The following feature is excerpted from TIME Beer: The Story of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink.
A trip to Munich’s annual Oktoberfest comes with a few guarantees. Food will be in abundance: sausages, baked pretzels, punchy sauerkraut and buttered noodles. The crowd-puller will host gaggles of costumed guests, decked in lederhosen for men and dirndls (bodiced Bavarian dresses) for women. Music and parades will provide constant entertainment. And most important: there will be beer.
Dating back to 1810, the harvest festival was begun to mark the nuptials of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese. The traditional beer, called Marzen, was brewed in large quantities in March and consumed throughout the summer. Celebrators finished the brew at Oktoberfest.
Today the two-week event attracts about 6 million visitors a year, who down more than 7 million liters of the cold stuff. At Munich’s Oktoberfest, only six local brewers are permitted to sell beer: Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Löwenbräu, Hofbräu, Spaten and Augustiner. “A good Oktoberfest beer is a masterpiece of balance and integration, delicious without being extravagant,” wrote New York Times critic Eric Asimov when he visited the festival in 2008. “It does its job in the background, refreshing the palate with enough flavor to pique the interest without interfering with the conversation.” The world’s largest beer festival draws in a hefty sum of money for Munich. Tourists coming in to sample the brews need places to stay, spend money on other restaurants and need taxis to get around. Those kinds of expenses add up to more than 1 billion euros a year for the city. But beer’s impact on Munich is not isolated. The brew has impacted the way people unite and interact with their communities since the beginning of time.
People have been celebrating with beer (and other booze) for millennia. When archaeologists traced the origins of human civilization, they found that communities centered on alcohol. The Göbekli Tepe site in southeastern Turkey, dated to more than 10,000 years ago, shows evidence of beer brewing at ancient feasting sites. “Production and consumption of alcoholic beverages is an important factor in feasts facilitating the cohesion of social groups, and in the case of Göbekli Tepe, in organizing collective work,” Oliver Dietrich, an archaeologist for the German Archaeological Institute, told LiveScience.
When people gather to toast, they form a community, which, in turn, can be good for one’s health. A recent study conducted by the beer-advocacy group Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) found that having a regular watering hole helps improve social skills, which increases overall life satisfaction. According to the study, people who patronized a local or -community-type pub or bar had a wider support system of close friends, which also meant that they were more trusting of others and more engaged with the community than those who did not support a local bar (nondrinking patrons can find community in social spaces such as a place of worship or a gym). Friendship and community are major factors in health and well-being, as many studies have shown direct correlations between strong social ties and better health. “Making and maintaining friendships, however, is something that has to be done face-to-face; the digital world is simply no substitute,” said Oxford University professor emeritus Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary psychologist who led the study. “Given the increasing tendency for our social life to be online rather than face-to-face, having relaxed accessible venues where people can meet old friends and make new ones becomes ever more necessary.”
But why is beer such a communal brew when compared with wine or liquor? With far less alcohol per ounce than other drinks, beer can be the drink of moderation. Different types of alcohol trigger emotions in unique ways, and the feelings that come with a cold pint may lead to a more positive bar experience than a night spent saying “make it a double.” A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal’s BMJ Open found that while beer drinkers more often felt less energized and less sexy than bar patrons drinking liquor and wine, beer brought fewer of the downsides associated with a bad night out. The study surveyed more than 26,000 participants across 21 countries, and all respondents sampled each type of alcohol for the study. Beer lovers felt remarkably less aggressive than those drinking spirits—less than 7% became that way, compared with nearly a third of the participants drinking hard alcohol. And only 17% of beer drinkers reported feeling ill, compared with nearly 48% of those drinking -liquor. These figures show that beer is a versatile option when it comes to drinking at social events, and could explain why beer is the most popular drink for Americans. More than 6 in every 10 American adults drink alcohol, and among those people, beer is consistently a clear favorite. In a 2017 Gallup poll, 40% of participants preferred beer, versus 30% for wine and 26% for liquor. Although devoted ale drinker Queen Elizabeth I could reportedly outdrink any man in her court, beer has been a sharply more popular drink for men than for women. That same poll found that 62% of the male drinkers surveyed chose beer, compared with 19% of women. The popularity among men may have to do with one of America’s favorite pastimes: sports.
