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The History of the World in 6 Glasses
By Tom Standage
Walker & CompanyCopyright © 2005 Tom Standage
All right reserved.
Fermentation and civilization are inseparable. -John Ciardi, American poet (1916-86)
A Pint of Prehistory
The humans who migrated out of Africa starting around 50,000 years ago traveled in small nomadic bands, perhaps thirty strong, and lived in caves, huts, or skin tents. They hunted game, caught fish and shellfish, and gathered edible plants, moving from one temporary camp to another to exploit seasonal food supplies. Their tools included bows and arrows, fishhooks, and needles. But then, starting around 12,000 years ago, a remarkable shift occurred. Humans in the Near East abandoned the old hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Paleolithic period (old stone age) and began to take up farming instead, settling down in villages which eventually grew to become the world's first cities. They also developed many new technologies, including pottery, wheeled vehicles, and writing.
Ever since the emergence of "anatomically modern" humans, or Homo sapiens sapiens, in Africa around 150,000 years ago, water had been humankind's basic drink. A fluid of primordial importance, it makes up two-thirds of the human body, and no life on Earth can exist without it. But with the switch from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled way of life, humans came to rely on a new beverage derived from barley and wheat, the cereal grains that were the first plants to be deliberately cultivated. This drink became central to social, religious, and economic life and was the staple beverage of the earliest civilizations. It was the drink that first helped humanity along the path to the modern world: beer.
Exactly when the first beer was brewed is not known. There was almost certainly no beer before 10,000 BCE, but it was widespread in the Near East by 4000 BCE, when it appears in a pictogram from Mesopotamia, a region that corresponds to modern-day Iraq, depicting two figures drinking beer through reed straws from a large pottery jar. (Ancient beer had grains, chaff, and other debris floating on its surface, so a straw was necessary to avoid swallowing them.)
Since the first examples of writing date from around 3400 BCE, the earliest written documents can shed no direct light on beer's origins. What is clear, however, is that the rise of beer was closely associated with the domestication of the cereal grains from which it is made and the adoption of farming. It came into existence during a turbulent period in human history that witnessed the switch from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle, followed by a sudden increase in social complexity manifested most strikingly in the emergence of cities. Beer is a liquid relic from human prehistory, and its origins are closely intertwined with the origins of civilization itself.
Beer was not invented but discovered. Its discovery was inevitable once the gathering of wild grains became widespread after the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 BCE, in a region known as the Fertile Crescent. This area stretches from modern-day Egypt, up the Mediterranean coast to the southeast corner of Turkey, and then down again to the border between Iraq and Iran. It is so named because of a happy accident of geography. When the ice age ended, the uplands of the region provided an ideal environment for wild sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs-and, in some areas, for dense stands of wild wheat and barley. This meant the Fertile Crescent provided unusually rich pickings for roving bands of human hunter-gatherers. They not only hunted animals and gathered edible plants but collected the abundant cereal grains growing wild in the region.
Such grains provided an unexciting but reliable source of food. Although unsuitable for consumption when raw, they can be made edible by roughly pounding or crushing them and then soaking them in water. Initially, they were probably just mixed into soup. A variety of ingredients such as fish, nuts, and berries would have been mixed with water in a plastered or bitumen-lined basket. Stones, heated in a fire, were then dropped in, using a forked stick. Grains contain tiny granules of starch, and when placed in hot water they absorb moisture and then burst, releasing the starch into the soup and thickening it considerably.
Cereal grains, it was soon discovered, had another unusual property: Unlike other foodstuffs, they could be stored for consumption months or even years later, if kept dry and safe. When no other foodstuffs were available to make soup, they could be used on their own to make either a thick porridge or a thin broth or gruel. This discovery led to the development of tools and techniques to collect, process, and store grain. It involved quite a lot of effort but provided a way to guard against the possibility of future food shortages. Throughout the Fertile Crescent there is archaeological evidence from around 10,000 BCE of flint-bladed sickles for harvesting cereal grains, woven baskets for carrying them, stone hearths for drying them, underground pits for storing them, and grindstones for processing them.
