Man has been intentionally brewing for at least the last 9,000 years. Before that, humans and the predecessors encountered fermented fruit. Paleogenetics has shown that primate ancestors of humans developed an enzyme that could metabolize ethanol around the time they came down out of the trees and started using the forest floor, about 10 million years ago. As for intentional fermentation, a beverage made from rice, honey, and fruit was produced about 9,000 years ago in China, about the same time that grape wine and barley beer were first made in the Middle East.
Grape wine and barley beer were developed very early in the Middle East, before history was being recorded. Around the same time, about 9,000 years ago, a fermented beverage made from rice, honey, and fruit was being produced in today's Henan province in northern China. Much later, but still over 3,000 years ago, rice and millet "wines" were being produced in the Yellow River Basic, and some tightly sealed bronze vessels had preserved some liquid. These are described in the article "Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China" [PNAS vol 101, no 51, 17593-17598, http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0407921102].
The best article I've seen on deep brewing history is "Beer and its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story" by Michael Homan, Near Eastern Archaeology, vol 67 no 2 (June 2004), pp 84-95.
The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh describes how the wild man Enkidu becomes civilized and enters human society, with drinking beer as one of the defining moments:
|Enkidu does not know of eating food; of beer [šikaram] to drink he has not been taught. The prostitute opened her mouth. She said to Enkidu, "Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the luster of life. Drink the beer as is done in this land." Enkidu ate the food until he was sated; of the beer he drank seven cups. His soul became free and cheerful, his heart rejoiced, his face glowed. he rubbed his hairy body. He anointed himself with oil. He became human.|
The Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi dates from 1800 BCE. Copies and discussions are found at the University of Chicago, BeerAdvocate.com, piney.com, and University of Texas.
Paleogenetic studies have shown that primate ancestors of humans developed and enzyme that could metabolize ethanol about 10 million years ago, when they first began using the forest floor where they would encounter over-ripe fruit that had undergone yeast-driven fermentation.
There has been some efforts to re-create Sumerian beer. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago reported on this in 1991. That led to an article in Archaeology magazine, July/August 1991, pp 24-33, by Solomon Katz and Fritz Maytag, president of Anchor Brewing Company, and Anchor's report on their project What may be a transcription of this article is available. Another article on this project is "Whatever Happened to Sumerian Beer?"
Then there is Midas Touch, from Dogfish Head, a re-creation of a beer from the era of the historical Midas, from Phyrgia in central Turkey around 730 BC. They worked with archeaological chemist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania to re-create a beverage based on honey, barley, grapes, and saffron. They have also made Theobroma, or The Food of the Gods, based on Mayan and Aztec ceremonial drinks using data from residues of the earliest known fermented cacao beverage from 1400-1000 BC. For details, see the New Yorker article, 24 Nov 2008, pp 86-99.
The scientific details are in "A funerary feast fit for King Midas", Patrick E. McGovern et al, Nature, vol 402, 23/30 December 1999, pp 863-864. It includes:
We also identified a mixed fermented beverage of
grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead in the
most comprehensive Iron Age drinking set ever
found, comprising numerous bronze mixing and
serving vessels and more than 100 bowls.
The major constituents of the mixed fermentation beverage are tartaric acid and its salts (occurring naturally in large amounts only in grape and its products, including wine4), calcium oxalate ('beerstone', the main precipitate of barley beer4) and beeswax (a group of marker compounds that are not easily filtered out from mead).
— 4: McGovern, P.E, Glusker, D.L., Exner, L.J. & Voigt, M.M. Nature 381, 480-481 (1996).
They also mention Homer's description in his Iliad and Odyssey of a mixed fermented beverage called kykeon, similar to what was found in Midas' tomb. A beverage like this but with apple and cranberry in place of grapes had long been a traditional beverage in Europe, suggesting that the Phrygians may have been European, maybe from northern Greece or the Balkans.
A Middle Bronze Age wine cellar dating from 1900-1600 BC in Israel included 40 large storage vessels. Mass spectrometry analysis of the organic residue showed that they included wine with additives including honey, storax resin, terebinth resin, cedar oil, cyperus, juniper, and possibly mint, myrtle, and cinnamon. See "Characterizing a Middle Bronze Palatial Wine Cellar from Tel Kabri, Israel" [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0106406]
People in Scandinavia, from northwestern Denmark around 1500-1300 BC up through the first century AD on the Swedish island of Gotland were drinking a "Nordic grog" fermented from local ingredients including honey, bog cranberry, lingonberry, bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin, and cereals including wheat, barley and/or rye. Sometimes this was mixed with grape wine imported from southern or central Europe. See the overviews here and here, and the article "A biomolecular archaeological approach to 'Nordic Grog'" [Danish Journal of Archaeology, vol 2, issue 2, 2013, DOI: 10.1080/21662282.2013.867101].
