Beer, Culture, and the Roots of Civilization

IMG_2234Beer!

Beer conjures many different emotions and images in our modern world.  Beer is celebration, beer is refreshing, beer is sex, beer is sports, beer is low-brow, beer is sophisticated, beer is craft, beer is strength, beer is American, beer is Euro.  Beer is marketed and sold as all of these things and more, and yet marketing agencies still give us a very myopic view of what beer is.

To me beer is important; important enough to devote a whole blog to it.

Beer has been around since the dawn of civilization and may even have been the primary motivation for it!  There is considerable debate over the primary forces that drove nomadic peoples in the Fertile Crescent to settle down and form permanent settlements, but the two most commonly cited motivations are for beer and bread.  And of these, beer seems the more likely motivation.  By most accounts, hunter gatherers and nomadic peoples actually expend fewer calories to obtain food than those who practice agriculture.  Anyone who has ever planted a garden knows that agriculture can involve back breaking labor and that nature can be a fickle mistress.  So why would anyone even bother farming if hunting and gathering was so much easier?

Maybe alcohol had something to do with it.

It is easy to imagine early man discovering the psychotropic effects of alcohol by consuming overripe fruit that had begun to ferment.  Filled with euphoria and he began to talk to the gods, but such experiences would have been fleeting and hard to duplicate.  Beer may have been a slightly later discovery and could have involved a hunter gatherer who discovered that germinated grass seeds that had gotten wet produced the same sorts of mind altering effects.  In any case, the discovery of grain beverages was critical because it made making alcohol possible year round.  With this advent there could have been the possible motivation to settle down and farm.

Direct evidence of this comes from two of the earliest civilizations the Alcohol ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, both of whom held beer in high esteem.  Egyptian tombs and temples are replete with hieroglyphics showing beer consumption and the brewing process.  In both societies beer was a basic commodity, a staple, and form of currency. Beer was important in religious ceremonies (as well as mead) and would have also been a symbol of fertility.  The Sumerian “Hymn of Ninkasi” dating around 2000 BCE celebrates the goddess of brewing Ninkasi and recounts a recipe for ancient beer

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar

The waves rise, the waves fall.

Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks

the malt in a jar

The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked

mash on large reed mats,

Coolness overcomes.

Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads

the cooked mash on large reed mats,

Coolness overcomes.

You are the one who holds with both hands

the great sweet wort,

Brewing [it] with honey and wine

(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

Ninkasi, (…)

(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes

a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on [top of]

a large collector vat.

Ninkasi, the filtering vat,

which makes a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on [top of]

a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer

of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of

Tigris and Euphrates.

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the

filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of

Tigris and Euphrates.

It is clear that beer had a powerful influence on the roots of civilization and just as society and civilization has continued to evolve so has beer.  While the beer we drink today bears little cosmetic similarity to the fermented grain beverages of the ancient world, the process is not so different and demands much the same culture and care as in the ancient world.  Beer starts with grain which is germinated, kilned and ground, infused with water to produce a sweet mash and fermented.

Beer is a cultured product and cultural one.  The words agriculture, cultivate, culture, and cultivation all share similar roots and etymology deriving from the Latin cultura meaning to tend, to care for, to guard and to honor.  Beer is cultured, meaning that it is a product of microbial metabolic processes (fermentation by single celled organisms called yeast) but it is also cultural.  Styles of beer like stout, pilsner, pale ale, etc  are connected to a place and time of origin and reflect cultural tastes and aesthetic as well as advances in technology and ingenuity (a subject for future posts).

To me the long and illustrious history of beer and its symbiosis with society is a continuing source of inspiration and fascination.  For without beer there would be no civilization.  May your next pint bring you closer to the gods, and enlightenment

Na zdrowie!

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