15 April 2011

A potted History of Beer

The true invention of beer is probably lost in time as it certainly pre-dates written language.
Given the fact that almost any cereal can undergo spontaneous fermentation due to wild yeasts in the air, it is likely that early beers were developed all over the world as soon as farming crops established itself.
Whoever the brave soul who first decided to sip the foaming, fermenting concoction and discovered it's intoxicating effects should be applauded.

Tests of ancient Chinese archaeological findings show that they were brewing fermented alcoholic drinks as far back as 7000BC with a similar process being used across the globe in Egypt and Ancient Iraq.
Written accounts of beer date back to the 6th millennium BC, being recorded in the written history of Ancient Iraq. The earliest Sumerian writings contain references to beer. A prayer to the goddess Ninkasi known as "The Hymn to Ninkasi" serves as both a prayer as well as a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a culture with few literate people.

There is real debate is concerning exactly why humans began to shift from being hunter gathers to farmers.
Many think this has been due to the production of bread driving the rise of farming - personally I'm sure that the ability to also produce intoxicating liquor certainly helped.

There is also the nutritional aspect of beer to consider.
Sprouting barley contains enzymes that help break down starch into sugars making them more digestible. The addition of yeast introduces essential amino acids as well as increasing B vitamins. The health benefit of consuming a mildly alcoholic drink was no doubt a factor. Besides the nutritional value imparted by the yeast; the slightly acidic condition caused by such an elixir, is most beneficial in the reduction of harmful bacteria in the intestines. It has further been postulated, that early man would not likely have gone to such trouble to obtain the relatively small amount of food value provided by bread alone.

Beer was an integral part of ancient civilisations. Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylon from 1795-1750 BC is credited with giving the world its first written laws, and you guessed it - beer got a special mention.
Law 108 states; that the owner of a tavern must give proper measure of beer for corn. Should she take instead, money, then it must be in an amount equal to said measure of corn and not less. If it was less then she should be convicted and thrown into the water. One can only presume to drown. 
Law 111 states that; "If an innkeeper furnish sixty ka of uskani-drink to… she shall receive fifty ka of corn at harvest." 
That beer played a major role in everyday life can also be seen in that Hammurabi allowed for a daily ration of brew. It is notable that the laws regarding beer, are much higher on the list than those relating to looking after a family.

The role of beer in Egyptian society was far greater than just a drink. Beer's medicinal qualities meant that it was often prescribed to treat various illnesses. It was also a suitable gift for the Pharaoh and often offered as a sacrifice to the gods.

As the Egyptians loved writing stuff down there is plenty of evidence of the process and recipes used to make beer:-
A dough was made using a considerable amount of yeast; this was then formed into loaves and lightly baked. The bread was crumbled and water added at which point it would be strained to produce a wort.  Herbs were then added to improve flavour and dates to increase sweetness. The resulting liquid was fermented in large vats and eventually placed in sealed jars to be stored and transported. 
This process was, in time, taught to the Greeks with the Greek writer Sophocles (450 BC) probably being the first to write about the concept of moderation when it came to beer. He believed that the best diet for Greeks consisted of bread, meats, various types of vegetables, and beer or zythos as they called it.

Brewing grew leaps and bounds with the rise of Christianity. Monasteries in their efforts to provide food, shelter and drink for travellers and pilgrims organising brewing, making it into a trade.
This led to a large number of Christian saints being patrons of brewing:
- Saint Augustine of Hippo
- Saint Arnulf of Metz
- Saint Luke the Evangelist
- and Saint Nicholas (maybe thats why we alwast leave beer out for him)

So there you have a very quick history of beer.


  1. I've always felt this way about the role of beer in civilization. Nomads can produce enough grain for breads and animal feed, but not to put too fine a point on it, "it takes a village" to farm enough surplus for beer.

  2. You think the ancient stuff was any good.

  3. I reckon so Biff, better than the alternative anyway!

    I agree Doc- there is a certain level of civilisation that comes with a vilage and a critical mass of people. First beer, then writing and other scientific developments!