Beer is not only the ultimate summer beverage – it is good for our health, excites us and makes us happy
Summer is no summer without beer. Cold and in a pleasantly sweaty glass, it gives us a gulp of freshness in the heat, accompanies us on the beach and at the restaurant, waits for us in the fridge to return home from work. We crave a beer equally badly both after a long hike in the mountain and a stressful day in the office. Whatever has stressed us during the day, a glass of beer on the table is a signal that we can forget our problems for a while, that we can relax.
The summer of 2020 is definitely far from ordinary, but even amidst the insecurity that has gripped the world beer remains a faithful companion to the season. This is true even in Bulgaria, a country with century-old tradition in rakiya production and millennia-old history in winemaking. In modern Bulgaria there is an active, exciting and constantly evolving beer culture with its own rituals (beer with friends after work, at concerts, festivals and fairs, and when watching football), food combinations (with fried fish and potatoes at the beach, with kebapcheta everywhere else) and even cult movie quotes ("How he dares giving me warm beer!"). According to statistics, in 2018 Bulgaria ranked 10th in the EU in beer consumption, with an average of 75 litre per capita.
Humanity's connection to beer is so old that no-one can say for sure when people discovered for the first time that fermented grain turns into a beverage with lightly intoxicating effect that makes you relax and feel good. Archaeological data shows that people made this discovery much before they became settled farmers who cultivated wheat and barley. The hunter gatherers, who as early as the 10th-8th millennium BC created the mysterious religious site at Göbekli Tepe in Asia Minor, used to boil and drink beer onsite. This provides fodder to the hypothesis that people started planting, growing and cultivating grain not because they wanted to make bread – as the accepted notion claims, but because they craved beer. Another theory suggests that beer drinking was key for the development of human society. Under its influence low-ranking members of the group would feel freer to discuss and share their ideas with the elders. Thus, breaking the confines of strict social hierarchy, beer allowed the community to benefit from the shared opinions, ideas and innovations of a wider circle of people.
If this really happened, then we can say that the foundations of human civilisation are soaked in beer.
From this historical moment, which remains shrouded in mystery, beer went on a long journey through time and space. It was a part of life in humanity's oldest civilisation – Ancient Sumer. There, it was even used as a currency. In Ancient Egypt, beer made of barley bread was an everyday drink. Made at home or at the breweries that existed at the temples it not only provided much needed hydration, but was also a valuable source of nutrients and vitamins. The tetracyclines in it also played the role of early antibiotic treatment in then society. In both Sumer and Ancient Egypt, beer making was exclusively a woman activity, an early example of emancipation.
Of course, if the modern beer fan could taste an ancient Sumerian or Egyptian brew, they would probably frown in disbelief. This ancestral beer was the result of loosely controlled fermentation, far from what we are used to today. As hops was not used, ancient beer was pretty sweet. Sometimes dates were added, to make it even sweeter. Quality filtration of grain chaff was impossible and people had to drink the beer through a straw.
The Greco-Roman civilisation that controlled the Mediterranean in Antiquity held wine at the highest esteem. However, ancient Greeks knew beer and the Celts, who famously had an affinity for a strong drink, made beer from millet. As production remained a home affair and standardisation was unknown, for centuries European beer producers experimented boldly, adding to their beer ingredients such as honey, fruit, spices – a practice that was recently revived in craft beers.
Hops as key ingredient in beer production was documented for the first time in the 9th and the 11th centuries. During the Death Plague epidemic in the 14th century the beverage even acquired the halo of a... life-saver. Indeed, back in the day drinking beer was much safer that drinking water from potentially contaminated wells. The monk who first made the connection between beer drinking and better health during an epidemic was quite understandably declared a saint. Unsurprisingly, St Arnold is also the patron saint of beer.
A couple of centuries later, in 1516, beer went through a quiet revolution. In t hat year Bavarian dukes William IV and Ludwig X issued a Beer Purity Law. It stipulated that beer can be made only of water, hops and barley malt. The so-called Reinheitsgebot is still valid in Germany. In the following centuries the main producers remained the households and the monasteries. The latter continue to be a symbol of quality, tradition and exclusive recipes in beer making.
Just like so many other human activities, the Industrial Revolution changed beer production as well. The increased number of people living in cities and standardisation lead to the disappearance of home made beer by the end of the 19th century. Development of pasteurisation as a mean to kill harmful microorganisms allowed beer to last for longer and consequently, to be mass produced. Implementation of hydrometers and thermometers in breweries allowed fine-tuning of production.
