A Hogshead Of Beer — With A Whole Hog's Head In It
Image Credit: May we interest you in a pint of meat beer? Facebook/@DockStreetBrewery

THE histories of alcohol (more specifically, beer) and the human race have long proceeded hand-in-hand. The influence of alcohol on humans was so profound, that a common joke circulating among historians claims that Neolithic men finally decided to settle down not to develop agriculture but to peacefully consume the intoxicating fruits of brewing barley (a recent discovery for the race). Unsurprisingly then, brewing was an ancient concept with roots firmly embedded in the seat of human civilisation. It emerged almost 5,000 years ago from the grasslands of southern Babylonia, in the fecund land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. 

As was the ritual with early civilisations, the Sumerians (settled in Lower Mesopotamia) paid obeisance to their Nature Goddess Ninkasi as a means to ensure bounteous crops and the safety of the people. The Mesopotamians religiously followed Ninkasi’s “divine guidance.” She was referred to as the ‘provider’ or the “lady who fills the mouth”. Not only was she believed to have aided them in making bread (called ‘bappir’) but was also responsible for teaching the Sumerians how to brew beer, termed ‘kas’.

Old hymns of the period show excerpts where Ninkasi is defined as “the one who waters the malt set on the ground … you are the one who bakes the bappir-malt in the great oven…. You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar … the waves rise, the waves fall.” Ultimately, Ninkasi “pours the fragrant beer in the lahtan-vessel, which is like the Tigris and Euphrates joined.” 


Gradually, beer and its brewing made their way from Sumer to Egypt. On invading Egypt, the Greeks picked up these traditions and introduced them to the Europeans. But what genuinely bolstered the beer brewing industry was the Industrial Revolution. The mechanisation of brewing methods and coarse flavours like the dark porter beer became a preferred choice. What began as a means of personal frolic and fun, soon mushroomed into a full-scale business with variables and parameters. As a result of this, craft beers began gaining ground among aficionados. One of the oldest forms of alcohol now had a plethora of paraphernalia that went behind making the perfect mug of frothy goodness. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, a remarkable renaissance took place, commencing its journey in the microbreweries of England and later making its presence felt across the American West. American brewers, deeply influenced by the customs of Europe, and having cultivated their expertise through tireless experimentation in their own kitchens, undertook a momentous task to reimagine beer. Their goal now aimed at blending ingenious concoctions by brewing the alcohol with multiple robust flavours, including meat, doughnuts — and even marijuana!  


The Cock Ale, for example, became an extremely famous beer variant in the recent past with The Willimantic Brewing Company actually releasing a version of it. A yesteryear recipe belonging to the 17th and 18th centuries, Cock Ale was prepared after dunking a whole cock (or chicken) into the brewing process. After the ale (beer) was prepared, a full container of skinned, gutted and parboiled meat chunks was added to it along with other fruits and spices. Ingredients like ground mace, nutmeg, raisins, dates and cloves were used in the process. After mixing the beer with the spices and meat, the concoction was allowed to sit for a week before it was bottled. General instructions stated that the bottle would be ready for consumption a month after it was corked. 

Another popular tradition that has taken a more serious turn in recent years, is brewing oysters with beer. In a tradition that began in 1929, stouts (or strongly seasoned infusion) were created from oysters and then allowed to brew with the grains. This trend saw numerous microbreweries promptly emulating it and selling these beers to enthusiastic customers. Iconic American breweries like Harpoon, Three Floyds and Flying Dog are known to have oyster stout-brewed beers on menus. Both oysters and their shells go into creating the smooth stout with the signature hint of sweetness. The process involves shucking the oysters and putting the contents within the frothing maw of stewing hops and grains. 

Conwy Brewery, a UK-based distillery, decided to commemorate Saint David’s Day in 2014 by introducing a new addition to its menu. They announced that a Victorian-style porter (beer) would be served to willing customers. The drink would be infused with juices from a slow-roasted lamb chunk. The choice of meat was obvious since nothing else could best symbolise “harvest” as well as the motif of a pastoral lamb. The Welsh company received favourable feedback on their new innovation as people began associating the “odd smell of a Sunday roast” in the beer with the perfect holiday for celebrating it. 


Adding bizarre animal organs to beer was also seemingly alluring for brewers and connoisseurs. From beef hearts to bull testicles and whale meat, beer has been the medium for many-a-drink experimentations. Celebrity chef David Burke was approached by the Samuel Adams brewery for one such collaboration when Burke agreed to serve a special variant of beer made by brewing sliced beef hearts. Meanwhile, Earth Eagle Brewings and Right Brain Brewery, distilleries in New Hampshire and Michigan respectively, came up with the innovative blend of brewing their lagers with smoked pig heads and bones. The pig porters not only carried a dense flavour profile, but were also fan favourites, owing to perfectly complementing fried snacks.

Some variants even owe their invention to a special occasion that propelled brewery owners to belt out ingenious creations. When the vastly beloved AMC show The Walking Dead entered its eleventh and final season in 2022, a Philadelphia brewery chose to give the show a classy send-off. They combined organic cranberries, flaked barley, wheat and oats for their regular American porter. However, as the last step, the porter was brewed with smoked goat brains — a perfect hat-tip to a show primarily featuring zombies. 

In 2012, the owners of a Colorado pub decided to pull an April Fool’s prank on their customers. Wynkoop’s owners released an online video announcing that they would be using “Rocky Mountain” oysters (referring to bull testicles) instead of normal oysters for making their stouts. The largely positive reactions that poured in were not only unexpected, but the widespread enthusiasm encouraged them to actually develop a limited batch of the bull-testicled beer. Similarly, a Brooklyn brewery called Reinschweinsgebot, announced that they would begin including bacon in their brewing process. Adding bacon to the mix is possibly the least cumbersome since smoked beers and Rauchbiers already possess a rich smoky undertone to them. The use of malt barley over dried, open flames ensured that the spicy and meaty flavours remain locked in. 

It is ironic that beer now comes to define a spectrum of taste profiles and ingredients, especially since the liquor’s history charts quite the opposite tale. In 1487, Albert IV, the then-Duke of Bavaria, passed an order under which, on 30 November that year, the Reinheitsgebot, or “Bavarian Purity Laws” were put in place. As per these rules, beer preparations could only have a combination of water, hops and barley. No additional ingredients could go into the drink, thereby safeguarding the sanctity of ale. In the 500 years that followed, the flavour riot that beer evolution has witnessed is not only fascinating but also balls-y (pun intended).