Three Millennia of Beer Styles

This article first appeared in a different format in All About Beer in 1999.

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Three Millennia of Beer Styles in 4 Minutes and 32 Seconds

As many people cannot remember when they last saw their car keys, it is not surprising that beer historians cannot pinpoint the exact date of birth for every beer style. And because beer is a living thing, one can never be sure which batch was actually, authentically, the first of its kind. But we can ballpark those dates, and as the earth swings around for 2000 AD, let us reflect on the millennia that have gone before, and on the styles that have been brewing.

In the Beginning

Wild barley grew on the south shore of the Sea of Galilee 19,000 years ago, but its domestication took another nine millennia. Domesticated two-row barley grew north of Jericho in 7750 BC, and six-row, in what is now Iraq, in 6000 BC.

The Sumerian Style

In 5000 BC, naturally fermented beer is being brewed in Sumeria. Some 6,987 years later, Dr. Soloman Katz of the University of Pennsylvania and Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing use the instructions on a 4,000-year-old clay tablet from Sumeria to reproduce an ancient Sumerian brew, which they name Ninkasi after the Sumerian goddess of beer. A cloudy, orange-red drink, it tastes of honey and dates, with a dry finish.

The Birth of Lambic

In 3000 BC, a Sumerian brewer named Amarkiskar brews a beer called Sikaru with two-thirds barley malt and one-third raw wheat, the brew fermented spontaneously by local microbial flora of wild yeasts. In short, a beer strikingly similar to modern Lambics. By the mid-18th century, Lambic Beers become the dominant local style in Brussels.

Early German Ales

By 1000 BC, Germanic tribes are making top fermented ales from the grains that grow wild in forest clearings. Half-baked loaves of bread are soaked in crocks of water. Wild honey and herbs are added, and fermentation is spontaneous. The result is a black, murky, sour brew with floating husks and crumbs.


Circa 70 AD, Pliny observes that the Celts of England brew a beer they call Curmi, which is flavored with plants like bog myrtle, rosemary and yarrow.

Heather Ale

Circa 390, the Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages undertakes a genocidal campaign against the Scottish Picts to gain the secret of Heather Ale. He kills every Pict in Galloway, none of whom tell him the secret. However, Heather Ale survives in the Orkneys into the early 1900’s, and is resurrected at the century’s end.

Monastic Brews

In 525, St. Benedict becomes convinced that the holy life cannot be lived in the secular world, and establishes a monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy. His written “Rule” stresses self-sufficiency and his followers learn to provide for themselves, including brewing. The monastic way spreads throughout Europe, and by the Middle Ages there are more than 400 monasteries brewing in Germany alone.

In Belgium, Benedictines from Italy establish the Abbaye de Notre-Dame d’Orval. Destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, the abbey today is home to Orval, one of the few surviving Trappist Ales.

Bock Beer

Brewing in the German city of Einbeck dates back to 1256, when the city is chartered in the center of hop gardening. By 1385, 600 private houses are brewing Einbecker beer. The well-regarded beers of Einbeck (“thin, subtle, clear, of bitter taste”) are imitated by Munich brewers, and in 1614 dubbed Bock Beer.

English Ale

In 1336, Common Brewers are mentioned in the Court Rolls of London.In 1340, Queen’s College, Oxford, opens its own brewhouse. (Amazingly, the enterprise continues virtually unchanged until 1939.) The ale they brew is the native English drink, and, being brewed without hops, it is heavy and sweet. Hops arrive via “the Low Countries” and in 1419, brewers of hopped beers are first mentioned as separate from brewers of unhopped English ales. Over time, the English develop a family of ales that are best explained in relation to one another, i.e., Bitter is hoppier and more bitter than Mild, which is milder than Bitter. Pale Ale is paler than either Bitter or Mild, but stronger in alcohol.


In 1396, the Guild of Brewers forms in the city of Cologne, where the city’s brewpubs make top-fermented beers. In later years, in response to competition from Pilsener style beers from elsewhere, they gradually refine their beer to the now famous Kölsch style, a golden, top-fermented delicacy.

The Birth of Lager

In the 1400’s, Bavarian monastic breweries begin to brew and store (“lager”) a special beer in the cold winter months. It is clearer, brighter, with a cleaner taste. Four centuries later, commercial brewers Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr jointly discover that the secret ingredient in Bavarian monastery beer is bottom-fermenting yeast.

