Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Beer me, Beer you

I’m writing this from a bar stool.

With a glass of Red Truck Ale.

I have thought many times about the conveniences of modern life making it better to be a poor blog writer in 2011 than a rich estate   owner in 1900. This is one of them. Beer and a small little laptop make a Sunday afternoon go really, really well.

I had planned to write the third in my series on discoveries, but I’m not going to. It’s too nice out, I’m in a good mood and I feel like writing about something more lighthearted. Taking inspiration from the taps sitting right in front of me here at Cafe Barney, I’m going to write about beer. I guess I could write about bacon, or potatoes, since they’re also in front of me, but beer seems more interesting.

Beer is apparently more complex than most evolutionary diagrams


Beer is an interesting phenomenon. It’s culturally important, and has all sorts of  distinct cultural meanings. It’s often fiercely  regulated. Take, for instance, the famous Reinheitsgebot– or the Bavarian Purity Law- which regulated the ingredients in beer. The law, which first appeared way back in 1516, was not really intended to preserve the ‘purity’ of beer (like some advertisements would have you believe), instead it was a way of insuring that bakers would not have to compete with brewers for wheat and rye. The law insured that beer would be made out of less expensive barley, rather than wheat or rye, thus regulating the price of those grains.

That’s not to say their are not laws protecting the beer lover. The very first law- The Code of Hammurabi regulated the amount of beer, suggesting that death was a fitting punishment for a bartender who shorted you on booze.  In the UK, the size of a pint glass has been regulated for over 300 years, and official pint glasses were marked with a Crown etched into the glass thus ensuring you were getting the proper amount of beer with each pour. Attempts to change this- either by conforming with EU standards, or allowing beer to be served in sizes other than the pint and half-pint- have met with much media attention.

There is also a lobby group in the UK called the “Campaign for Real Ale” which pushes for better conditions in order to allow smaller breweries to flourish. They apparently have over 100,000 members.

I assume all 100,000 dress like these guys


So, beer is important. It is the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world– and probably the oldest. Apparently it sits behind water and tea in the list of the most consumed beverages. It beats out coffee and juice. But what is beer? Where did it come from?

Well, one of the reasons it’s so popular and wide-spread is that it has a very simple definition. Beer is made from the fermentation of grains. It is mostly commonly flavoured by hops, though other herbs or fruit may be used. As you can tell by that chart at the beginning of this post, the term beer casts a fairly wide net. So its not surprising that it also casts such a wide shadow.

Archaeologically, beer goes back quite a way. Residue from ancient Chinese pots shows that they were making a fermented beverage- not unlike beer- at least 9000 years ago. In fact, when the analysis on the residue was completed, someone actually made the beer.

Then there is the Hymn to Ninkasi, which is an old Sumerian text that describes how to make beer. The hymn is basically a mnemonic device for remembering the recipe for beer- helpful in the mostly illiterate Sumerian society. And again, someone actually made the beer. Ninkasi, if you’re wondering, is the Sumerian Goddess of Beer.

And this man is her Priest


The Ebla Tablets describe the variety of beers the city of Ebla produced, including one named after the city. The city is about 4,000 years old, and so maybe the oldest recorded microbrewery. Take that Granville Island. I already talked the Code of Hammurabi mentioning beer sales, that thing is also about 4000 ears old.  In Egypt around the same time, beer was also closely associated with the Goddess Hathor. A point Stargate SG-1 overlooked. There could have been a few more episodes that included a drunken Hathor.

Gods gone wild?


So, in ancient times beer was pretty important. Even getting its own Goddesses. But it seems like beer may have had an even more important role. There is an argument that beer may have been responsible for the establishment of some early civilizations. More than a few archaeologists out there think that the brewing of alcoholic beverages may have been one of the reasons for the domestication of grains and an increase in sedentary and long-term settlements. These things are the building  blocks of civilization.

The theory is that the pursuit of luxury items, including alcohol, was a driving force in the development of domestication. It’s not entirely agreed that farming (as opposed to gathering) was a better alternative for early groups. This theory suggests that the regular and predictable  harvesting of crops would have had a better economic incentive if the crops were used to make more profitable goods- like beer.  It’s not without its merits. Humans have always placed a high importance on getting intoxicated in one way or another. We also have lots of evidence of beer appearing around the same time as evidence of farming. There is also ethnographic evidence that argues strongly for a majority of crop production being used in alcoholic beverages, even in non-industrial farming communities.

Now there are many, many, many other theories on why we settled down and started to farm. It’s a large and intense debate. it is also a subject that I may try to tackle one day, as it was the topic of my Masters thesis. But for now, I’ll leave you with the idea that getting drunk may well have been one of the motivations for us to start farming. And farming was one of the biggest leaps forward humans ever did. Without it the vast majority of the worlds population, both alive and dead, would never have existed.

And maybe we can thank beer for that. At least a little.