For many, a beer in a plastic cup at a stadium feels like the American thing to do. According to a University of Minnesota study, 48% of fans drink at sporting events. Of those fans who reported that they drank, only 18% tailgated, but 82% of those tailgaters had at least two alcoholic drinks. A recent Harris poll asked Americans what beverage came to mind with the mention of certain sports. Beer took the gold, with 75% associating it with football and 70% with baseball. Clearly, the sports industry is critical to beer distributors. Anheuser-Busch InBev locked in a $1.4 billion deal with the NFL in 2011 to make Bud Light the league beer sponsor through 2022. Although other brands may advertise with the league, only Bud Light can use the NFL shield in its ads and the logos of each of the league’s 32 teams on its cans. The company pays Major League Baseball about $40 million per year for a similar setup. With beer conglomerates funneling so much cash into American sports, it’s no wonder that the nation has had such a long–standing love affair with the brew.
“There is nothing which has yet been contributed by man, by which so much happiness is produced as a good tavern or inn.” Samuel Johnson was on to something when he wrote that in 1776. Getting together for a beer has done more than just create a sense of community; it helps sustains physical ones. City planners agree that local bars and pubs hold unique social value when included in a neighborhood. An essential element to sustainable communities is the presence of a “third space.” The term, coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, refers to “places where camaraderie and joviality occurred, where we can enjoy one’s company outside of home (the ‘first’ space) and work (the ‘second’ space).” These brick-and-mortar locations level out social hierarchies and help forge connections. “It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect. It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection. It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle,” wrote Mike Hickey, a community–development consultant, in his article “In Praise of (Loud, Stinky) Bars” for Shelterforce, a -community-planning publication. “And nine times out of 10, it’s a bar.” Hickey explained that among common third spaces, such as bookstores and cafés, bars provide a unique option for lower-income and blue-collar patrons. “Bars work in their scruffy way by offering a place to get away from an overcrowded apartment or a squalid loft or a grimy job,” he wrote. “They are a place where someone with little to spare can go for a change of pace.”
Some of the brains at LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the most widely utilized green rating system, agree that a bar as a third space is a community asset. Kaid Benfield, co-founder of LEED for Neighborhood Development—one of the primary raters of neighborhood -sustainability in the U.S.—and director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in his Citylab feature “Why a Good Bar Is Essential to Sustainable Communities” that “the more complete our neighborhoods, the less we have to travel to seek out goods, services and amenities.” And less travel means less emissions, a key factor in sustainability. But there are other critical elements. “People enjoy hanging out in bars, and especially if they are in walking distance of homes, we can also reduce the very serious risks that accompany drinking and driving,” wrote Benfield.
The way we drink beer is evolving. Beer lovers are expanding beyond the corner bar and into the local brewery. A 2017 study of the craft-beer industry, backed by Nielsen, showed that 30% of trips to a brewery taproom replaced a trip to a bar. “A high percentage of our members now have taprooms, and they are becoming as important to local communities as pubs are,” says Mike Benner, the chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers. “They have always existed but are making a comeback because today consumers are very much into the idea of independence and local beer.” The expanding craft-beer industry contributed $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014. According to Bart Watson of the Brewers Association trade group, 80% of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery.
A successful brewery or beer business is a lucrative addition to a community. Like tourists traveling to Munich for Oktoberfest, drinkers around the world will travel and spend for a brew. The latest data from New York indicated that 3.66 million people went to craft breweries in the state in 2013 and spent $450 million on the beverage. The following year, craft beer generated $1.2 billion and 10,000 jobs for North Carolina, according to Margo Metzger, former director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. At the time, the state had a little more than 100 breweries; that number has more than doubled since. “I’ve spent my whole life here, and suddenly you see breweries in forgotten eastern North Carolina towns such as Rocky Mount and Tarboro,” Metzger told Curbed in 2017. “It gives people a public house and a reason to want to live there. But more importantly, it makes people feel like they’re in a relevant place. It’s something new, beyond the old story of a fading town they’ve heard of for decades.”
Our ancient ancestors were on to something when they settled down to ferment grain into beer. Whether we’re meeting over cups at a sports stadium, bottles at a local watering hole or glasses in an up-and-coming craft brewery, getting together to drink beer has a long-standing role in connecting cultures and building communities. “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline,” Frank Zappa wrote in his memoir. “It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”