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Beer, an Ancient and Civilizing Beverage

Updated on August 21, 2017
A Barley Field About to Be Harvested for Brewing
A Barley Field About to Be Harvested for Brewing | Source

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.

Beer History

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.

Carving Depicts Brewing in Ancient Egypt
Carving Depicts Brewing in Ancient Egypt | Source

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 drink another if I could find one!

Tutankhamen Beer Complete with Hieroglyphs on Label
Tutankhamen Beer Complete with Hieroglyphs on Label | Source

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

Hop plant motif in stained glass at Our Lady Church, Freistadt, Austria
Hop plant motif in stained glass at Our Lady Church, Freistadt, Austria | Source

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.


Female Flowers on a Hop Plant
Female Flowers on a Hop Plant | Source

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

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

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

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?

See results

In Conclusion

We can't faithfully recreate the exactly 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 gold cups in Nefertitti's court. Like wine or single malt scotch, beer captures the essence of a single moment and one specific place. Every beer ever made was a snapshot in time.

The next time you order a cold one and savor I the hoppy yeasty bliss of it on your tongue, let that beer connect you across time to our humble beginnings as a beer drinking species. Let your mind wander with all your world-traveling beer-toting ancestors as they cover the globe. As you sip in the secrets of its heady brew, imagine how many places beer still could take us. Have no doubt that it will.



Learn More About the Art and Science of Beer

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    • promisem profile image

      Scott Bateman 4 weeks ago

      It's amazing how a couple of plant species led to such a massive impact on worldwide culture and business. And it's still spreading with the wildfire growth of craft beers. Very informative article!

    • Besarien profile image
      Author

      Besarien 4 weeks ago

      Thank you Ioannis! I'm so happy you liked it. Thank you for taking the time to let me know.

    • Sean Dragon profile image

      Ioannis Arvanitis 4 weeks ago from Greece, Almyros

      As a beer lover, I say that is an outstanding article! Bravo and thank you for this.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 17 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      This was a very interesting hub on the history of beer! My prairie farming background means that while I certainly was introduced to beer at a relatively early age, I never acquired a love for the stuff.

      I recall touring a brewery in high school-- actually, as a Catholic convent-boarder. The brewery in question was just down the road from the school and we were treated to that unmistakable sour-malty-soggy-cereal odour at various times in the beer-making cycle. Perhaps the invitational tour was a sort of apologetic outreach from the brewery for our having to put up with the stench? I recall that the nuns got a free glass of beer to sample while the rest of us--under-age students-- looked on coolly, submerging our shock and the desire to phone our parents that very night with a report. I also recall someone pointing out a fountain in the staff lunchroom that apparently provided free beer to hard-working brewery staff at their breaks. Perhaps I just made that up? So long ago.

      I'm looking forward to reading your next set of ten hubs! Cheers!

    • ktnptl profile image

      ktnptl 2 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Very informative, beer is been with human kind since long time and it is healthy as well.

      https://hubpages.com/food/Health-Benefits-of-Beer-...

    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 2 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      A nice topic and well written. The photos and your presentation, all are simply amazing. There is something to learn from this post as you have included tons of information including the history. Voted up and shared. Keep on writing.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      My late hubby loved his beer! After a hard day of work, he would come home, grab a bottle of beer and relax. I never shared his love for beer even though I tried.

      When he was in Veterinarian school, he made homemade beer. I remember once some of his bottled beer exploded; what an smell that was.

      Very interesting article. I learned a lot.

      Voted UP and will share. Also will share on my FB page. I have a granddaughter who is working for The Brass Tap and will enjoy this Hub. They sell "craft" beer and it is a chain.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      Lots of good information as I have come to expect from you. While most people I know like beer, I do not. Tried it several times and just couldn't see why anyone would drink the stuff. I would tell you what it reminds me of, but that would serve no purpose. Just the same, lots of people do like it, and I have no problem with that. Excellent article! Voted up!