French viniculture or the growing of grapes for producing wine dates back to a Celtic or Gallic viniculture industy around 500-400 BC. A limestone grape press and Etruscan amphorae dating from 525-475 BC were found in merchant quarters at the ancient port site of Lattara, modern Lattes. See the article "Beginning of viniculture in France" [PNAS, 2013 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1216126110]
Also see "Symposium: Did Man Once Live By Beer Alone?", Robert J. Braidwood, Jonathan D. Sauer, Hans Helbaek, Paul C. Mangelsdorf, Hugh C. Cutler, Carleton S. Coon, Ralph Linton, Julian Steward and A. Leo Oppenheim, American Anthropologist, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 515-526.
Much more recently, "Did The Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?", Michael M. Homan, Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep/Oct 2010, pp 49-56, 78. Homan says that beer is under-reported for three reasons: (1) a confusion about the meaning of the Hebrew word שכר or shekhar, (2) "snobbery in academia causing scholars to scorn beer drinking while celebrating wine culture", and (3) challenges in finding beer remains in the material record.
The Hebrew word שכר or shekhar is derived from the Akkadian šikaru, which means "barley beer" as used in all major Akkadian archives.
Biblical references to beer include the following, where "strong wine" and "strong drink" were used for "beer" in the King James translation:
Numbers 28:7-10, it was libated to Yahweh twice daily:
And the drink offering thereof shall be the fourth part of an hin for the one lamb: in the holy place shalt thou cause the strong wine [beer] to be poured unto the LORD for a drink offering.
Deuteronomy 14:26, the Israelites drank it
at sacrificial meals:
And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink [beer], or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household,
Isaiah 24:9, its absence or poor quality
defined an unpleasant occasion:
They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it.
Proverbs 31:6, it was prescribed to the forlorn
to temporarily erase their troubles:
Give strong drink [beer] unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.
Smithsonian magazine had an article "Dig, Drink and be Merry" in their July-August 2011 issue (pp 38-48) about Patrick McGovern and Dogfish Head's re-creations of some ancient recipes. "The Beer Archaeologist", a version of that article, is available here.
The Economist ran an article "Uncorking The Past" discussing the history of brewing on 20 Dec 2001.
Archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika, of the University of Hohenheim, has derived a 500 B.C. recipe for Celtic beer:
1: Dig an oblong ditch, pour in water and barley, leave them there until the barley begins to sprout.
2: Dry the barley by lighting a fire at one end of the ditch. Keep the fire burning until the barley has dried.
3: Mash the grains to maximize access to the sugars.
4: Add gruit, a mix of plants including yarrow, carrot seeds, mugwort, and henbane. Well, no, don't add henbane even though the ancient Celts did. All parts of the henbane plant contain scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine and can be deadly poisonous. Common effects of henbane ingestion in humans include hallucinations, dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms such as tachycardia, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia and ataxia have been noted.
5: Boil the mash and gruit mixture.
6: Keep the liquid warm and drop in some fruit or nuts, providing wild yeasts. Keep the liquid lukewarm so the yeast can work.
7: Cool, strain, and enjoy.
Many recipes are available for gruit ale, European ale from before the era of hops.
Brewery.org has a technical library including historical recipes.
Some fragmentary information on medieval brewing techniques is available, as are more general comments on medieval brewing.
The U.S. Library of Congress has largely reconstructed Thomas Jefferson's personal library. Jefferson had the largest personal collection of books in the United States in 1814, when the British burned the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress. The Congress purchased Jefferson's collection of 6,487 volumes for $23,950 in 1815. This included The Philosophical principles of the science of brewing; containing Theoretic hints on improved practice of brewing malt liquors; and Statistical estimates of the materials for brewing, John Richardson, 1790, LOC call number TP 569 Js. Jefferson also owned Smith's Distillery. Both are awfully rare today. However, Google Books offers, among others, full PDF downloads of these instructional books:
A Text-Book of the Science of Brewing
Edward Ralph Moritz and George Harris Morris, London, 1891
The Principles and Practice of Brewing
Walter J Sykes, London, 1907
My page showing how to brew mead also has a collection of links to mead history.
Other vital brewing-related links:
BeerInfo.com has a very useful list of homebrew supply shops in the U.S.
Authentic Wine Country has a very nice collection of links to pages about fermentation.
Everyone needs a jet-powered beer cooler.