Exploring Beer: History and How to Use It in Your Cooking

Updated on January 29, 2020
Carb Diva profile image

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

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Once Upon a Time

There was a field of grain.

The grain was reaped, ground, and mixed with water to form cakes, the progenitor of what we know as bread. There have been many iterations and innovations between those first rough cakes and what ultimately became the staff of life, but none more important than natural leavening. The discovery of yeast, that miracle microscopic bit of airborne life, was captured and put to use centuries before it could be seen or understood—a milestone in the history of bread.

There is another product, built also of grain and yeast, that has been consumed and refined for probably as long at bread—beer.

Grain and bread and yeast and fermented beverages are by nature and history intertwined, but no food historian can establish with even a smidgeon of precision when this marriage of ingredients began. However, fermentation takes time, and so the dawn of leavened bread and yeasty brews probably did not occur until nomadic people became an organized, agrarian society.

Why beer is better than wine: "....human feet are conspicuously absent from beer making.

— Steve Mirsky, Scientific American (May, 2007)

Was Mesopotamia the First Brew Pub?

The fertile plains of Assyria and Babylonia are bisected by the Zagros Mountains. The landscape here is harsh and brutal; swift-moving rivers scour the earth creating deep canyons and exposing the sedimentary layers that mark the passage of eons. The Great Khorasan Road permits passage through the Zagros, one of several routes known as the Silk Route. An important stop along the way was Godin Tepe, a Sumerian village and fortress.

In 1961, archeologists from the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania conducted large-scale excavations of the area, exposing courtyards, a gatehouse, storage rooms, and fortification walls. The work exposed relics from the period 3500 to 3100 B.C. and revealed writing tablets, pottery, bevel-rimmed bowls, and clay jars where barley had been fermented; perhaps this was the advent of beer making.

By the third millennium BC, Mesopotamia was already well versed in beer-brewing and old Sumerian texts mention eight barley beers, eight emmer beers, and three mixed beers. Aromatic plants were added to the beer to improve the flavor and to assist in its preservation, and extra honey, cereals, and malt gave varying added strengths. “Food in Antiquity” (p. 166-167).

Some of the oldest known writings speak of the production of beer. The Hymn to Ninkasi (the Sumerian goddess of beer) was written around 1800 B.C. and serves not only as a song of praise but also as a recipe so that future generations will not forget the important steps in brewing. Here are excerpts from the Hymn:

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The Components of Beer

In 7,000+ years, the basic beer recipe has not changed. Just four ingredients are needed to make it—grain, water, a flavoring/preservative, and yeast.

  • Malt: Grain is a seed. Barley is most common in beer production today, but corn, rice, and other cereals have been used as well. The grain is soaked in hot water to release the carbohydrates (natural sugars). It is those sugars that will ultimately feed the yeast and make alcohol, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The soaked grain is separated from the sugar-laden liquid. That liquid is the malt; the technical name is wort (pronounced “wert”). The wort is boiled to sterilize it.
  • Water: Beer is about 90 percent water, pure water. But as you know, not all waters taste the same. Naturally occurring minerals alter the flavor of local brews.
  • Hops: Hops are the flavoring/preservative in modern beer. They provide the bitter, citric tang that contrasts with the sweet flavor of the grain-malt. Hops can be added at the start of the boiling, near the end, or any time in between. The brewmaster knows that the timing (when the hops are added) will affect the ultimate taste of the beer.
  • Yeast: Yeast is a microorganism, a naturally occurring airborne cell which, when added to the wort, converts the sugar into alcohol.

Types of Beer

There are two types of beer—lagers and ales. Lagers use yeast that settles at the bottom; their fermentation process is slower, longer, and takes place under cool temperatures. They typically have a light, malty taste and are the “gateway” beer for newcomers. Ales are the beers of antiquity and are created with yeasts that ferment at warm temperatures; they settle at the top.

Within those two classifications, there are endless varieties.

Flavor and Color Spectrum of Beers
Flavor and Color Spectrum of Beers | Source

Types of Beer (Not a Comprehensive List)

