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A History of Beer - Part 1

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  • A History of Beer - Part 1

    Brussels Journal

    A History of Beer - Part 1

    From the desk of Fjordman on Sat, 2009-08-22 23:37

    As always when writing about a specific topic, I have used a
    combination of different sources when doing research for this essay,
    but the single most important source of information was A History of
    Beer and Brewing by I. Hornsey. His book is perhaps a little bit too
    much focused on Britain but is overall very comprehensive and well
    worth reading. It traces the history of brewing from prehistoric times
    until the turn of the twenty-first century. Another work I found
    valuable was Richard W. Unger's book Beer in the Middle Ages and the
    Renaissance. Unger's text contains a little information on
    brewing-practices in the ancient world and even less of the
    scientific-industrial brewing that we know after the Industrial
    Revolution. However, his coverage of the Middle Ages and the early
    modern period is quite good, and I will quote his work extensively
    when writing about this period.

    Fermented beverages brewed from grains such as rice or wheat have been
    used in East Asia for thousands of years and played an important role
    in the early religious life of China. The use of alcohol in moderation
    was believed to be prescribed by heaven. Inscriptions on bones and
    tortoise shells as well as bronze inscriptions preserve many records
    of people from the Shang era (second millennium BC) worshiping their
    ancestors with a variety of alcoholic beverages. Such beverages were
    widely used in all segments of Chinese society for hospitality and as
    a source of inspiration. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the
    Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup included some of the greatest scholars
    and poets in China's history, among them Li Bai and Du Fu, known for
    their love of alcoholic drinks. Fermented beverages made from grapes
    were not totally unknown in East Asia, but wine was never as widely
    consumed there as it was in the western regions of Eurasia, although
    this is slowly changing now due to Western cultural influences.

    Kaffir beer is the traditional drink of the Bantu peoples of southern
    Africa. It has been likened to "bubbling yogurt." The shelf-life of
    the product is restricted to a few days, and "unlike most European
    beers, African products contain a mixture of acids and alcohols, and
    have a sour taste." In Mesoamerica, fermented drinks were known,
    including one made from cacao beans, but north of Mexico, few or none
    alcoholic beverages were produced in pre-Columbian times. The Berbers
    of North Africa grew barley and wheat and made wine for centuries, but
    beer was unknown in the region until it was introduced in modern times
    by Europeans.

    In South America, chicha is the generic name applied to native
    beer. This brew typically contains a slight amount of alcohol,
    1-3%. The Incas used the drink for ritual purposes, and traces of its
    making have been found at the city of Machu Picchu. According to
    scholar Terence N. D'Altroy in his book The Incas, fermented beverages
    were so much a part of the cuisine in the Andes region `that being
    forced to drink water was a form of punishment.' The Incas around AD
    1500 ruled over a vast empire stretching from Ecuador to central
    Chile, despite many natural obstacles in this mountainous region, held
    together by a network of roads and chains of runners who bore messages
    either orally or recorded in quipu, a code of knots in colored cords.

    As historian J. M. Roberts states, `Though preliterate, the Andean
    empire was formidably totalitarian in the organization of its
    subjects' lives. The Incas became the ruling caste of the empire, its
    head becoming Sapa Inca - the `only Inca'. His rule was a despotism
    based on the control of labour. The population was organized in units
    of which the smallest was that of ten heads of families. From these
    units, labour service and produce were exacted. Careful and tight
    control kept population where it was needed; removal or marriage
    outside the local community were not allowed. All produce was state
    property; in this way agriculturalists fed herdsmen and craftsmen and
    received textiles in exchange (the llama was the all-purpose beast of
    Andean culture, providing wool as well as transport, milk and
    meat). There was no commerce. Mining for precious metals and copper
    resulted in an exquisite adornment of Cuzco which amazed the Spaniards
    when they came to it. Tensions inside this system were not dealt with
    merely by force, but by the resettlement of loyal populations in a
    disaffected area and a strict control of the educational system in
    order to inculcate the notables of conquered peoples with the proper

    Chicha was most commonly associated with maize, but other raw
    materials could be used, for instance potatoes. The greatest diversity
    in wild potato species occurs in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and
    Bolivia, where the now-familiar crop probably was domesticated between
    10,000 and 7,000 years ago. According to Ellen Messer in The Cambridge
    World History of Food, "In their Andean heartland, potatoes have
    always been consumed fresh (boiled or roasted) or reconstituted in
    stews from freeze-dried or sun-dried forms. They have been the most
    important root-crop starchy staple, although other cultivated and wild
    tubers are consumed along with cereals, both indigenous (maize and
    quinoa) and nonindigenous (barley and wheat). Despite the importance
    of the potato, cereals were often preferred. For example, Inca ruling
    elites, just prior to conquest, were said to have favored maize over
    potatoes, perhaps because the cereal provided denser
    carbohydrate-protein-fat calories and also was superior for brewing."

