Beer and Civilization

Civilization was built on bread and beer. For years it was thought that bread was the primary reason for Neolithic humans settling down and growing grain.[1]  But in the 1950’s another idea was brought to the front: that brewing was the driving force for developing grain cultivation and a settled lifestyle.  Of course, there is no archeological evidence for which came first, since both baking and brewing were discovered well before writing was invented.[2]  Also, as one paleontologist and amateur brewer has said: “. . .  the argument over the primacy of bread versus beer is as academic as that of the chicken vs. egg.” [3]

In any case, both products rely on the same raw materials; grain, yeast and water. Harvest the grain, either wild or domestic, grind or mash the seeds and add water to make gruel.  This gruel is edible as is while the raw grain is not.  Bake a thick gruel near a fire or even on a sun-heated stone and it produces a rough kind of unleavened bread.  Naturally occurring, wild yeast could and did enter the mix at some point causing the bread to rise as it baked, creating leavened bread.  On the other hand, make the mix thin, leave it sitting around for a couple of days in the open, again with an accidental addition of naturally occurring yeast and a kind of very rough beer is brewed.[4]  Beer and bread also have similar nutritional values; both are rich in carbohydrates and vitamins.[5]

In short, beer is liquid bread and bread is solid beer.[6]

Both foods had advantages and disadvantages as a source of nutrition. Beer was easier to prepare than bread. Grain for bread required finer grinding, kneading and a relatively large and consistent source of heat.  Whereas beer needed only roughly ground grain, water, a holding receptacle and time.[7]  However, beer was not as easily stored or carried as bread.[8]

By 9500 BCE wild grains were being harvested with real agriculture following about 7000 BCE.[9]  Both baking and brewing require a sedentary lifestyle.  Brewers and bakers must be close to the sources of grain, and have some kind of facilities to process the grain, bake the bread or brew the beer and then store and guard them.[10]  Humanity was now well on the way to civilization with permanent settlements and a stable food supply with some surplus for non-farming specialists.

There are several life advantages of a settled, agricultural lifestyle over the nomadic life of hunter-gathers: a rising birthrate, much lower child mortality and by storing food, some protections from the vagaries of nature. All of which lead to a massive increase in population of farmers.[11]  However, there are some scientists that assert that agriculture was a horrible mistake for humankind and early farmers were far less healthy then hunter-gathers.  Also, farming caused a number of other human ills, such as the spread of disease, despotism and inequality.[12]  However, if the ‘mistake hypotheses’ is clearly in error because agriculture ‘conquered’ world, while hunter-gathers societies were pushed into remote and marginal areas and failed to develop materially.

In any case, because of farming, the population increased, society became more complex and maintaining the all-important food supply and surplus grew very difficult for the imperfect human memory. Writing was invented to track the logistics of food, who contributed what, how much was available, who was receiving supplies.[13]  Tracking the products of society was so important that it seems that at least one complete language, Linear B, was invented or adapted by the Minoans to do nothing but record lists of supplies.  There seems to be no writing of literary merit in Linear B script, only lists of names, records of livestock and grain; in other words, only the dry language of bureaucracy.[14]

However, the Sumerians soon turned writing from a barebones bureaucratic exercise to rich artistic use, producing the world’s oldest written epic: The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this narrative the ancients recognized the civilizing affect of beer by reporting its effect on Enkidu, the wild man.  A holy priestess/prostitute, Shamhat, is sent to tame Enkidu. After spending the night with Enkidu, Shamhat takes him to some shepherds and says to him:

“Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.

Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.

Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,

he drank the beer-seven jugs!”

 

After eating and more importantly, drinking his fill, Enkidu took a bath, dressed in clothes, took up weapons, hunted wild animals and guarded the flocks of the shepherds.[15]

The connections between beer and civilization in this episode are manifest.  First, drinking beer was a social activity, unlike the sharing of other foods.  In drinking together, all imbibers share equally from the jar.[16]  Enkidu is introduced to human society, by the shepherds, through the shared drinking of beer.

The second connection is indirect.  Beer was a gift from the gods and also the most widespread alcoholic drink in the ancient world. [17]  As William James said:  “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes.”[18]    Clearly, drinking alcohol was both social and religious, not only bringing the drinker in closer contact with his fellow imbibers, but also closer to the gods.  In short, by drinking beer Enkidu undergoes a religious experience as well as a socializing experience.

