Beer has seen a number of changes over the years. Some of the earliest beers were made with stale bread, some with sorghum, some with millet. Most often, in the last 500 years, water, hops, yeast, and barley have been the only ingredients in beer. In earlier times, we saw a number of herbal admixtures included in beer, such as wormwood, anise, yarrow, and even birch cuttings.
Even now, beer companies are going back to the ancient traditions, in which beer was a medium of creative expression and exploratory inebriation. But what qualifies beer to be beer and not some other beverage? At what point can we ethically call a fermented beverage beer and fulfill the expectations of the imbiber? To answer these questions, we should take a look at how beer has been defined over the years and how it is changing most recently.
Currently, beer can be defined, as follows:
beer (bīr) n.
1. a. A fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from malt and flavored with hops.
b. A fermented beverage brewed by traditional methods that is then de-alcoholized so that the finished product contains no more than 0.5 percent alcohol.
c. A carbonated beverage produced by a method in which the fermentation process is either circumvented or altered, resulting in a finished product having an alcohol content of no more than 0.01 percent.
2. A beverage made from extracts of roots and plants: birch beer.
3. A serving of one of these beverages.
One of the first definitions of beer was the German beer purity law of Bavaria (Reinheitsgebot, literally translated as "purity order"). This regulation, concerning the making of beer, specified that only the following ingredients could be legally used in beer: water, barley, and hops. The Reinheitsgebot has been repealed since then, but many German beers still declare that they follow by the rule - mostly for marketing purposes. The law originated in the city of Ingolstadt in the duchy of Bavaria in April of 1516, although it embodied one prevalent opinion on the ethics of beer production in Germany and throughout Europe, and soon spread to encompass most of the western world.
The German beer purity law had many factors contributing to its passing. One factor was that brewers were substituting wheat and rye for barley, as they were sometimes cheaper ingredients. We can see that this practice continues today, with some breweries using even rice in their beer to cut corners. Certainly, the addition of cheaper grains in the place of barley is ethically irresponsible if the beer manufacturer does not explicitly state that this is the case with their beer. Many modern beers are proud to use wheat and rye in their production, such as Real Ale Brewery's Full Moon Rye beer, or New Belgium's Sunshine Wheat beer. By explicitly stating that these beers are made with alternative grains to barley, the companies are acting in an ethical fashion.
Today, we can see breweries around the country making unique and sometimes strange brews, which are still called beer. William's Brothers Brewery, of Scotland, makes Fraoch Heather Ale, which contains no hops, but instead, heather tops and barley. Williams Brother Brewery started in 1988, brewing their flagship beer, Heather Ale, in a small brewery in Taynult, Scotland. Five barrels per batch were made, just enough to supply the five pubs across Scotland that carried it, but as demand grew, a bigger brewery was acquired. Besides Heather Ale, four other historic Scottish ales were revitalized - including ingredients such as elderberries, fresh shoots of Scots pine, seaweed, and even gooseberries.
Ultimately, it is up the palette of the imbiber as to whether the beer they are drinking tastes like the beer that they know and love. Most beer drinkers will agree that beer should include hops and barley, but a beverage can be called beer if it contains either malt or barley and tastes like beer. This definition allows for a lot of creativity on the part of the brewer, and also allows for the addition of tonic and highly inebriating admixtures, which can greatly enhance anyone's drinking pleasure.
With the move to legalize Absinthe, we are seeing a new world of beers and liquors coming back into vogue and into the marketplace. In coming years, we can all hope that this trend continues and allows brewers and beer drinkers to define what beer is, as opposed to governing bodies.