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 2 years ago from London UK

      I love beer but I have stopped drinking it because I am trying to keep the weight down! Perhaps I should go back to one a day. I love Guinness -lovely and cold from the fridge and any sort of bitter - cor I could do with a pint right now actually. Great hub! Voted up.

    • Frida Rose profile image

      Frida Rose 2 years ago from Maryland

      I love beer and now I can sound super smart when I talk about it :) Great hub!

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 2 years ago

      A very interesting hub, one of my favorite subjects :-), great to read, voted up, thanks, Lee

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting Hub about one of my favorite beverages. I enjoyed your detailed explanations of the making of the different types. It was also especially interesting to hear about the health benefits of moderate use. This has been proven to be true of wine consumption also. The social benefits, of course, have long been documented. Great hub once again, Besarien.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      awesome story behind the beer history, thanks for taking your time

    • Besarien profile image
      Author

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Hi Say Yes To Life! I have never tried White Salmon from Lost Coast Brewery but will keep an eye out for it. If I find you I will drink it to your health. Thanks for the recommendation! Right now my favorite is Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout. It is like pure love in a glass.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 2 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      I'll drink to that! My favorite beer is White Salmon from Lost Coast Brewery.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      Came back for another read, voted up and shared! nell

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      interesting facts about variatians of beer

    • UndercoverAgent19 profile image

      Jen Corrigan 2 years ago

      Wow. What an informative and useful hub! Although I'm not much into beer, it's nice to know the difference between ales and lagers. And it was particularly interesting to learn the health benefits of beer. When people talk about the benefits of alcoholic drinks, I usually hear them only mention red wine.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Very interesting study on beer. I have been trying to convince my wife about the benefits of beer for years now, without success. I doubt your hub would change her mind either, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. Great job!

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 2 years ago from Massachusetts

      You know, I've never been much of a beer drinker (I use it more in cooking and baking), but I may have to find a brand I like after reading your wonderful article! Terrific research, engaging writing (I love the notion of beer as a "social lubricant"), great information. Looking forward to more articles from you!

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      Beer is definitely a hallmark of civilization. Without beer, there is no civilization.

    • Besarien profile image
      Author

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Yep lawrenceo1, I'm a barbarian too and have the butt to prove it. Glad I'm in fine company. Thanks for your comment!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Great hub. The ancient Romans considered a 'barbarian' to be one who ate butter and drank beer! Proud to qualify on both counts!!

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 2 years ago from London UK

      Cheers! Think I'll crack one open tonight! I rather love a nice cold Guinness and in the UK we have the best dark beer ever -real ale. Fabulous. Such an interesting hub.

    • Besarien profile image
      Author

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Thank you billybuc, Nell Rose and David Stone1 and everyone else for your kind comments! I really appreciate you for taking time to stop by to let me know what you think.

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 2 years ago from New York City

      Well written and informative. The cultural history of been was especially interesting.

      Considering your writing style, I can only add, "More, please." Good writing, strong research and topic choice is a gift. Keep up the good work.

    • Besarien profile image
      Author

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Hi Askformore! Thanks for commenting. I wish I could hand you a cold one through the internet.

    • askformore lm profile image

      askformore lm 2 years ago

      Thank you for a very interesting hub. Thumbs up!

      However, it made me thirsty :) so you owe me one!

    • word55 profile image

      Word 2 years ago from Chicago

      Thanks to you Besarien, I went out and got a 24 pack of beer to drink one-a-day for the next 24 days. I'll drink to your health too :-)

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      One of my favorite subjects! lol! I had never heard of lambics before, so I learned something new too! fascinating!

    • Besarien profile image
      Author

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Thanks for your comment. I'll drink to your health, word55!

    • word55 profile image

      Word 2 years ago from Chicago

      Hi Besarien, very interesting info. As far as good health is concerned, maybe I'll have a drink a pint today. Thanks!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's good to see a new article from you. Thanks for the history lesson...very interesting.