The Remarkable History of Beer – Part 1

In the early 2000s, ‘ancient ales’ had a bit of a comeback when an archaeologist and a beer company worked together to recreate a 2,700-year-old beer.

When you think about the history of beer and when beer was first starting to be made, 2,700 years ago may come as a surprising number. Afterall, 2,700 years ago brings us back to the year 680 B.C.E.
As a bit of a world history refresher, that’s when Islam was first getting up and running, when Japan broke off from Korea and officially became its own country, and when the Church of England was formed.
And guess what. Beer was there during it all (well, most of it). Actually, beer has been an incredibly popular drink since 7,000 B.C.E. That’s over 9,000 years ago!
So, when we think about the history of beer, we’re thinking about 9,000 years of history. Beer is so intertwined with civilization, that learning about beer history is actually a pretty good way to learn about human history. Maybe reading this article to study for a history test won’t help much, but hey, it won’t hurt either.
What Happened 9,000 Years ago?
How did this culture of beer drinking start? Like most great inventions, beer was created for the first time as an accident.
Yes, one small accident 9,000 millennia ago led to the formation of the giant beer industry that we know today, and created the drink that wins the award for most popular drink in the world. What happened was, a woman (most likely) in Babylonia was making a grain porridge with barley. She let it sit out for so long that it fermented, and the porridge actually became beer. Once the Babylonians realized that they could get a buzz from fermented porridge, beer never went out of style. Nobody can tell if this is exactly how it happened, since nobody from that time is around to tell us the details, so we have to presume. In fact, the very first creation of beer is not known and probably won’t ever be known to us, because archaeological discoveries relating to the history of beer are always being unearthed and discovered. Around the same time period as the Babylonians’ first ventures in beer-making, China, Sumer, and Syria were making their own beers, too. Surprisingly, a recipe for ancient Chinese beer was found, dating back to the 7,000 B.C.E.s, making it the oldest beer recipe ever written. The recipe called for rice, honey, grape, hawthorn, and water. This may be the oldest recipe that is known to us, but it doesn’t mean that beer wasn’t being made beforehand. In fact, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that beer might have been around for dozens of thousands of years, or even hundreds. We may never know for sure.

Ancient Egypt and the Beginnings of Beer Culture

So, What About Light Beer?
Beer recipes written on Egyptian papyrus date back to around the year 5,000 B.C.E. The ancient Egyptians didn’t just drink beer, they used it in medicinal remedies, gave it as sacrifices to their gods, and used it as workers’ wages, as well. Imagine getting paid for your work with a jug of beer. I’m sure not all of us would complain. Some ancient Egyptians are even known to have been buried with beer at their side.  But what was this ancient beer really like? Why did it become such a staple of ancient Egyptian culture that there was even an Egyptian goddess of beer (Nephthys)? From the recipes that can be found on tablets and papyrus scrolls, archaeologists tell us that the ancient Egyptians used bread to make their beer. Women would bake bread using yeasty dough, then crumble the pieces into water so that the yeast from the bread could mingle with it. They then let the water strain out of the bread dough and into a jug where other flavors were added in using dates, chamomile, palm fruit, and herbs. This mixture was then left to ferment until the yeast created alcohol. We can’t tell how much alcohol content this ancient beer really had. We know that whole families drank beer, including children. We also know that beer was a huge part of their culture and people drank it all the time.
There is even a quote from the Instruction of Ani, an ancient Egyptian wisdom text, that reads, “[Your mother] sent you to school when you were ready to be taught writing, and she waited for you daily at home with bread and beer.” Yet, people weren’t drunk all the time. So, it is thought that their beer was not very intoxicating. However, there were many festivals at that time that involved getting drunk and dancing around, so whether their beer was left to ferment for longer, or they just drank way more beer than normal, the ancient Egyptians did know how to get buzzed and have a good time.

The Goddesses of Beer

One of the oldest beer recipes discovered as of yet comes from a 3,900 year old poem written in Mesopotamia titled Hymn to Ninkasi. Ninkasi was the Mesopotamian goddess of beer, so it makes sense that the poem written as a devotion to her would contain plenty of information on how ancient beer was crafted. If you were paying attention earlier, you may have noticed that I mentioned an Egyptian goddess of beer, Nephthys. Many ancient civilizations had their own beer goddesses - Siris is another Mesopotamian beer goddess, Tenenet is another Egyptian beer goddess, Nokhubulwane is a Zulu goddess, Dea Latis is a Celtic goddess… the list goes on. As you can clearly see, women were credited with the creation of beer in most, if not all, ancient civilizations. This is because beer was first crafted and brewed solely by women. Since ancient beers were made with yeasts and cereal grains from baking, it makes sense that beer making would be done by the women. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that more men started getting involved in the beer making process -- we’ll get to this later.