Although hunter-gatherers had previously led semisettled rather than entirely nomadic lives, moving between a number of temporary or seasonal shelters, the ability to store cereal grains began to encourage people to stay in one place. An experiment carried out in the 1960s shows why. An archaeologist used a flint-bladed sickle to see how efficiently a prehistoric family could have harvested wild grains, which still grow in some parts of Turkey. In one hour he gathered more than two pounds of grain, which suggested that a family that worked eight-hour days for three weeks would have been able to gather enough to provide each family member with a pound of grain a day for a year. But this would have meant staying near the stands of wild cereals to ensure the family did not miss the most suitable time to harvest them. And having gathered a large quantity of grain, they would be reluctant to leave it unguarded.
The result was the first permanent settlements, such as those established on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean from around 10,000 BCE. They consisted of simple, round huts with roofs supported by wooden posts and floors sunk up to a yard into the ground. These huts usually had a hearth and a floor paved with stones and were four or five yards in diameter. A typical village consisted of around fifty huts, supporting a community of two hundred or three hundred people. Although the residents of such villages continued to hunt wild animals such as gazelles, deer, and boar, skeletal evidence suggests that they subsisted on a mainly plant-based diet of acorns, lentils, chickpeas, and cereals, which at this stage were still gathered in the wild, rather than cultivated deliberately.
Cereal grains, which started off as relatively unimportant foodstuffs, took on greater significance following the discovery that they had two more unusual properties. The first was that grain soaked in water, so that it starts to sprout, tastes sweet. It was difficult to make storage pits perfectly watertight, so this property would have become apparent as soon as humans first began to store grain. The cause of this sweetness is now understood: Moistened grain produces diastase enzymes, which convert starch within the grain into maltose sugar, or malt. (This process occurs in all cereal grains, but barley produces by far the most diastase enzymes and hence the most maltose sugar.) At a time when few other sources of sugar were available, the sweetness of this "malted" grain would have been highly valued, prompting the development of deliberate malting techniques, in which the grain was first soaked and then dried.
The second discovery was even more momentous. Gruel that was left sitting around for a couple of days underwent a mysterious transformation, particularly if it had been made with malted grain: It became slightly fizzy and pleasantly intoxicating, as the action of wild yeasts from the air fermented the sugar in the gruel into alcohol. The gruel, in short, turned into beer.
Even so, beer was not necessarily the first form of alcohol to pass human lips. At the time of beer's discovery, alcohol from the accidental fermentation of fruit juice (to make wine) or water and honey (to make mead) would have occurred naturally in small quantities as people tried to store fruit or honey. But fruit is seasonal and perishes easily, wild honey was only available in limited quantities, and neither wine nor mead could be stored for very long without pottery, which did not emerge until around 6000 BCE. Beer, on the other hand, could be made from cereal crops, which were abundant and could be easily stored, allowing beer to be made reliably, and in quantity, when needed. Long before pottery was available, it could have been brewed in pitch-lined baskets, leather bags or animal stomachs, hollowed-out trees, large shells, or stone vessels. Shells were used for cooking as recently as the nineteenth century in the Amazon basin, and Sahti, a traditional beer made in Finland, is still brewed in hollowed-out trees today.
Once the crucial discovery of beer had been made, its quality was improved through trial and error. The more malted grain there is in the original gruel, for example, and the longer it is left to ferment, the stronger the beer. More malt means more sugar, and a longer fermentation means more of the sugar is turned into alcohol. Thoroughly cooking the gruel also contributes to the beer's strength. The malting process converts only around 15 percent of the starch found in barley grains into sugar, but when malted barley is mixed with water and brought to the boil, other starch-converting enzymes, which become active at higher temperatures, turn more of the starch into sugar, so there is more sugar for the yeast to transform into alcohol.
