The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar. . . .
So his mind turned to hall-building: he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever . . .
– from Beowulf (trans. Seamus Heaney)
Back in the 7th century (thereabouts), once one had vanquished thine enemies and smite their lands, the task that lay before any great warrior was to build a great mead-hall — in short, now that the fields of neighbouring barley had been plundered, it was time to get down and build a drinking palace of epic proportions. Beowulf, the founding tale of English literature, now a horrendous relic of a 3D film, teaches us all this traditional lesson: never let a great victory go by without a tremendous amount of post-traumatic drinking.
Thankfully, Western civilization has evolved beyond the thick, syrupy honey-broth known as mead. Mead is closer to a meal. With the aftertaste of rancid honey and the consistency of oatmeal, even the mediaeval knights were increasingly unable to down this alcoholic stew. The mead-hall withered into disrepair. Hrothgar's descendents were eaten and avenged by the monsters of Cain.
With the Enlightenment came refinements in the aesthetics of booze. After the Reinheitsgebot was ratified in 1516 — better known as the Bavarian purity laws — there was at least some sense as to what beer should (and should not) be. A century before Galileo searched the heavens and Spinoza perfected eyeglasses and ethics, the Germans ensured some order to the coming celebration of the Copernican revolution: beer should consist of water, barley, and hops.
Of course this was quickly fooled with. Thanks to post-Enlightenment scientists concerned with better states of drunk — Louis Pasteur, actually, in the late 19th century — yeast was identified as the active agent in recycled sediment; thereafter it was intentionally added. Wheat malt and cane sugar were toyed with, along with all matter of strange flavours in the mash, from grapefruit to pumpkins, cinnamon and other spices to apples and oranges. Barley was originally singled out to keep the beermakers from using up all the breadmakers' dough (the peasant population could not be drunk all the time — they had to eat something). Once agriculture became proto-industrialized and the guild laws disintegrated, weissbier followed. Such is the inevitability of beer, and its long-historical trajectory to where we are today: the post-Renaissance renaissance of the microbrew. This is our alcoholic eschaton, and Homer Simpson's theory of progress has been confirmed as correct: at the end of history lies beer heaven.
Or so goes this tale of tastes (don't quote it in school, kids).
A class culture of the craft