  • Belgian Styles: Belgian beers have such a wide spectrum of flavors it is difficult/near impossible to identify them in 25 words or less. They can be pale and light, mid-range fruity, sour, or dark. In general, they have a high alcohol content and low bitterness.
  • Brown Ales: The brown ales we enjoy today are nothing like those created in England in the 19th century. Olde time English browns are sturdy and dark like a porter or stout. The 21st century Americanized brown ale is mild and malty and slightly hoppy.
  • Doppelbock: Doppel means double and this brew is definitely double. Originally made by Munich monks, it is rich and extra strong with a malty sweetness and a hint of hops for balance. Alcohol levels are high.
  • India Pale Ales: IPA’s have a pronounced hops flavor; many are grapefruit-like while others are more bitter. In general, New England IPA’s are fruity, British IPA’s are malty and bitter, and those from the West Coast fall somewhere in the middle.
  • Lambic: The lambic is a Belgian beer fermented with wild yeasts.
  • Oatmeal Stout: If your tastes lean toward creamy, rich, dark beers, the oatmeal stout might be for you. This is a full-bodied beer, dark brown to almost black in color, chocolate-like, and smooth.
  • Pale Ales: This type of beer has a mild to medium hops flavor but tends to be lower in alcohol content.
  • Pilsners and Pale Lagers: These central-European beers are pale with a crisp flavor. Pilsners are fuller, more aromatic, and spoil easier than some other types of beers.
  • Porters: These originated in the United Kingdom; they are dark like stouts and similar in taste to an American porter.
  • Russian Imperial Stout: Despite the name, most RIS’s are brewed in the United States. Russian stout is dark and hoppy with flavors of dark chocolate, coffee, fruit, and a decidedly rich mouthfeel. The alcohol level is high—7 to 12 percent.
  • Stouts: Dark and syrupy, English and Irish stouts are sweet (Guinness for example) with coffee undertones. American-brewed stouts tend to have a more bitter flavor and can be reminiscent of dark chocolate.
  • Wheat and Hefeweizen Beers: As the name implies, wheat beers rely on wheat, not barley, for their malt. They are light in color and alcohol.
  • Wild/Sour Beers: These are puckery with fruit undertones such as peach, cherry, or raspberry.

Recipes

Guinness Beef Stew with Cheddar Herb Dumplings
Guinness Beef Stew with Cheddar Herb Dumplings | Source

Guinness Beef Stew with Cheddar Herb Dumplings

Morgan, food creator/photographer of Host the Toast, the Kitchen Kaper Blog lives in the mid-Atlantic states where winters can be brutal. In 2014, her little corner of the world experienced what has been coined a snowpocalypse—a snow event of apocalyptic proportions. That storm was the inspiration for Morgan's almost world-famous Guinness Beef Stew.

The meat is incredibly tender, the vegetables deeply flavored, and the gravy rich and savory. Herby cheddar dumplings simmer atop the finished stew to make a satisfying one-bowl meal.

Pan-Fried Beer and Onion Bratwurst
Pan-Fried Beer and Onion Bratwurst | Source

Pan-Fried Beer and Onion Bratwurst

Many of my friends are from the state of Wisconsin, the bratwurst capital of the world. I could not provide beer-based recipes without including a nod to brats simmered in beer (which is, I believe, is the unofficial No. 1 beverage of Wisconsin).

This dish isn't a hasty, cook-at-the-last-minute process. An initial sear in butter (put away the vegetable oil) creates an umami-rich exterior that snaps with the first bite. After that sear, cover the pan so that valuable moisture isn't lost. When the sausages are cooked through, the real fun begins. Sliced onions add sweetness and beer (a dark malty Belgium please) allows them to reduce and caramelize.

Classic Welsh Rarebit
Classic Welsh Rarebit | Source

Classic Welsh Rarebit

Cheese and toast is a simple, warm, and comforting peasant food. It's a humble meal when the weather outside is frightful. Only one thing can make it better—add beer to that melted cheese to create a rich gooey sauce flavored with malt, mustard, and hops. And don't worry, it's classic Welsh rarebit, not rabbit. No bunnies were harmed in the making of this food.

Spicy White Cheddar Beer Cheese Soup
Spicy White Cheddar Beer Cheese Soup | Source

Spicy White Cheddar Beer Cheese Soup

When Sara lived in Chicago, she worked at a restaurant. As you know, one of the perks of working in the food industry is that you get a free meal—that's the good news. The bad news is that after a few days or weeks, the menu becomes a bit monotonous. However, where Sara worked the chef created a "soup of the day," and she knew it would always be something original, flavorful, and innovative.

This spicy beer cheese soup was her favorite and, after much pleading and cajoling, he gave the recipe to her.

Fudgy Beer Brownies
Fudgy Beer Brownies | Source

Fudgy Beer Brownies

At first glance beer and chocolate might seem an odd-couple pairing, but I'm not proposing the use of a hoppy IPA or Belgium ale. Instead, let's focus on the attributes of a porter or stout—dark and rich, with caramel-like, smokey black coffee espresso flavors. Aren't those the same qualities in bold, cacao-rich chocolate?

Megan uses a traditional fudgy brownie recipe and replaces the butter with a flavorful bourbon-barrel-aged beer.

© 2020 Linda Lum

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    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Audrey, it's not as decadent around here as you imagine. But I wouldn't mind having you for a next-door neighbor. Imagine all the mischief we could get into.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      6 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Linda, your recipes are marvelous! I'd weigh a thousand pounds if I lived with you. Your family must be ecstatic with all those delicious meals. Thanks so much.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Yes, Linda I was in fact doing that for awhile. I still have the gear. Oh, and I love bratwurst sausages...so that is on the to do list.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Ohmygoodness, John perhaps you need to learn to brew your own.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Mmmm, food and beer, what a combination haha. If we have beer in the house we do sometimes use it in cooking, It does add a rich flavour to stews and makes great fluffy batter etc.

      I just found out beer is much more expensive here than most other countries due to our greedy Government taking such a high portion of the price in tax.

