The History of Beer Part 1 – What Came First – Bread or Beer?

Beer was born at the same time as human civilisation. It has been linked to our writing system, the first bread we baked, the first currency and the first Egyptian god. Interestingly, the tipple of our beer-supping ancestors did not contain hops and was recommended for women and children.

The history of beer is linked to the birth of civilisation. It was discovered as soon as our ancestors decided to give up their wandering mode of existence and settle down. The earliest evidence that we have been drinking beer for aaaages is a pictogram on a seal dating from the 4th millennium BC. It was found in Tepe Gawra (in modern Iraq), a settlement in ancient Mesopotamia.

PictogramIt presents two figures drinking from a large jug through straws. Of course what the people are drinking in this image was quite unlike the beer of today. It was more like a soup – a blend of water and grains. It would have been swimming with chaff and other impurities. This is why beer was drunk through cane straws. Beer also appears on the oldest written testimony of human civilisation – the tablets from Uruk in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Beer was represented in Sumerian script by a jug crossed by two parallel lines. Archaeologists have also found many tablets containing lists of names with the inscription: “issued his daily ration of beer and bread”. These “payrolls” are the source of a great deal of information about our ancestors’ diet. As writing developed, the symbol representing beer became more abstract. This can be seen in the cuneiform script, which is a precursor of the Roman alphabet.

How the cuneiform symbol for beer changed

How the cuneiform symbol for beer changed

 

As soon as we settled, we got down to drinking

The beer revolution began, as one might imagine, where the agricultural revolution began, i.e. the region known as the Fertile Crescent.

 Fertile Crescent.

Fertile Crescent.

 

This was an ideal location for founding settlements and cultivating wheat. Our ancestors discovered that grains tasted better when pounded and mixed with water, and even better when this water was heated. Shortly afterwards, they discovered another one of wheat’s virtues, namely that it could be stored for months or even years without losing its nutritional properties. They therefore began to construct storage houses for their grain and attached greater importance to the harvests. They also invented tools that made their work easier – sickles, woven baskets, stone querns. With these, they bid farewell to the fear of starvation that had caused us to lead our migratory lifestyle. From this time onwards, we were able to settle down and… start keeping watch over those grain storehouses.

A sickle dating from Sumerian times/ Wikimedia Commons

A sickle dating from Sumerian times/ Wikimedia Commons

As time passed, it became clear that grain soaked in water began to sprout and take on a sweet taste (today we know that this is caused by amylase enzymes, which convert starch into maltose). This is how malt came into being. When left to stand in water at room temperature for a few days, it begins to fizz and when drunk, it can trigger a pleasant state of intoxication. Our beer-supping ancestors didn’t know of course that under the influence of yeast which could have naturally existed in the air, sugar ferments and alcohol is created. After beer had been discovered, people learned through a method of trial and error that the more malted barley they added and the longer it was left to ferment, the stronger the drink became. Ancient brewers also observed that if the beer was brewed in the same vessel, it was better. This of course happened because there were residual yeast colonies in cracks in the vessel, so fermentation occurred more swiftly.

There is a theory according to which beer is older than bread. A hypothesis has been posited that the first cake, the great-grandfather of bread, was created from spilled fermented beer, dried and baked on a hot stone. Let’s remember that beer in those days was reminiscent of a watery mush created from saturated fermented grains. This theory has never been confirmed, but will surely strike a chord with every beer drinker, so we allowed ourselves to cite it.

We have the ancients to thank for our knowledge of beer

Osiris

Osiris

Most of the information we have about beer was left to us by two civilisations which used writing systems – the Sumerians and the Egyptians. Interestingly, beer was drunk from a single jug using a long straw, even when everyone could have drunk from their own vessels. So beer drinking had a social aspect – it was a ritual and a manner of sharing provisions. The state of intoxication following the drinking of beer also had its mystical aspect and in many cultures it was believed that beer was a gift of the gods. The Egyptians claimed that it was Osiris, the protector of crops, who one day created a mush from water and sprouting grain. Being busy with other matters, he forgot about it and left it for a few days in the sun. When he returned, he saw that the drink had fermented, but he decided to drink it. The god felt so fantastic that he decided to share his invention with people. The Egyptians often used beer in religious ceremonies, as well as during funerals and festivals associated with agriculture.

We have the Sumerians to thank for the earliest example of world literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh. It contains the story of a bestial giant – Enkidu – who, after drinking beer, “washed his body and shed his fur so as to become a man”. In Mesopotamia, knowledge of beer and bread was something which separated civilised people from those who were “wild”.

The Egyptians left us the inscriptions in the Pyramid Texts of the rulers of the 4th and 5th Dynasties. They not only used writing to describe mighty deeds, but also mundane trade transactions. In fact, beer is the most frequently mentioned foodstuff in these early examples of writing. Beer was basically a currency that was also easily divisible. We know that, during the construction of the pyramid complex at Giza, the workers got four loaves of bread and around five litres of beer a day. “Bread and beer” therefore naturally became a symbol of wealth. When the Egyptians become reputable brewers, they began to export their beer abroad.

A table outlining beer rations / Wikimedia Commons/ BabelStone

A table outlining beer rations / Wikimedia Commons/ BabelStone

The Egyptians greeted each other with the phrase “bread and beer”. Beer was also recommended in Egypt as a medicine and base for other medicaments. Drinking it was indeed healthy – it contained fewer microorganisms than ordinary water from the Nile, because it was partially composed of alcohol. In addition, during its production process, water was heated, even to a relatively high temperature, usually by throwing hot stones which had been heated in a fire into it. It’s worth mentioning that beer was prescribed for both women and children.

Egyptians producing beer/ Wikimedia Commons/ E. Michael Smith Chiefio

Egyptians producing beer/ Wikimedia Commons/ E. Michael Smith Chiefio

It went down a storm with the Athenians. Greek merchants introduced beer to Gaul, Spain and the East coast of the Adriatic. It also made it to Germania, where a grand career awaited it. In Roman times, the Gauls named the sparkling drink cerevisia in honour of their harvest goddess, and it’s also to them that we owe the appearance of barrels. Gaul was one of the few provinces in the Roman Empire that favoured beer over wine.

In Classical Latin the word for beer was cervesia or cerevisia and was borrowed from a Celtic language (cera – grain, vise – strength). The expressions for beer in some of the Romance languages are also derived from this word: the Spanish cerveza, the Catalonian cervesa and the Portuguese cerveja.

The Latin infinitive bibere gave birth to the mediaeval noun biber (“beverage”). The influence of Latin can also be seen in many Germanic, Romance and other languages:

  • English – beer
  • Breton and Dutch – bier
  • French – bière (this word was not completely adopted until the 16th century, replacing the previously used term for beer – cervoise)
  • German – bier
  • Romanian – bere
  • Italian – birra

The Romans, however, preferred to drink wine. The Emperor Domitian divided Gaul into areas devoted to the cultivation of wheat and those devoted to viticulture, in a sense making a clear division between the two drinks. So, while in the Mediterranean lands everyone drank good quality or inferior wine, from the Loire to the Baltic, it was the brewing of beer that was being perfected. The Celts loved it. Celtic beer was created from saturated wheat, which was germinated, dried and then ground into flour. The flour was diluted, heated and then mixed with hops before being left to stand for the fermentation stage. The territories once inhabited by the Celts are still known today for the production of beer – enough to mention the Czech Republic, Bavaria or Belgium.

The beer of our ancient forebears did not contain hops. The taste of beer so familiar to us today was born in the Middle Ages.

Two-row (i.e. malted) barley was first described in the 1st century by Columella, the Roman author of works devoted to agricultural techniques.

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