of an individual brewery.
The return to brewing beer for a wide variety of taste preferences, combined with the general movement towards weaning ourselves from the over-use of harmful pesticides, takes beer back to its roots. Some microbreweries even offer “growlers” — containers you can bring back and get refilled to put a few less bottles in our collective waste stream.