      " At $2.23 per litre for packaged beer, Australians pay 19 times more beer tax than Germany ($0.12), 16 times more than Spain ($0.14), 8 times more than the US ($0.28), 6 times more than Canada ($0.37), 5 times more than France ($0.47), and almost double that of New Zealand ($1.18). Australians pay 38.5% more than the UK ($1.37). "

      Linda, I loved the history of beer that you included. Very interesting.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Devika, I had not heard of that. Does it impart flavor, or merely tenderize?

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Hi Eric, I don't know if it would decontaminate water, but would certainly make a happy substitute, don't you think?

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Shauna, I'll bet you could buy just one. I honestly don't know the origin of the name Welsh rarebit. I'll look into it and let you know next Monday, OK?

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Kari, dark and fudgy is my kind of brownie too. As for the Welsh rarebit, yes they typically look rather unappetizing.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I sometimes use beer for marinate and it turns out great.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      6 months ago from Central Florida

      Linda, I had no idea there are so many different types of beers. You did a great job of introducing its history, components and variations.

      The Guinness Beef Stew With Cheddar Herb Dumplings looks absolutely delicious! I can almost smell it just by ogling it from my desk. I would love to try the recipe but don't drink beer, so I don't have any on hand. I wonder if I could buy one twelve ounce bottle of Guinness? LOL

      I never really knew what Welsh Rarebit was. I had no idea it was just cheesy toast! The name has connotations of a gourmet dish for the elite. Who knew? How did Welsh Rarebit get its name and what does it mean?

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      6 months ago from Ohio

      I have used beer for bratwurst and stews, but not in deserts. The brownies look delicious, I'm partial to the fudgey ones. The picture of welsh rarebit looks so much more edible than other pictures I have seen. It makes me want to try it.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Wesman, you are a wise man. If I could pick just one of the above recipes, it would definitely be the stew. I'm not a big fan of deep-fried things, but beer-battered fish is mighty tasty. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      6 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      As today should be the day of the pay, I shall most certainly, all things being a go, acquire for myself some golden frosted barley pops.

      In fact, I'll probably be buying lots of different beers. Being pretty thin, it's not a thing I've ever once concerned myself with - I also very much enjoy the very thick and dark ones. I suspect they've got more calories than the typical vegan meal.

      I was raised in one of those families where you grew up having never once seen a person drink an adult beverage, except for on tv? Yeah....I pretty much rejected all that stuff.

      But anyway, I remember the first time hearing of people using beer in their cooking. I was all like, "wut?"

      Used to be I could buy pretty good cans of borracho beans right at WalMart, but I've not seen them there in months. Of course it's best at a restaurant, but who's got money to eat at one of those things.

      Oh, I've had some beer battered fish. Fried fish, you know. Of course you know. Forgive me, Ma'am. I forget myself ...and often.

      I'd probably like to hit that beef stew!

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, when I wrote this I knew that I would be alienating a few of my friends. Blame Eric. I'm pretty sure he put me up to this (LOL). In the future there will be articles on tequila, brandy, rum, and wine.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Welsh wabbit would work for me Flourish (sounds like something Elmer Fudd would say). I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Doris, I don't know why your non-gluten beers would not work. Fermentation is the key to these recipes. If you happen to try it, please let me know how it works out.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I think I've explored beer quite enough for one lifetime,don't you? LOL On a hot summer day, man alive I used to love a cold beer....love being an understatement. :)

      Will the rains ever stop?

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      6 months ago from USA

      These were surprising and sure looked good. That Welsh rarebit — I always had to say it slowly to avoid saying Welsh wabbit. Haha. Never knew what was in it!

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      MizB, i have several friends who are gluten intolerant but have found non-wheat beers. I will ask them about using those beers in cooking.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Our little county is in something like the top 5 microwbrewies communities in the US. I think I would prefer them more in you recipes. Thanks for the history.

      I think I read that here in the New World it was used as a way to decontaminate water.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      6 months ago from Beautiful South

      It all looks yummy, but my beer days went out the window with the gluten. One of my favorite breads was a recipe for beer bread my sister acquired back in the 1970s, and I loved TGIF's beer battered shrimp. One evening I ate a big batch of the shrimp, and the next day I couldn't get into my clothes because my body was so swollen. Good thing it was the weekend and I could hang out in my robe all day.

      I have discovered several gluten-free beers that I can drink, and I wonder if one or the other would work in my sister's beer bread recipe. I guess I'll have to try it and let you know. One is made from molasses and is very mild (Red Bridge) the others taste more like traditional beer. Bards is also a molasses beer, but I don't know about the others.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      6 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Hi Pamela. I'm glad you found some interest in this article. One of my Hubs friends (I think it was Eric Dierker) suggested that I explore the use of different alcoholic beverages in cooking and baking. I don't really like beer (unless it's a really dark stout), but I know that I'm in the minority and it can be used in many ways. I think some use it as the liquid in batters too.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      6 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I have never been a beer drinker but the recipes you featured sound fantastic. I can understand how beer might tenderize and flavor food and each recipe sounds delicious. Thanks for sharing this excellent information, Linda.

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