German Wheat Beer

In 1480, in the town of Schwarzach, the Degenberger family builds the first wheat-beer brewery and holds the monopoly on Weissbier (“White Beer,” so labeled because it is lighter than the brown beers of the day) until the death of the last Degenberger in 1602.


In the 1500’s, in Finland, peasants brew Sahti, a sweet, malty, turbid beer with complex flavor. Fresh juniper twigs are used in flavoring and filtering, giving the beer a flavor not unlike a German Weizen laced with juniper. In 1990, Pekka Kaarianen revives the juniper-laced Sahti.

British Colonial Ale

In 1587, Virginia colonists brew the first ale in North America using corn. Twenty years later, the first shipment of imported beer arrives in the Virginia colony from England, but most beer is still brewed at home. Writing about the Virginia colonies nearly 100 years later, Rogers Beverly reports, “The poorer sort brew their beer from molasses and bran, with Indian corn malted and drying in a stove; with persimmons dried in cakes and baked; with potatoes; with the green stalks of Indian corn cut small and bruised; with squashes and with Jerusalem artichokes.”

Berliner Weisse

In the 1600’s, Berlin’s wheat beer is documented as a distinct style, and there are said to be 700 Weissbier breweries in Berlin.


In Germany in 1678, the first Rauchbier is brewed from malt smoked over beechwood logs.

Scotch Ale

A 14th century monastery near Dunbar gives rise to Scotland’s Belhaven Brewery in 1719. The brewery’s Scotch Ales have the malty character that typifies the style, prompted by a growing season that is too short for hops (which have to be bought from England at a high price), but excellent for barley.

Pale Ale

In 1630, the Burton pale ale style, clearer and lighter than the traditional English brown ales, is first recorded as on sale in London, but it is too expensive to become widely popular. In 1760, long after porter is established as the drink of the common man, a letter to a London magazine contends that more expensive pale ales were introduced to London by the gentry, who became accustomed to them in the country. In 1845, the English tax on glass making is removed just as mass-production technology becomes available. Drinkers — using drinking glasses instead of pewter or ceramic mugs — can now see their beer as well as taste it. The change gives an enormous boost to the popularity of Pale Ale.

Belgian Witbier

In the 1700’s, a wheat beer called Witbier or Biere Blanche is the dominant style east of Brussels, in Belgium. Brewers in the city of Louvain and the village of Hoegaarden ship competing variants to the rest of Europe.


In 1722, in London, publicans have grown weary of blending beers from different casks (highly hopped, low gravity, cheaper ale from one, with lightly hopped, sweet, high gravity, more expensive ale from another) to please customers. An inventive brewer, Ralph Harwood of The Bell Brewhouse, produces a single ale that combines the virtues of both. Initially called “Mr. Harwood’s entire butt,” the new ale is served at a pub called The Blue Last, where it becomes popular with the working classes and is dubbed Porter, in honor of its main customers, the porters who carried goods, including beer, throughout London.

Irish Porter

In 1759, Arthur Guinness leases an abandoned brewery in Jame’s Gate, Dublin, for a term of 9000 years at £45 a year and begins brewing ale. In 1775, he brews his first porter. After 40 years, he stops brewing ale and devotes the brewery to making two gravities of Porter, one marked with a single X and the other with a double X.

Russian Imperial Stout

By 1775, shipments of ale and porter to the Baltic have become a significant source of income to British brewers. Brewed strong to travel, the most potent porters are popular with the Tsarist court and later become known as Russian Imperial Stouts. The most famous of these will be brewed by Courage, founded in 1787.

American Porter

In 1776, Robert Hare and J. Warren of London emerge in Philadelphia as the new nation’s first commercial Porter brewers, with George Washington as a prominent customer. American Porter diverges from the British style from the outset, as the unreliability of grain crop harvests forces brewers to rely on adjuncts such as corn, molasses, pumpkins, peas and squash in addition to malt.


In 1780, in Munich, the public is allowed to buy Doppelbock beer for the first time. Called Salvator, it was first brewed by the Paulaners (followers of St. Francis of Paula who had come to Germany from Italy) as a way to sustain themselves while fasting during Lent and Advent. The rich, dark beer is the first in this style.

