When we say that a drink is food in a liquid form, we're probably wide of the mark unless we're talking about beer. Beer is, as far as we can tell, the oldest fermented beverage about and therefore amongst the very earliest applications of biotechnology. Evidence of beer production can be found as far back as 7000 BC but it is suspected of being at least as old as agriculture … the first laws regulating its production can be found in the Code of Hammurabi. Large-scale commercial brewing got started in the 13th Century. Prior to that, beer was mostly brewed in small-scale individual batches at every bar and many homes.
A beer can be brewed from any grain crop (despite the opinions of some nations to the contrary). Although barley and wheat are the most common, rice, maize and millet are or have been widely used - and can be flavoured with a variety of herbs, fruits and spices - hops being the most common in Europe and the Americas. Alcohol content will normally vary between 1% and 20% ABV although stronger (or fortified) brews have been known.
Production - known as brewing - involves crushing the source grain and breaking down the carbohydrates inside into sugars by steeping in hot water. The resulting sugary solution or wort is then filtered off and boiled to concentrate and sterilize it before being allowed to cool and inoculated with yeast which then ferments it, turning some or all of the sugar to alcohol. Eventually the yeast is poisoned by the alcohol and dies, settling to the bottom of the vat and the beer is ready to be consumed. There is a lot more detail to the process, but this is the core of it. Waste solids from the process can be used as food for animals … or slaves, but it was also common to run a second fermentation of the same set of solids, leading to a second batch of beer, albeit typically with a lower alcohol content and less "body" to it. Known as "small beer" this was a common drink throughout many cultures, frequently being regarded as not really alcoholic at all.
Primitive beers were thick, soupy concoctions with a high solids content that required straining before they could be drunk. With a high calorie content and relatively little alcohol they were a source of infection free drinking water and an important food source, often best thought of as liquid bread. This tradition continued into the nineteenth century in the form of 'small beer' (although it was generally better filtered by then) and was considered suitable for all ages - some of the oldest schools in England have a beer ration for the pupils specified in the founding documents. Needless to say it is no longer issued. Liquid bread beers are still in service in many parts of the world - Russian Kvass, the Pombe of West Africa and Kyrgyz Bozo are all good examples.
More 'modern' varieties differ in the style of the fermentation, the source and pre-treatment of the feed grain, additives and the aging of the finished product. Common sub-types of beer include:
Opinions vary as to what temperature beer should be served at and whether it should be artificially carbonated, allowed to retain its natural carbonation from fermenting or served flat. Sometimes these are matters of law and sometimes just of culture.
Note that when beers sour, the alcohol will turn to acetic acid just like it will in wine, but in this case it's called alegar not vinegar. Works exactly the same if the beer is strong enough.
Beer and Law
Some places take beer and brewing very seriously. For example, the job of the medieval civil servant known as the ale conner was to regulate and test the quality of beers at all the local inns and ale houses. They were just a truncheon shy of "beer police".
By the late Middle Ages, Trade Guilds existed for brewers and beer sellers. Guild law would often dictate what ingredients you could put in various ales and beers. For example, grut ale made using calluna (or a gruit of other herbs) instead of hops was a staple of the middle ages, but rendered illegal in most jurisdictions by the late middle ages. In some regions at this time you'd have the hopped beers being produced by merchants in the cities, while the grut ales were being produced in monasteries that had been granted the right to do so via the monopoly by royal decree system.
During times of famine or shortage it was fairly common for governments of the Middle Ages or Renaissance to pass laws restricting the production of beer, so as to drive down the price of grain or feed the masses. If grain was scarce, the powers that be might order brewers to water down their beer, only brew with crops unfit for baking and eating, or to strongly limit the volume of production or export. For all our talk about old beer being liquid bread, it's still a less efficient (and harder to transport) nutritional source than baked grains, a fact which was known in the middle ages. If you're the King and you have to choose between sober-but-satiated peasants and drunken starving peasants (who thus might revolt), the choice is pretty easy.
Game and Story Use
- In a realistic pre-modern campaign (or a congruent fantasy one) expect every tavern to brew its own beer. The quality of the brew should vary … a lot.
- Beer should be a normal part of the diet in a pre-modern Europe. No-one should be surprised by this.
- Mark culture - or class - boundaries in your campaign by who drinks what. Common alternatives to beer will include cider, wine and mead - not to mention things like fermented milk… but even a change of source grain would be noticeable.
- In fantasy campaigns, expect orc ale … not to be drinkable.
- A blight, famine or other ecological disaster might lead to a spike in grain prices, and government-mandated beer regulation. This can trigger plotlines from a conspiracy between the ale-conners and beer-sellers, to a full scale peasant's revolt or the collapse of the grain-based local economy.
- This might also lead to other things being fermented in search of booze … some of them may turn out badly. Likewise, using unfit grain may lead to beer contaminated with ergot.