The last connection involves women and their role in civilization. Indicative of women’s role in baking and brewing; that is in providing “bread and beer”[19], the very basics of life, is that the patron divinities of beer were goddesses.[20]  After all, as one unknown author has said: “The stomach is the center and origin of civilization.”[21] Women took care of the stomach of their family in the household and the ‘stomach’ of the whole civilized society through baking bread and brewing beer.  In fact, the Great Pyramids of Giza, perhaps the greatest expression of ancient Egyptian civilization, were built on a by workmen, living on a diet primarily of bread and beer.[22]

Of course, the influence of beer on civilization didn’t end with the Mesopotamians and Egyptians.  It seems that brewing was independently discovered in all the other major world civilizations.  The Incas, Aztecs and Chinese all had beers made from the locally available grains and all these societies thought beer was a gift from heaven.[23]  Other areas of the worlds and other cultures also developed important fermented foods, without necessarily developing civilization.[24]

In later centuries, beer dominated non-grape growing areas.  Beer was often looked down on as a poor man’s drink, especially by the wining-drinking Southern Europeans.  However, when the brew was tried, many people became enthusiastic quaffers.  Beer drinkers not only praised the drink as a refreshing beverage, but also as a medicine.[25]  Brewing even affected settlement of the New World, with the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth specifically because they were out of supplies; especially beer.[26]

More recently, everywhere Westerners immigrated or colonized; breweries sprang up like mushroom after a rainstorm. For examples, the oldest extant brewery in America, Yuengling, was founded in 1829 by German immigrant. The Tsingtao Brewery of China was founded by Germans in 1903. Mexican beers have also been influenced by European immigrants.[27] Moreover, beer continues to be an important product in the 21st Century, with worldwide beer consumption in 2004 of 150 GigaLiters.[28]

In conclusion, it can be asserted that beer was and is an essential foodstuff and social lubricate, but also, along with bread, jumpstarted human civilization and for good or ill, supported the spread of Western culture throughout the world.

[1] J.M.J DeWet, “Grasses and the Culture History of Man”, Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Vol. 68, No. 1 (1981), at http://botanicus.org/item/31753003566368

[2] Robert J. Braidwood, Jonathan D. Sauer, et al, “Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone?” American Anthropologist, 55:4 (Oct., 1953), at http://www.jstor.org/stable/663781

 

[3] Ed Hitchcock, “Kitchen Anthropology: Home Brewing an Ancient Beer,” http://www.brewingtechniques.com/library/backissues/issue2.5/hitchcock.html.

[4] Reay Tannahill, Food in History, (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1988), 48-52

[5]  Andrew Webber, “Beer or Bread: Was Beer the First Great Cereal Food?” Archeology and the Bible Project, (Rice University EducationWeb, April 12, 1995) at http://www.owlnet. rice.edu/ ~reli205/andrew_beer/beer.html

[6] Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, (New York: Walker and Co., 2005), 17.

[7] Webber, “Beer or Bread: Was Beer the First Great Cereal Food?”

[8] Standage, 6 Glasses, 21.

[9] J. M. Roberts, A Short History of the World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), 23

[10] Standage, 6 glasses, 13.

[11] Jeffery Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2009), 60-61

[12] Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”, Discover Magazine, (May 1987), at http://www.scribd.com/doc/2100251/Jared-Diamond-The-Worst-Mistake-in-the-History-of-the-Human-Race.

[13] Standage, 6 glasses, 23.

[14] P. E. Easterling, ed., The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Volume 1, Greek Literature, Part 4, The Hellenistic Period and the Empire, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 154.

[15] The Epic of Gilgamesh, Table I and II, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/ mesopotamian/gilgamesh/

[16] Standage, 6 glasses, 18.

[17] Ibid, 19.

[18] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience; A Study in Human Nature, 32nd ed. (New York, NY: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920), 387

[19] Standage, 6 glasses, 37

13 Hymn to Ninkasi: translation, http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4231.htm.

14 Food Reference, Culinary Quotes Section, http://www.foodreference.com/html/ qcivilization.html.

[22] Standage, 6 Glasses, 37

[23] Ibid, 19

[24] Webber, “Beer or Bread”.

[25] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1992), 239-240

[26]  Ken Wells , Travels with Barley: A journey through Beer Culture in America, (New York: Wall Street Journal Books, 2004),  73

[27] Yuengling Brewing Company, History of Yuengling Brewing Company http://www.yuengling.com/ history.htm. Tsingtao Beer Company, History of Tsingtao Brewing Company, http://www.tsingtao-beer.co.uk/history/.  A Brief History of Mexican Beer, http://beer-brewing.suite101.com/article.cfm/

[28] Volume of World Beer Consumption, http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2001/ JohnnyAlicea.shtml.

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