The History of the World through the Bottom of a Pint Glass

Fermented beverages have have been involved in both western and native societies for thousands of years. Almost every culture has serendipitously discovered the potential for grain to be converted into alchohol.

THE HISTORY OF BEER

BY MICHAEL SCOTT NEWKIRK PART ONE: ANCIENT BEER

The true origin of beer is shrouded in the mists of antiquity. No one can say for sure just when or how the first beer came into being. It is likely that a bowl of barley was left exposed to the elements and was moistened causing the grain to germinate. Wild air-born yeast then settled on the surface of the resulting liquor and the fermentation process began. No doubt intrigued by the foaming concoction, someone first smelled of it and then ventured a sip. The intoxicating effects of this liquid then went on to change the course of history.

The fact that the brewing of beer predates written language is hardly a topic of debate. In fact, most scholars readily agree that primitive man had knowledge of brewing and fermenting as far back as ten thousand years ago, when people first domesticated barley in the highlands of the southern Levant. It is no stretch of the imagination, to assume that wild grains were gathered and put to various uses, one of which would most certainly be brewing. The real debate is concerning exactly why humans began to shift to an agrarian society. The idea has been readily accepted that bread is the "staff of life" and that would be a likely reason for the rise of farming. Yet, there are others who think that the use of fermented beverages in religious ceremonies was just as likely.

Perhaps of greater importance is the question of nutrition. Barley once sprouted contains enzymes that convert starches to sugars thus rendering 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.

One of things that is of interest, is a fact that has been overlooked by most scholars. That is, that in most cases of archeological evidence of ancient brewing; the presence of a bakery as a part of the structure is evident as well. This could be explained by the fact that the earliest known recipes for beer call for loaves of bread to be used in the brewing process. Is it possible that the development of baking was in support of brewing? Keep in mind the nutritional value of beer. It is hard to believe that it was not considered a food.

The earliest written description of the brewing process was left us by the ancient Sumerians. The Hymn To Ninkasi is etched on a clay tablet that is about 3800 years old and serves as a recipe as well as a song of praise. Contained in the verse are directions for the making of beer using loaves of bread. The Sumerian bread of the time was known as bappir and aside from its brewing applications, was only consumed in periods of food shortages. This fact alone lends credence to the argument that suggests that beer, not bread, is the cornerstone of civilization. Thus, the debate continues.

The importance of beer to the ancients is something that one can not dismiss. Hammurabi ruled Babylon from 1795-1750 BC. He is credited with giving the world its first written laws. In this code of laws; he had taken care to see that provisions were made in regard to the pricing of beer. 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 in regard to familial responsibilities.

Because of its arid climate Egypt provides us with some of our more concrete archeological evidence of ancient brewing practices. Not only are there documents and bas relief depicting brewing; there is physical remains of grains, yeast and herbs that were used in the production of beer. It is believed that dates were used to sweeten the brew and different herbs and spices to add flavor. Rue could have been used for bitterness and possible flavorings may have included coriander, juniper, tarragon, anise and licorice root.

The process was fairly straight forward. 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 flavor and dates to increase sweetness. The resulting liquid was fermented in large vats and eventually placed in sealed jars to be stored and transported. Although this basic method is well documented there are still questions left unanswered. Was emmer or barley or both grains used? Were dates a common ingredient? What other things may have been used to flavor the beer? We may never have the answers to these questions.

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