India Pale Ale

In 1792, in search of an ale that will ship successfully to India, George Hodgson, a brewer at the Bow Brewery in East London, creates a pale ale with a higher alcohol content, higher hopping rates, dry hopping and extra sugar at priming. Hodgson’s India Ale survives the voyage to India in style. It is the first India Pale Ale, and Hodgson’s family dominates the trade with India for the next 30 years.

Old Ale

In the 1800’s, in England, the Old Ale style is well established, a strong, dark, rich, keeping beer for winter consumption, said to improve with age in the bottle. In 1968, Eldridge Pope brews the first batch of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, in the Old Ale style, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the author’s death.

Irish (Dry) Stout

In 1806, Guinness begins brewing a “stouter kind of porter” for the home market. By 1840, in Ireland and England, Guinness Extra Superior Porter becomes known as Double Stout, and the West Indies Porter, brewed with a higher hopping rate for shipment to the tropics, as Triple Stout.

India Pale Ale, Part 2

In 1822, anxious to break Hodgson’s monopoly, Allsopp produces its first India Pale Ale. Brewmaster Job Goodhead replicates a bottle of Hodgson’s IPA using a teapot as a pilot brewery. The new style is introduced to domestic drinkers in 1827, when a ship loaded with Hodgson and Allsopp IPA bound for India is wrecked in the Irish Sea. The cargo is auctioned off and locals first become aware of India Pale Ale. Its clarity, bitterness and refreshing character sets it apart from the sweet, strong, nut brown ales of Burton and the mild ales, porters and stouts of London and Dublin, and it is an immediate success.

Belgian Red Ales

The Rodenbach brewery in West Flanders is the home of this style — dark red aged-in-the-wood ales with a sweet-sour taste that are like nothing else in the world of beer. The brewery dates from 1820, and at least one brewing vessel still in use dates from 1868.


In 1838, in Düsseldorf, brewpub owner Mathias Schumacher modifies traditional Rhineland ale by adding more hops, brewing it stronger and maturing the beer in wood casks. In so doing, he creates the modern Altbier style: a robust, coppery, slow-fermented, lagered ale.

Munich Dunkel Lager

In 1840, Gabriel Sedlmayr begins brewing a dark (“dunkel”) lager beer in Munich.

Vienna Style

In 1840, Anton Dreher begins to brew lager beer in Vienna. Wanting his beer to be bright, he brews a lighter, amber-red beer that pioneers the Vienna style.

Pilsner Lager

In 1842, a Bavarian monk smuggles a pot of bottom-fermenting yeast into Pilsen, Bohemia, where a new brewery financed by the owners of several brewpubs brews the world’s first golden lager, known today as Pilsner Urquell.

Dortmunder Export

In the lager era, the city of Dortmund host brewers who develop its classic Export style, a golden lager, fuller than a Pilsner, but drier than a Munich Helles.

American Lager

In 1842, German brewer John Wagner sails to the United States with lager yeast, and shortly after his arrival brews the continent’s first batch of lager in a shanty brewery on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Steam Beer (California Common)

In 1848, James Marshall finds gold nuggets on the American River near Sacramento, California, triggering the California Gold Rush. More than 500,000 thirsty prospectors rush west in search of instant wealth, and another kind of gold by night. They crave lager, but there is no artificial refrigeration available. The solution: Ferment with lager yeast in shallow fermentors (of lacquered wood) that allow heat to escape and fermentation to proceed rapidly. Heavy hopping is necessary as a preservative. Residual sugars fuel an active second fermentation, and when the keg is tapped, a release of carbon dioxide looks like escaping steam. The Steam Beer style is born.

Märzen Beer

Bavaria’s lagers are dark, until the Franziskaner-Leist-Brauerei introduces its amber-red Märzen beer, based on the Vienna style, at the 1872 Oktoberfest in Munich.

American Light Lager

In 1874, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the brewmaster at Pabst begins experimenting with adding small amounts of rice to the mash to lighten the beer. Four years later, the brewmaster substitutes corn meal for rice in his experiments. In 1881, Dr. J. E. Siebel describes the modern American mashing method using a blend of barley malt and corn, to produce early American Style Lagers.