In 1912, beer went through another revolution when bottling started in the USA. Soon, bottled beer won a place on tables all over the world.
At that moment beer culture in Bulgaria was gaining speed. Archaeological data shows that Bulgarians drank beer as early as the 12th century. However, modern beer arrived in the Bulgarian lands much later. It came from Central Europe in the second half of the 19th century as one of the many novelties that were permeating into the Bulgarian lands via the Danube. Soon after Liberation from the Ottomans in 1878, in Bulgaria appeared the first true breweries in Plovdiv, Shumen, Sofia, Varna, Ruse. Most of them were established by foreigners, but Bulgarian entrepreneurs were quick to follow. The number of beer lovers was also on the rise. Thus, after the First World War in Bulgaria operated about 20 breweries.
The establishment of a Communist regime in Bulgaria in 1944 transformed beer production in the country. Breweries were nationalised and planned economy principles were imposed on production. This meant that the beer available for sale often did not match the demand. Although Bulgarian beers would win gold medals at prestigious inernational fairs, at the local market quality was not always at its best. Consequently, people developed a preference for beer in green bottles, as this type of glass allowed them to check if the beverage was not past its expiration date.
When the contemporary beer lover, particularly when they are under 50 years of age or are foreigners, reads the above description of Bulgaria's beer landscape just 30 years ago, they will probably want to rub their eyes and pinch themselves to check if they do not dream. Is this possible? In modern Bulgaria beer is a radically different affair! It is available everywhere and comes in all sizes and packagings. The choice at restaurants and bars is more than rich, and in stores it is even richer. And let's not start with the specialised stores, bars and events, the variety of big and small producers, the option to purchase beer online.
What has changed? Beer and its fans benefited a lot from post-1989 democratisation. As in the 1990s breweries found themselves in a free market with increased demand, they quickly started to adapt to the new conditions. In this crucial decade specialised beer festivals were organised. Restaurants whose identity was built upon variety of beer appeared. Bulgarians started to travel abroad, discovering the beer tastes of countries such as the UK, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic. Even a Bulgarian Beer Party was established.
The next step in development of modern Bulgarian beer production was the arrival of large international companies with established traditions and prestige. They introduced new technologies, standards and marketing strategies. Thanks to them the tradition of inspecting whether the beer is fresh through the bottle's green glass morphed from a vital habit into a funny historical anecdote.
But evolution of beer in Bulgaria did not end here. The first step was the introduction of dark brews to the traditionally light portfolio of beers in Bulgaria. There was more to come. As a part of the globalised world the country did not remain isolated from trends such as the craft beer craze, the demand for new tastes and alcohol-free types of beer, the establishment of microbreweries. As a result, a growing number of people in Bulgaria know their Trappist beer and the difference between stout and ale, and enthusiastically try beer that tastes of wild fruit or hot peppers. Unpasteurised vintage beers also enjoy popularity.
The increased interest and the developing culture of beer drinking inspired the opening of specialised stores and bars. There, changing only the bottle, one can make a true beer trip around the world – from the best local places to the most intriguing international producers.
The demography of people who drink beer and the beverage's public image also changed. Until recently beer was perceived as a typically men's drink connected to "activities" such as sitting in front of the TV, watching football and nurturing a specifically shaped belly. Not anymore. The variety of tastes made beer interesting and exciting to women, too. Connoisseurs of good beer stand out with their good physical shape. They follow the common trend for healthy living and prioritise quality over quantity. Thanks to this and to the trend of lowering one's alcohol consumption, the thirst for alcohol-free beers is on the rise.
Thus, we can say that beer has made full circle in its historical development. We, just like the people of ancient civilisations, have turned beer into a part of our everyday life and enjoy its health benefits. With its high content of proteins, Vitamin B, iron, calcium, fibres and antioxidants, beer is much more nutritional than other alcoholic beverages. According to research, moderate beer consumption can reduce risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and kidney stones. Beer also lowers the levels of bad cholesterol and strengthens the bones. Its fans will hardly be surprised by the fact that their favourite beverage alleviates psychological stress and improves cognitive function and memory.
In order to benefit from all of these, however, we should remember one thing: beer will improve our health only when consumed moderately and with pleasure.