    According to scholar Patrick E. McGovern in his book Ancient Wine: The
    Search for the Origins of Viniculture, `The discovery and rediscovery
    of how to make a fermented beverage from a natural or derived source
    of simple sugars has occurred in many places and at many times. Before
    the modern period, only the Eskimos, the peoples of Tierra del Fuego
    at the southern tip of South America, and the Australian aborigines
    apparently lived out their lives without the solace and medical
    benefits of alcohol. The polar regions lacked good resources for
    monosaccharides; bear meat and seal fat may degrade and go rancid, but
    they do not ferment. Temperate parts of the globe, by contrast, were
    blessed with honey and fruit, above all the grape, and the tropics
    were awash in sugar-rich plants.'

    Exactly when humans first began making alcoholic beverages is not
    known with certainty. A major turning point in human history was the
    transition from an extractive economy (foraging and collecting) to a
    productive, agrarian economy with domesticated plants and animals, the
    so-called Neolithic Revolution, a term coined in the 1920s by the
    Australian scholar Gordon Childe (1892-1957). This gradual transition
    from the life of nomadic hunter-gatherers to more settled communities
    of food producers happened independently in several parts of the
    world, but very early (ca. 9000-7000 BC) in the Near East and the
    Fertile Crescent, where many useful plants and animals were naturally
    available. It is theoretically possible that alcoholic beverages could
    have been made prior to this. Some raw materials of fermentation
    (i.e. sources of sugar) were naturally available to pre-Neolithic
    peoples, primarily wild berries and fruits, tree sap and honey. These
    raw materials and end-products were unstable and not available for
    consumption at all times of the year. However, it is unlikely that
    reproducible beers could be brewed until after the invention of some
    sort of pottery vessels. The earliest pottery containers we currently
    know of were produced before 10,000 BC in China and Japan, somewhat
    later in other regions.

    In temperate zones there were relatively few abundant sources of
    sugar. According to Hornsey, `Thus, for much of Europe, at least,
    honey is the logical candidate for being the basis of the original
    fermented beverage, some sort of mead. According to Vencl (1991), mead
    was known in Europe long before wine, although archaeological evidence
    for it is rather ambiguous. This is principally because the confirmed
    presence of beeswax, or certain types of pollen (such as lime, Tilia
    spp., and meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria), is only indicative of the
    presence of honey (which could have been used for sweetening some
    other drink) - not necessarily of the production of mead. For more
    southerly parts of Europe, and for the Eastern Mediterranean and the
    Near East, the fermentation of the sap and fruits of tree crops, such
    as the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.), offers the most likely
    means by which alcoholic drinks were first produced with any degree of
    regularity. The date palm was one of the first fruit trees to be taken
    into cultivation in the Old World (ca. mid-4th millennium BC), and its
    sap and fruits contain one of the most concentrated sources of sugar
    (60-70%) known on the planet.'

    Moreover, as Hornsey states, `In more temperate zones, mature
    specimens of trees such as birch (Betula spp.) and maple (Acer spp.)
    were bored early in the year (January or February) and sap was
    collected until the trees set bud. In early spring it has been
    reported that a mature birch can yield some 20-30 litres of sap daily
    (with a sugar content of 2-8%, plus some vitamins and minerals), some
    of which can be stored until summer. Such activities are historically
    attested for in North America, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe, and in
    many instances it would appear that the sap was consumed `neat'....It
    is thought that sap was more important than fruit juices in
    prehistoric times, especially in northern Europe, something that can
    be gleaned from the fact that the Finnish word for sap is mahla, and
    that this gave its name to the month of March in both the old Finnish
    and Estonian languages. The sugar levels of tree sap can be
    concentrated by boiling, and it is of note that maple sugar was
    manufactured in Europe until the early 19th century (and still is in
    North America in the 21st century).'

