How Beer Stirred Civilization

Think of the brew as a psychic technology fostering communication as well as relaxation.

By Alexander Blum, published June 26, 2018 - last reviewed on July 3, 2018


Before bronze wheels rattled over the Sumerian desert, before the first stones were chiseled into the Great Pyramids of Giza, Homo sapiens was brewing beer. Pottery excavated from the ruins of Godin Tepe in Iran, believed to be 7,000 years old, carries traces of ancient alcohol. Once the written word was carved in cuneiform in the fertile crescent, beer was inscribed in the foundational myths of Sumerian culture.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating to 2100 B.C., describes a bar in the underworld run by the world's first known alewife, Siduri, mistress of fermentation and the cycles of natural life. She was only one of an array of goddesses of harvest, fertility, and beer who populated Sumerian culture. An 1800 B.C. Hymn to Ninkasi is the world's oldest beer recipe.

And those pyramids of Giza, constructed around 2550 B.C., were built on beer: Four to five liters were awarded to workers each day. Intoxication defined ancient Egyptian life, long before the Greeks invented the wine god Dionysius and characterized drinking as lunar, creative, spontaneous, and liberated. Beer was an important source of nutrition, providing calories, vitamins, minerals, even protein.

Civilization may owe its very existence to the power of beer to loosen tongues, scholars suggest. Early people, struggling to survive, had few moments of unburdened joy. A night of drinking could foment a collective spirit, encouraging the airing of true thoughts and releasing simmering grievances. As civilization's handmaiden, beer is a psychic technology deployed for stirring and clarifying conversation.

Beer always begins from the same base—grain. Wheat, barley, rye. In ancient Sumer, mats of dense barley bread, called bappir, were twice-baked until hard enough for long periods of storage, then broken into crumbs, mixed with sugar-rich honey and dates, and soaked. The amalgam, called wort, was then placed inside sealed jars, where, in the absence of oxygen, yeast transformed the sugar into alcohol and bubbles of carbon dioxide.

Thousands of years later, the process remains essentially the same. Instead of dates (and figs), however, modern brewers add hops—the flowers of a climbing plant that impart a distinctive flavor to beer—along with spices, or anything their hearts desire. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast that ferments at room temperature, produces ale, robust and relatively high in alcohol; S. pastorianus, a yeast that peaks at 35-55 degrees, generates crisper, sweeter lager.

Biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and an expert on modern and ancient libations, has seen some very strange brews—flavored with maple syrup, blackberries, oak, and quinoa, to name a few. He has spent a career documenting the ingenuity of man in incorporating intoxication into culture.

During the Middle Ages, Germans conducted statecraft while drunk, then double-checked their decisions while sober. The beer of yore was far weaker than today's brews, with alcohol content often as low as 2 percent. In the absence of sanitized water systems, beer and wine were safe to drink; even babies imbibed. Monks took to brewing beer, and monasteries became a source of high-quality product.

The world's "beer belt," where barley and hops are most bountiful and beer became the traditional alcoholic beverage of choice, extends from Poland and Austria through Germany, Denmark, and Belgium—dipping down to Bosnia and Albania—and west to England and Ireland. The southern Mediterranean countries, where grapes are native, have long favored wine. Today, two bottles of beer are sold for every glass of wine worldwide.

Benefits from Buds

The addition of hops, dating to at least the ninth century, changed beer forever. As the female buds of the Humulus lupulus vine, hops resemble small green pine cones and add the bitter flavor and aroma we associate with beer, courtesy of constituent phytochemicals called humulones. Scientists find that humulones offer a buffet of health benefits. For starters, they are antimicrobial. Cherokee tribes long used hops to treat inflammation.

Ongoing studies demonstrate that humulones prevent cognitive degeneration, reducing the risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Most recently, researchers reported that they improve cognitive function in people with metabolic syndrome. They also have sedative and anxiolytic effects. In Germany, extracts of hops are prescribed medicinally to combat stress and anxiety.

Brewers use hops not just to flavor beer but also to kill germs in the fermentation process. Hops, mixed with spices , are added to the wort—the watery and malt-rich grain mash—which is then boiled and fermented.

Besides the humulones of hops, beer contains an array of B vitamins, particularly B6 and B12, known to support brain health. Beer also harbors the minerals selenium, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium, and the malted grain yields silicon, thought essential for maintaining bone density.

Today, China is the world's number one consumer of beer. More than 1,500 craft breweries now operate there; in the United States, there are more than 6,000—up from 2,420 in 2012, according to the Brewers Association.

The Brewer in Chief

Beer may be the world's most democratic beverage, available to people of all socioeconomic classes and contributing to their cognitive nutrition. George Washington had a brewery at Mount Vernon. In Japan, going out drinking with the boss is expected for career advancement. Some American companies have installed beer taps for employees; in WeWork offices, each floor features a different brew.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, beer has been banned in the region where it birthed civilization. But in sub-Saharan Africa, says Penn's McGovern, "beer provides half the caloric intake." There, beer is often consumed communally, with individuals sipping from a common vat through long straws made of dried reeds.

Given its heady mix of social lubrication and released inhibitions, beer likely did more than fuel the bellies of ancient workers. It fostered open, perhaps democratic, conversation. Where there are human beings, there is likely a tap not far away.

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