Japanese Lager

In 1876, Seibei Nakagawa returns from studying in Germany and establishes Japan’s first brewery on the island of Hokkaido. He brews a lager, Sapporo Cold Beer.

Aussie Lager

In 1885, Australia’s first brewery for lager, the Gambrinus Brewery, is built in Melbourne by two Germans. Shortly thereafter, the Foster brothers from New York build the second.

Brown Ale

In 1890, Newcastle’s largest brewery introduces a translucent Brown Ale to rival the Pale Ales of Burton and the Midlands.

Black Beer

In 1892, Sapporo produces Japan’s first Black Beer, a dark, malty lager, perhaps inspired by the classic Schwarzbiers of Bad Köstritz in Thuringia, Germany. In the next century, every Japanese brewery will brew a black beer, making it easier to find in Japan than in Germany.

Helles Lager

In 1894, in Munich, Spaten experiments with a Helles (Light) lager beer to compete with the Pilsner beers of Bohemia. While lighter than a typically brown Munich beer, it is still different from the Pilsners, lacking their strong hop character. When the first shipment is made available to the public, competing brewers call upon Spaten to stop at once and sign a pledge never to brew the lighter beer again.

Cream Ale

In 1895, Canada’s first Cream Ale is formulated by George Sleeman at the Silver Creek Brewery. South of the border, the style becomes something of an American tradition, beginning in the nineteenth century as a lively real ale served from the wood after minimal aging, and evolving into a light, slightly sweet blend of lager and ale brewed as a specialty by a few regional brewers.


In 1903, in Burton-on-Trent, Bass first refers to its strongest pale ale, coded P1, as Barleywine. The name is generally applied by brewers to their strongest brew, one which approaches the strength of wine and is often similar in character.

English (Sweet) Stout

In 1907, using lactose (milk sugar) in the brewing process, England’s Mackeson introduces its Milk Stout, which comes to typify the English Sweet Stout style.

Steam Beer, Part 2

By 1908, Steam Beer (California Common) is brewed up and down the west coast, as far north as Alaska and in 25 breweries in San Francisco alone.

Malt Liquor

At the Grand Valley Brewing Company in Ionia, Michigan, some time around 1937, Clarence “Click” Koerber first brews Clix Malt Liquor. At Gluek Brewing in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Alvin Gluek has a similar idea in 1942. The style is light in body, thin and sweetish in taste, and high in alcohol. A half century later, rap performer Ice Cube extols the virtues of the style by claiming it will “get your Jimmy thicker,” triggering a wave of public outrage and private testing.

Witbier, Part 2

In 1956, the last Witbier producer in the Belgian village of Hoegaarden closes its doors. Ten years later, Witbier is reintroduced to Hoegaarden by Pierre Celis, who saves the beer style for mankind.

American Light Beer

In 1967, Joe Owades, a brewing chemist at Rheingold Breweries, brews the world’s first Light Beer. Marketed as Gablinger’s Diet Beer, it goes nowhere. In Chicago, Meister Brau Lite is another attempt at Light Beer. It goes nowhere. In 1972, Miller Brewing acquires the Light Beer process and the Lite name from Chicago’s failing Meister Brau, re-thinks and invests in new marketing, and launches Miller Lite. It goes everywhere.

Steam Beer, Part 3

In 1969, Fritz Maytag takes ownership of the last, failing Steam Beer brewery, Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, and saves the Steam Beer style.

Belgian Golden Ale

In 1970, Belgium’s Moortgat brewery, established in 1871, introduces a golden ale called Duvel that becomes a style of its own.

American Stout

In 1978, New Albion, the USA’s first microbrewery, brews the first American Stout since Prohibition.

American Wheat Beer

In 1983, the first new commercial American Style Wheat Beer is brewed by Anchor Brewing Company to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the revivified brewery. Anchor Wheat Beer contains 60% wheat malt and Hallertauer hops, is fermented with Anchor’s ale yeast and filtered.

Dry Beer

In 1987, Japan’s Asahi introduces Super Dry, the first Dry Beer, said by some to be a variation on the theme of Light Beer or Malt Liquor, but with more alcohol than Light Beer, less alcohol than Malt Liquor, and more flavor than either.

Stylin’ Indeed

Today, thanks to the efforts of importers, and the dedication and imagination of craft brewers, almost every beer style in the world is available in the USA. It is a wonderful time to be alive.



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