    Archaeologist Merryn Dineley claims that ritual brewing in Neolithic
    ceremonies in Scotland dates back at least to 3000 BC. Meadowsweet,
    the addition of which can extend the shelf-life of such early beer by
    several weeks, was one component of a number of possible prehistoric
    brews discovered in Scotland. This ale would have been flavored with
    meadowsweet in the manner of a kvass made by various northern European
    tribes, including the Celts and the Picts. We know of several ancient,
    simply prepared fermented drinks that might have been precursors of
    what we today know as beer. One of these is braga (or bosa), which has
    been made until recent times over a huge area of Europe, from Poland
    to the Balkans and eastwards into Siberia. Kvass or kvas is a
    fermented beverage, typically with an alcoholic content as low as 1%,
    which has been produced and consumed in Russia, the Ukraine and many
    Eastern and Central European countries for a very long time, often
    flavored with fruits or herbs. It may constitute a "fossil beer," and
    there are those who believe that the beers consumed in early
    Mesopotamian literate civilizations may have been a form of kvass.

    Recorded human history begins with the rise of urban literate
    civilization in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, starting with the
    Sumerians and the cities of Uruk, Ur, Lagash and Kish in the fourth
    millennium BC. These civilizations had access to barley and wheat,
    which by consensus would be regarded as the preferred grains by most
    brewers. The origin of wheat and barley is believed to lie in the
    Fertile Crescent. Wild barley grew in Israel and Syria, the Jordan
    Valley with the extremely ancient Neolithic town of Jericho via
    eastern Anatolia to northern Mesopotamia and western Iran. Apart from
    barley, all of the major cereal crops such as wheat, oats, rye,
    millets, maize, sorghum and rice can and have been used to make
    beer. Some of the oldest written texts in the world contain lists of
    grains and ingredients for making beer. Sumerian Mesopotamia produced
    a great variety of beers, most of which were probably weaker than the
    European beers of medieval times. Wine was made in the Zagros
    Mountains in Iran and imported to the main urban sites. Beer was a
    popular drink in Mesopotamia during all eras and was consumed by all
    social groups, interlinked with mythology, religion and medicine,
    synonymous with happiness and a civilized life. Both filtered and
    unfiltered beers were brewed in the region.

    According to I. Hornsey, `Beer that had not gone through any sieving
    or settlement phase was always drunk through straws, in order to avoid
    gross sediment. Numerous cylinder seals have been recovered which show
    individuals (usually two) drinking through straws from a communal
    vessel, something that supports the notion that drinking beer was a
    social activity....Drinking straws were usually made of reeds, and
    hence have long since perished, but one or two elaborate and more
    substantial structures have survived. Three such items were recovered
    from a royal tomb at Ur. One was made of copper encased in lapis
    lazuli; one was made of silver, fitted with gold and lapis lazuli
    rings, and the third was a reed covered in gold, and found still
    inserted in a silver jar. The silver tube was an impressive L-shaped
    structure, being ca. 1 cm in diameter, and some 93 cm long. A number
    of metal `straws' have also been recovered from Syrian
    sites. Unfiltered Mesopotamian beer, which was thick and cloudy, was
    low in alcohol but high in carbohydrate and proteins, making it a
    nutritious food supplement.'

    Beer played an important role in the ceremonial life of ancient Egypt,
    too. As Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter state in their book Egypt
    and the Egyptians, second edition, `The most popular drink in Egypt
    was beer, and we assume that all Egyptians - rich and poor, male and
    female - drank great quantities of it in spite of advice such as
    `Don't indulge in drinking beer, lest you utter evil speech, and don't
    know what you are saying' (from the `Instructions of Ani'). Wages were
    paid in grain, which was used to make two staples of the Egyptian
    diet: bread and beer. Beer was made from barley dough, so bread making
    and beer making are often shown together. Barley dough destined for
    beer making was partially baked and then crumbled into a large vat,
    where it was mixed with water and sometimes sweetened with date
    juice. This mixture was left to ferment, which it did quickly; the
    liquid was then strained into a pot that was sealed with a clay
    stopper. Ancient Egyptian beer had to be drunk soon after it was made
    because it went flat very quickly. Egyptians made a variety of beers
    of different strengths.'

