On the origins and relationships between bread and beer

As I alluded to in my previous post, bread and beer have both been proposed as impetus for the development of agriculture and civilization.  While it is unclear which came first, or which was the more important, it is clear that at least some early bread baking was done for the explicit purpose of brewing beer.  Coarse loaves made of ground barley, or emmer wheat (an ancient husked variety of wheat) would be baked until partially cooked and then mixed with water to form a mash. Enzymes in the warm mash would convert the starches to sugar and the sweet wort would then be run through a strainer and transferred to fermentation vessels.  The Egyptians later developed more sophisticated techniques similar to modern day mashing that involved germination of the grain and a primitive form of kilning.  The Sumerians never achieved this level of sophistication and instead used the same bread to beer process as the early Egyptians.  This process is still used today to make some fermented beverages like kvass or bouza  A major difference between the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians and other beer producing cultures was that the Egyptians strained their beer prior to fermentation, while  the Sumerians primarily used drinking straws to accomplish the same feet after fermentation

Sumerian drinking straw

Sumerian drinking straws

Fermentation was probably initially a chance event, but ancient brewers quickly figured out that adding some bubbling sourdough worked quite well.  The image below is an Egyptian hieroglyphic showing the ancient process of making bread and turning it into beer.  Bread and beer were often produced in the same building, and since they came from the same raw materials beer really was liquid bread!

A History of Beer and Brewing.  Ian Hornsey.  2003.  Royal Society of Chemistry

Egyptian hieroglyphics detailing the process of making beer from bread.                                                                           -A History of Beer and Brewing.                                          Ian Hornsey. 2003. Royal Society of Chemistry

Although the process of brewing beer and baking bread began to evolve separately after ancient Egypt, the industries remained mutualistic up until quite recently.  Bakers could produce sourdough bread from wild fermentation (containing a mix of bacteria and wild yeast), or obtain relatively pure yeast from brewers.  As brewing technology improved during the industrial revolution, it became possible to make bread that wasn’t sour because pure cultures of Saccharomyces cerevisiae could be obtained.  In the 1800s commercial bakeries got most of their yeast from breweries.  However, as lagers replaced ales in popularity, bakers were forced to find new sources of yeast because lager yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus works much slower than ale yeasts and doesn’t produce good bread.  This lead to the development of bread yeast as we know them today.

Baking yeast as we know it is a culture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae specifically selected to work fast in bread doughs and produce lots of carbon dioxide.  The speed of this strain means that bread made with it takes less time to rise and is more airy.  One of the major disadvantages of sourdough cultures is that they are much slower than commercial bread yeasts. Modern bread yeast bears little resemblance to ale yeast even though they are closely related.  Ale yeasts are highly flocculant (meaning they clump together and fall out of suspension)  whereas bread yeast is a low flocculator.  In addition, ale yeast tend to produce far more estery flavor compounds than does bread yeast, which can produce many nasty phenolic flavors when used for alcoholic beverage production.  Supposedly ale yeast can be used in bread production to produce richer tasting breads (albeit over a long time frame), but I have yet to experiment much with this myself.  What I have however experimented with is making bread from beer.  Beer can add a wonderful flavor and complexity to your bread, stay tuned for recipes and recommendations.

Na zdrowie!


2 thoughts on “On the origins and relationships between bread and beer

  1. Pingback: History of brewing in Estonia and an old recipe for Estonia beer | Rugutis

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