Beer, an Ancient and Civilizing Beverage
What Is Beer?
Beer is an ancient alcoholic beverage produced from some form of starch and an enzyme that turns some of the starch into sugar. The sugar is then fermented using yeast. Beer may be brewed using a variety of different starches. Barley, wheat, millet, corn, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, rice, cassava, plantain, and yucca have all been used to brew beer. Odds are if it is starchy and not deadly poisonous to humans, someone out there is fashioning a beer out of it.
The first beer ever to be enjoyed by a person like us was probably an accidental lambic, a beer resulting from spontaneous fermentation from wild yeast in the air. It is likely that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to make beer on purpose even before mankind made wine, engaged in agriculture, or learned how to bake bread.
Beer would have been a boon to ancient peoples for a whole host of reasons. First and most importantly, it was much safer to drink than most available water. Even in the industrial world, this was true until recently and is still true today in much of the world. Even if the brewing process did not involve boiling the water, any number of parasites and other pathogens can not survive the resulting alcohol content.
Did You Know?
Very moderate, one pint of beer per day consumption can make an adult healthier than a non-drinker of similar age. You would have on average:
- 42 percent lower risk for heart disease
- 40 percent less likelihood of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes
- 40 percent lower risk for kidney stones
- 4.5 percent greater bone density
Luckily, in most cultures men, women, and children all drank it. Beer was far more nutritional than water too. It was also a valuable social lubricant, just like today. Depending on quantity and what was added to it, beer may have been powerfully mind-altering at times. We know it was used medicinally, as well as in religious worship, sacred festivals, and burial rites.
The first large scale beer production probably happened about 11000 years ago, coinciding with the earliest crops. Many archaeologists and anthropologists currently believe that the need for more reliable beer production is exactly what caused people to settle down and focus their energies toward agriculture.
If this indeed is the case, beer set the foundation for our civilization and jump-started human creativity. Consider this. Man had existed in our current form for about a hundred thousand years prior to beer. In all that time, we developed some basic tool use, harnessed fire, picked up some basic masonry skills, but never managed a whole lot else. After beer, human discovery and invention really took off.
Beer of the Ancients
The first recorded evidence that we have found of beer production dates to 6000 years ago. It is a Sumerian tablet that appears to depict a group of people sipping beer from a communal bowl through straws.
While we can't be certain what the people depicted by the artist were drinking, we do know that beer often was consumed through straws made of reed and other materials out of similar objects.
Ancient beer was typically not filtered to today's standards. Straws made it easier to avoid the foul-smelling foam floating on top of the beer and the layer of malt, spices, and other sediments that settled to the murky bottom.
Also the first known beer recipe comes to us by way of the Sumerians in the form of the Hymn to Ninkasi. It is a 3900-year-old poem glorifying the goddess who, according to the people of ancient Sumer, oversaw beer-brewing:
Ninkasi, you bake the barley bread in the large oven
and order the piles of hulled grain.
You water the malt placed on the ground
and hold the great sweet wort in your hands
Ninkasi, you pour forth the beer of the collectors vat.
It courses like the Tigris and Euphrates.— Unknown Sumerian Poet
The barley bread mentioned here is the yeast element in this recipe. Egyptian Copts still make a bread-based beer product called bouza that may taste very similar to Ninkasi's ancient brew.
Archaeology Informs the Contemporary Art of Brewing
The first chemical archaeological evidence for beer production dates back about 9000 years to China. That early beer sample was a mixture of rice, honey, grapes and hawthorn fruit.
Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, used this ancient recipe to craft their beer Chateau Jiahu, honoring the Jiahu region in northern China home to the archeological discovery. I got to try a glass! It was light and crisp with just a kiss of fruit. I'd gladly drink another if I could find one!
In the UK, a batch of 1000 bottles of Tutankhamen Beer, made from ancient emmer wheat, was brewed in 1996. The limited collection beer sold for 75 US dollars per bottle at Harrods. The recipe for the brew was based on Ancient Egyptian beer residue discovered by archeologists at Queen Nefertiti's Royal Brewery.
Beer in Medieval Times
Soon after beer was first introduced to Europe by Roman occupation, most European beer was made at home by housewives and other wise women. About 1500 years ago, that began to change.
In the Medieval age, the Church centralized the majority of all European beer production. The main breweries were located at various religious way points frequented by thirsty travelling pilgrims. At that time, European beer, brewed primarily by monks, was effectively a Church-controlled currency, accepted almost universally for the purposes of tithing, taxation, and trade purposes.
Using Hops, a Medieval Twist on the Ancient Classic
Hops are female flowers from the hop plant. Now most but certainly not all of the world's beer is made with hops. Hops have been used in brewing only for about the last 900 years.
Previously, most beers used a mixture of herbs and spices to flavor the brew and inhibit unwanted bacterial growth. Both these mixtures and the contemporary beers that use them in place of hops are called gruits.
Hops add a fresher flavor, floral notes, bitterness, and a more pleasant aroma. Most contemporary brewers add hops in various stages of production.
About 80 varieties of hops were used in commercial brewing during 2012. Many more new varieties of hops were then in development and testing for possible use in future beer production.
Understanding Contemporary Beer
There are many types as there are individual beers but all fall into three main categories, separated by fermentation processes. These three categories are ales, lagers, and lambics.
Ales are the first beers produced by people and use a strain of brewer's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, that ferments at 60°F and above. Closer to 60 °F fermentation tends to produce sweet, nutty flavors. At temperatures above 75 °F the yeast may produce esters which cause the final product to deliver hints of green apple, banana, cherry, apricot and other familiar fruity flavors.
Lagers were developed about 600 years ago. The first lagering was done in caves in Bavaria and caught on in cold climates. The rise of refrigeration allowed the practice to spread. Most American big corporate beers fall into this category.
Light colored lagers tend to be mild and sometimes hoppy in flavor. Golden and darker lagers vary more in their flavor profiles and can range from sweet and malty to the more bitter and deeply nutty flavors with hints of cocoa, coconut, or coffee. Lagers use a strain of brewer's yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, that ferments at around 50 °F.
Lambics and wild ales use wild yeasts and bacteria present in the air instead of a single strain of cultivated yeast. These wild yeasts and bacteria give lambics and wild ales their characteristic sour flavors.
The production of lambics was developed in Brussels. Traditional lambics are not inoculated with yeast just allowed to be infected by it from the air. They are aged in barrels and can take years to mature into the finale product.
Wild ales are a modern riff on lambics but are purposely inoculated with wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria. Many brewers consider wild ales to be the next frontier in brewing that we only just have started to explore.
Which color beers do you usually enjoy more?
We can't faithfully recreate the exact esters of a rice beer crafted in the shade of a cherry tree in ancient China. We will never know which strains of wild yeast inoculated the beer poured into solid gold cups in Nefertitti's court. Like wine or single malt scotch, beer captures the essence of a single moment and one very specific place. Every beer ever made is a snapshot of space and time.
When next you order a cold one or pop a top at home and savor some hoppy, yeasty bliss on your tongue, let that beer connect you across time back to our humble beginnings as a beer-drinking species. Let your mind wander with all our beer-toting ancestors as they expanded civilization across the globe. As you sip the secrets of your next heady brew, imagine all the places that beer might take us in the future, and have no doubts that it will.