    All kinds of workers were paid in grain and in grain products such as
    beer and bread. People at all levels of Egyptian society drank beer,
    with brewing not as tied to the temples as it was in Mesopotamia,
    although there was some government interference and regulation here as
    well. Breweries in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria could be
    large, but in the warm climate the beer would quickly become
    undrinkable and could thus not be transported too far or exported to
    distant regions. Baking and brewing often went on in shared quarters
    on the estates of Egypt since these two processes involved the same
    raw materials and similar equipment. Artistic evidence suggests a
    strong link between brewing and bread-making, both being domestic
    duties usually performed by women. Women made much of the beer in
    medieval Europe, too, until brewing become a major, capital-intensive
    industry and gradually became dominated by men. The roles of
    microscopic organisms in baking and brewing, however, were not fully
    appreciated until the scientific advances of nineteenth century

    Beer was also consumed by many other ancient peoples, including the
    Hittites, Hebrews, Philistines, Thracians, Illyrians, Phrygians and
    Scythians. Some peoples, like the Nubians and the Ethiopians, would
    appear to have developed their own methods of brewing, making use of
    indigenous raw materials. The Eskimos drank chiefly iced water and
    warm blood before they were confronted by Europeans and their
    alcoholic drinks.

    Wine has frequently throughout recorded history enjoyed greater
    prestige than beer and has often been the preferred choice of the
    wealthy and the privileged. It is difficult to say why. Maybe it was
    because wine was usually stronger than beer or that it kept longer. We
    cannot say with certainty that it always tasted better. Regardless of
    the reason for this, it is a fact that wine was often valued more
    highly. This attitude arguably still exists today, when beer is often
    viewed as the drink of the "common man," while those eating at
    expensive restaurants will normally prefer a glass of fine wine rather
    than a glass of beer to accompany their food.

    Wine was widely consumed in the ancient Middle East, and sometimes its
    effects were enhanced by additives. Along with eating and drinking
    went song and dance. Egyptians and Mesopotamians found it difficult to
    grow large amounts of grapes for wine and instead imported what they
    could not make. Thousands of wine jars were deposited in the tombs of
    the first pharaohs of Egypt at Saqqara (Memphis) and Abydos, the main
    centers of the recently united country. The about 700 jars of wine
    found in the tomb of one of Egypt's first kings at Abydos, Scorpion I,
    contain some of the earliest known hieroglyphic writing ever
    discovered in Egypt, from before 3100 BC. This wine was apparently
    imported from southern Palestine, and it is quite clear that there was
    large-scale production of wine in the Levant - present-day Syria,
    Lebanon, Israel and Jordan - already at this early date.

    Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist, has suggested that the first
    "wine culture" emerged in Transcaucasia, the region stretching between
    the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, comprising modern Georgia, Armenia
    and Azerbaijan. Not all scholars agree with this theory, but it is
    clear from archaeological evidence that the Black Sea region and the
    Eastern Mediterranean contain some of the earliest wine-producing
    regions in the world. The Phoenicians from present-day Lebanon brought
    wine to new areas in Spain and Portugal, a number of Mediterranean
    islands as well as Carthage, the Phoenician-derived North African city
    which was to prove a serious challenge to the emerging Roman supremacy
    in the Mediterranean world during the Punic Wars, especially under the
    leadership of the great Carthaginian general and military strategist
    Hannibal (ca. 247-ca. 183 BC).

    The Phoenicians competed with and taught another wine-loving people,
    the Greeks, as both groups plied their ships throughout the
    Mediterranean, traded their goods and planted vineyards as they
    went. One of the fruits of these contacts was the Greek - and by
    extension the Roman or Latin - alphabet, adopted with added vowel
    letters from a modified version of the early Semitic alphabet employed
    by the Phoenicians before 1000 BC. Where the Greek alphabet was first
    created is not clear, but it may well have been on some of the islands
    where the ancient Greeks came into frequent contact with Phoenician
    traders, for instance Cyprus or Crete, possibly around 800 BC. The
    period from roughly 800 BC to 500 BC saw the establishment of Greek
    city-states. By the time of Aristotle in the fourth century BC, Greek
    colonies existed in southern France, the Iberian Peninsula, southern
    Italy, Asia Minor and in what is now southern Russia and
    Georgia. Krasnodar Krai on the Black Sea coast remains an important
    Russian wine district to this day.