The Hymn to Ninkasi and Other Mentions of Beer in Literature

Now that you know that fun piece of info, let’s get back to the Hymn of Ninkasi. This poem was carved into stone tablets around the year 1800 B.C.E., but its contents, mainly the ‘brewing song’ were around for much longer. Most likely, the Mesopotamians were crafting beer since the year 3,500 B.C.E. or earlier. Surprisingly, this ancient Mesopotamian beer recipe creates a beer that strongly resembles modern ciders and barley beers in taste and alcohol content. According to the American Association of Micro Brewers in 1991, the ‘Ninkasi Beer’ had a 3.5% ABV, and was dry but not bitter. If you want to know what beer making in early Mesopotamia was really like, take a look at the Hymn of Ninkasi. Trust me, it’s worth the read. The main difference between ancient beers and modern beers is the usage of hops and the shelf-life. Ancient beer had to be drunk right after the brewing and fermentation was over. The Epic of Gilgamesh, what is thought to be the oldest written story on the planet, mentions beer! This poem is from Sumer, which was in Mesopotamia, and dates back to the year 2,700 B.C.E. The story tells us about a man, Enkidu, who knows nothing about the ways of civilization. The way that the story explains this fact is by saying, “Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food, / And of drinking beer he had not been taught.”

In other parts of the poem, water is mentioned as being drunk by people when doing their daily tasks, but beer was drunk as a sign of merriment and for celebration. To the Sumerians, knowing about and drinking beer was one of the main facets of human life.
Making its Way to Europe
Before we move on to the Middle Ages, it’s important for me to emphasize that ancient beers were largely experimental. You may have already guessed this, but people made beer with a huge range of ingredients that most, if not all, beer brewers today would raise their eyebrows at. The ancients would make beers with carrots, cheese, olive oil, honey, grapes, hemp, poppy (those last two are known to cause hallucinations), and whatever else they had lying around. So the ancient beer palate was all over the place -- something that we can’t say about modern beer, and that’s not always a good thing.
Maybe modern beer brewers should take inspiration from the beers of our ancestors and start getting creative with it. It would be a welcome change to the dare I say, monotonous choices of beer on the market now.
Now that we got that cleared up, let’s talk about the Middle Ages. As people began traveling over greater distances, beer became just as widespread as people and civilizations did. Europe was especially good at producing beers because of its moderate climate and ability to grow abundant cereal crops. Because of this, parts of Europe, including Ireland, Germany, the UK, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Albania are called ‘Beer Belt Countries.’ Similarly, Southern European countries, including Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Georgia, and Portugal are called ‘Wine Belt Countries’ because of their propensity to grow vineyards.
Beer in the Middle Ages
If you know anything about the Middle Ages, you know that people were often peasants who worked in fields, got sick often, and died in their late 30s. The Middle Ages were times of plague, war, and power in the form of the Catholic church. What might come as a surprise to anyone who grew up in a religious family in the states, the Catholic church in the Middle Ages was actually the main reason why a taste for beer became so widespread as it did. In fact, monks were the main beer brewers of the time. Since sanitation and hygiene in much of Europe at this time was at a low-point, peoples’ water supplies were often tainted with disease, and made undrinkable. But, instead of letting people dehydrate and die, the monks took it upon themselves to create beer for people to drink instead. In more urban settings, brew houses were popping up all over Europe where women would brew beers for the locals. Their job was to stock the taverns and keep the townspeople buzzed. Seems like a pretty fun job. Since beer had to be fermented and boiled, most -- if not all -- of the bacteria that would’ve gotten people sick are killed off, making beer one of the safest drinks of the time. Peasants and kings alike enjoyed the refreshing taste of barley ales every single day. Hops were used here and there since 900 C.E. but still weren’t commonly used until the 13th century, so until then, beer in Europe was primarily made by boiling barley with water and letting it ferment with natural yeast. After fermenting, other herbs and spices would be added in to give it a unique flavor. These add-ins in place of hops are referred to as ‘gruit.’ In more detail, gruit ales were usually made with common herbs such as bog myrtle, yarrow, and wild rosemary. Over time, and through many experiments, gruit was perfected so that it would keep bacteria from growing in beer after fermentation, letting it have a slightly longer shelf life. However, gruit went out of fashion when hops came onto the scene, since everyone agreed that hops simply worked better. England was the last European country to switch to making hopped beers. They didn’t make the switch until the 15th century when beer regulation laws were passed making it illegal to make beers with anything besides barley, water, yeast, and hops. You might be interested to know that hopless beers are making a comeback these days. While hops are still a huge part of most breweries, there are many smaller, independent breweries that are experimenting with their own forms of botanical gruit beers and ales. So, keep your eyes open, because you may just come across a ‘medieval’ beer next time you’re at the bar. If you want to keep learning about the remarkable history of beer, look for the second part of this article where we’ll go into detail about beer in the modern world.
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