Ancient brewers also noticed that using the same container repeatedly for brewing produced more reliable results. Later historical records from Egypt and Mesopotamia show that brewers always carried their own "mash tubs" around with them, and one Mesopotamian myth refers to "containers which make the beer good." Repeated use of the same mash tub promoted successful fermentation because yeast cultures took up residence in the container's cracks and crevices, so that there was no need to rely on the more capricious wild yeast. Finally, adding berries, honey, spices, herbs, and other flavorings to the gruel altered the taste of the resulting beer in various ways. Over the next few thousand years, people discovered how to make a variety of beers of different strengths and flavors for different occasions.
Later Egyptian records mention at least seventeen kinds of beer, some of them referred to in poetic terms that sound, to modern ears, almost like advertising slogans: Different beers were known as "the beautiful and good," "the heavenly," "the joy-bringer," "the addition to the meal," "the plentiful," "the fermented." Beers used in religious ceremonies also had special names. Similarly, early written references to beer from Mesopotamia, in the third millennium BCE, list over twenty different kinds, including fresh beer, dark beer, fresh-dark beer, strong beer, red-brown beer, light beer, and pressed beer. Red-brown beer was a dark beer made using extra malt, while pressed beer was a weaker, more watery brew that contained less grain. Mesopotamian brewers could also control the taste and color of their beer by adding different amounts of bappir, or beer-bread. To make bappir, sprouted barley was shaped into lumps, like small loaves, which were baked twice to produce a dark-brown, crunchy, unleavened bread that could be stored for years before being crumbled into the brewer's vat. Records indicate that bappir was kept in government storehouses and was only eaten during food shortages; it was not so much a foodstuff as a convenient way to store the raw material for making beer.
The Mesopotamian use of bread in brewing has led to much debate among archaeologists, some of whom have suggested that bread must therefore be an offshoot of beer making, while others have argued that bread came first and was subsequently used as an ingredient in beer. It seems most likely, however, that both bread and beer were derived from gruel. A thick gruel could be baked in the sun or on a hot stone to make flatbread; a thin gruel could be left to ferment into beer. The two were different sides of the same coin: Bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread.
Under the Influence of Beer?
Since writing had not been invented at the time, there are no written records to attest to the social and ritual importance of beer in the Fertile Crescent during the new stone age, or Neolithic period, between 9000 BCE and 4000 BCE. But much can be inferred from later records of the way beer was used by the first literate civilizations, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, so enduring are the cultural traditions associated with beer that some of them survive to this day.
From the start, it seems that beer had an important function as a social drink. Sumerian depictions of beer from the third millennium BCE generally show two people drinking through straws from a shared vessel. By the Sumerian period, however, it was possible to filter the grains, chaff, and other debris from beer, and the advent of pottery meant it could just as easily have been served in individual cups. That beer drinkers are, nonetheless, so widely depicted using straws suggests that it was a ritual that persisted even when straws were no longer necessary.
The most likely explanation for this preference is that, unlike food, beverages can genuinely be shared. When several people drink beer from the same vessel, they are all consuming the same liquid; when cutting up a piece of meat, in contrast, some parts are usually deemed to be more desirable than others. As a result, sharing a drink with someone is a universal symbol of hospitality and friendship. It signals that the person offering the drink can be trusted, by demonstrating that it is not poisoned or otherwise unsuitable for consumption. The earliest beer, brewed in a primitive vessel in an era that predated the use of individual cups, would have to have been shared. Although it is no longer customary to offer visitors a straw through which to drink from a communal vat of beer, today tea or coffee may be offered from a shared pot, or a glass of wine or spirits from a shared bottle. And when drinking alcohol in a social setting, the clinking of glasses symbolically reunites the glasses into a single vessel of shared liquid. These are traditions with very ancient origins.
Excerpted from The History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage Copyright © 2005 by Tom Standage . Excerpted by permission.
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