    As scholar Nicholas Ostler puts it, `the colonisation of the
    Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts by Greek cities lasted from the
    middle of the eighth to the early fifth century BC. The question why,
    of all the inhabitants of these shores, only the Greeks and the
    Phoenicians set up independent centres in this way has never been
    answered. The foundations clearly served a variety of purposes, as
    political safety valves, as trading posts for raw materials, and as
    opportunities to apply Greek agriculture to more abundant and less
    heavily populated soil, but it is noteworthy that they are exclusively
    coastal, never moving inland except on the island of Sicily. The Greek
    expansion came after the period of Phoenician settlements (eleventh to
    eighth centuries), so it may be that the most important factor was who
    had effective control of the sea.'

    The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with beer, but to them,
    drinking alcohol above all meant drinking wine. Wine was
    civilization. When Classical authors did mention beer, its most
    beneficial property was considered to be its ability to soften ivory
    to make jewelery. Beer was nevertheless consumed within the Roman
    Empire, especially in the border regions in the north. Most of the
    major wine producing regions in Western Europe today, and some of
    those in Eastern Europe, were established by the Romans, including
    probably the famous Bordeaux region of France. Wine production grew so
    much that some provinces soon exported wine back to the Italian

    By the third century BC the Celtic world consisted of a series of
    autonomous tribes stretching across much of Europe from Ireland to
    Poland and Hungary, plus pockets of Celtic influence in Anatolia, the
    Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere. After this, the Celts were more and
    more under pressure by the advancing Romans and the Germanic
    peoples. The loss of northern Spain and Italy, but especially France
    (the Gaul) to the Romans was a serious setback, and the Celts of the
    Danube soon disappeared. This left mainly the British Isles as a
    Celtic repository. In Britain, the Celtic-speaking peoples were
    eventually pressured into Ireland, Scotland (Calcedonia) and Wales. In
    France, even the name `Gaul' disappeared. It's current name comes from
    a post-Roman Germanic tribe, the Franks, although Celtic speech
    survived in some northern regions such as Brittany (Bretagne in

    The standard container for wine, olive oil, grain and other
    commodities in the ancient Mediterranean world was the amphora, a clay
    vase with two handles. According to Julius Caesar, the Gauls in the
    first century BC were happy to swap a slave for a 25-liter amphora of
    wine. A slave would have been worth six times more in the Roman
    marketplace. The amphora was eventually superseded by the wooden
    barrel for the transport of wine.

    As Hugh Johnson writes in his book The Story of Wine, `Wood and metal
    were the Celts' favourite materials. So skilful were they with roof
    beams that some of the more ambitious of the stone vaults of Rome
    could not have been achieved without Celtic carpenters to make the
    templates. Iron wood-working tools have been found from the La Tène
    culture of Switzerland in the fifth century BC which would be familiar
    in a cooper's shop today. The earliest barrels even had iron hoops,
    which gave way to wooden encircling bands in Roman times, only to be
    reinstated in the barrels of the seventeenth century. The historical
    trend has been for barrels to become shorter and fatter - otherwise
    there has been almost no change in form. The Romans soon realized the
    superiority of the light, resilient, rollable barrel over the
    cumbersome, fragile amphora, particularly in cooler northern climates
    with high humidity. The one advantage of the amphora that the barrel
    did not possess was that it could not be made airtight. Wood
    `breathes'; wine cannot be `laid down' to mature for years in a
    barrel, as it can in an amphora.'

    The Celts drank mead at certain great calendar festivals; otherwise
    they primarily consumed beer. As Richard W. Unger writes in his
    well-researched book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance:

    `In the early fifth century, Orosius said that beer was the typical
    drink of those living in the high plains of Spain and, in all
    likelihood, the peoples of Celtic origin in that part of the Roman
    Empire continued the practice of brewing throughout the Middle Ages as
    did many others in the lands once ruled from Rome. Beer drinking was
    identified with Germans, including those who lived on both sides of
    the northern limits of Roman rule. The description of daily life among
    Germans in Germania by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus gives
    a documentary basis for the connection. A law of one German tribe, the
    Alemanii, set a contribution of beer to be made annually to a temple,
    so the drink may have had a religious function among the Germans.'