The History of Homebrewing: How Beer-Making Has Evolved Over the Years

As famous philosopher Plato once said:  “He was a wise man who invented beer.”

Homebrewing History

The history of beer and other fermented alcoholic beverages traces back to the earliest civilizations, with some experts claiming that beer was, perhaps, the first alcoholic drink ever created. The practice of using barley, hops, and other ingredients to brew beer has been important to many cultures, and remains so to this day. As a matter of fact, beer is thought to be the third most commonly consumed beverage in the world, ranking behind water and tea.

While mega-sized breweries continue to churn out the majority of the world’s beer, there has been a dramatic rise in homebrewing over the last few years. This time-honored tradition of crafting your own brews is steadily becoming more popular as the months roll by. But it wasn’t always like this. Until Jimmy Carter became president, it was still illegal for you to brew your own beer.

From the beginning of the Dry Movement to becoming one of America’s favorite hobbies, let’s take a look at how homebrewing has evolved over the years.

The Early Roots of Homebrewing

Because few people were able to read or write, ancient civilizations used songs and even prayers to preserve and share their favorite homebrewing recipes. The production of alcoholic beverages was a do-it-yourself task, and one that was much adored, especially once it was perfected.

The birth of beer came with the discovery that the natural fermentation of carbohydrates, such as bread and barley, produced a pleasant kick when enjoyed in a liquid form. Early brewers favored the use of twice baked barley based bread, using the same brewing containers over and over to increase potency and a more consistent taste. Beer brewing containers tended to be portable, as brewers didn’t want to be without their favorite ale when on the move.

Medieval Homebrewing

Homebrewing was the norm in the medieval period, leading the way to the widespread development of breweries. Medieval beer drinkers relied on the drink for more than just enjoyment, occasionally using their brew for additional nutrition as well.

English homebrewers had separate techniques for brewing their beer, with ale being the most popular. While all styles typically involve the practice of fermenting water and grain with yeast, the liquid extract from the grain was not boiled prior to fermenting when making ale.

The difference between boiling and not boiling the liquid extract proved to be one of the major advances in brewing, leading to better preservation, consistency, and taste depending on the type of brew.

The Industrial Revolution’s Gifts to Homebrewers

The industrial era gave a number of significant gifts to homebrewers, giving the hobby a number of opportunities to produce brews of previously unthinkable taste and quality.

Early brewing techniques involved the use of open fires, which gave the brews a noticeably smoky taste and made temperature control difficult. The invention of steam engines, along with thermometers, gave brewers better ability to control the temperature throughout the brewing process, as well as helped remove that often unpleasant smoky taste.

The advent of hydrometers allowed brewers to monitor the density of the ingredients in the liquid, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of homebrewing. The use of hydrometers also gave brewers the ability to craft new brews for multiple malts, giving birth to a variety of new styles, including pale ale and amber ale.

The History of Homebrewing in the United States

Homebrewing continued to expand after the Industrial Revolution across the globe, though many nations began to regulate or outright ban it. The introduction of Prohibition in 1920, banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, made homebrewing a popular – and illicit – practice. Though producing wine was typically cheaper and easier than brewing beer, Prohibition era brewers faced harder to acquire supplies and were forced to downsize their operations. Watered down beer became the norm, and organized crime was quick to put any competition out of the illegal brewing business.

Though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, making your own beer with an ABV that was greater than 0.5% remained illegal under federal law until 1978. It was this year that President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, a bill that “allows any adult to produce wine and beer for personal and family use.” The bill also gave states with ability to create their own laws surrounding homebrewing.

Allows any adult (formerly only heads of families) to produce wine and beer for personal and family use and not for sale without incurring the wine or beer excise taxes or any penalties for quantities per calendar year of: (1) 200 gallons if there are two or more adults in the household and (2) 100 gallons if there is only one adult in the household. (Read H.R. 1337 in full)

This is why I think Jimmy Carter was the greatest President to ever live.**

Homebrew Bottles

After being legalized, homebrewing exploded in popularity, building on the already popular practice of home winemaking. Individual states still have the power to pass their own homebrewing laws, though brewing remains legal in all fifty states. Home brewers now have access to a myriad of supplies, equipment, ingredients, and educational materials. There are even college courses on the subject, just adding on more evidence that I went to the wrong school. Brewers can opt for something as simple as “brewing in a bag” or build complex home breweries that resemble Walter White’s laboratory.

Homebrewing has grown from ancient civilizations that brewed with a simple cup and a fire into the highly technological industry of today. Homebrewers range from occasional hobbyists to those that craft the finest of artisan ales and beers. The practice of homebrewing has grown in recent years despite dips in overall beer consumption, adding on to its rich and extensive history.

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** I’m kidding, mostly. Please don’t send me your political rants. I won’t read them.

Jeff Flowers

About Author

Jeff Flowers has been a self-described beer geek for over a decade now. When he's not chasing his daughter around, you can usually find him drinking a fresh brew and wasting too much of his time on both Google+ & Twitter.


  1. Snoo says

    Great read. I knew about the Jimmy Carter thing, but never really knew about how homebrewing started or the history that has allowed it to evolve to where it is today.

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