How beer influenced history and made us human

Nov 22, 2020 | 4 comments

By Kristen Richard

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where humans started to brew beer. That’s because it’s been an integral part of many cultures for thousands of years.

Until recently, the earliest evidence of beer could be traced back 9,000 years ago to China. But in 2015, Li Liu, a professor at Stanford University, led an archaeological expedition of Raqefet Cave in Israel, a site that many believe contains vital information about humans’ transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers.

As Liu and her team collected samples from 13,000-year-old stone mortars in the cave, they discovered residues from starchy foods.

“At the first, we just wanted to know what plant remains may have survived on those mortars, but about a year later, we realized some starch granules showing damaged features caused by fermentation,” says Liu.

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What they discovered was “the earliest archaeological evidence for cereal-based beer brewing by a semi-sedentary, foraging people,” according to a study in Journal of Archaeological Science.

It’s impacted us all around the world, because beer tends to be the most common beverage you can produce from any carbohydrate,” says Dr. Patrick McGovern. He’s the author of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Recreated and Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages.

Sam Calagione (L) of Dogfish Head and Dr. Patrick McGovern (R) speaking at the Penn Museum.

McGovern has also worked with Sam Calagione, founder of the brewery Dogfish Head, to recreate ancient ales such as the Midas Touch, which incorporated ingredients found in “2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas.”

Travis Rupp, research and development manager and beer archaeologist at Avery Brewing Co. and professor of classics at the University of Colorado-Boulder, speculates humans could have been brewing beer much earlier than we previously believed.

“The domestication of barley goes back to 8000 B.C.,” says McGovern, who is also the scientific director of the biomolecular archaeology project for cuisine, fermented beverages and health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “So why would they domesticate it unless they were going to make a lot of beer?”

Rupp believes that beer was such a staple of ancient everyday life that many cultures wouldn’t have even recorded it. He likens ancient beer production to that of milk or paper clips in the modern world.

“There’s very little written about that kind of stuff because we take it for granted,” he says. “It’s just there. And beer was that way, too.”

Beer as nutrition
Known as the “Cradle of Civilization,” ancient Mesopotamia was located in parts of modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria. And it was a hotbed for beer. Brewing was especially important to Sumerians, who some historians believe settled in the region between 4500 B.C. to 4000 B.C. The average Sumerian consumed up to one liter of beer a day, and brews were considered a great source of nutrients, thanks to key vitamins produced by its yeast.

Model of men making beer in ancient Egypt.

Fermentation also breaks down phytic acid found in grains, which aids in nutrient absorption. People who consumed beer likely lived longer than those who didn’t.

Egyptians used beer for vital nutrition as well. According to McGovern, it’s unclear whether those who lived in Mesopotamia or Egypt started to brew beer first. “But they were in contact with each other,” he says. “So, I’m sure ideas were going back and forth.”

“Beer and bread were the main staples of the Egyptian diet,” writes Kathryn A. Bard in her textbook, An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt.

The book states that most of the beer was made from barley. First, the barley would malt and was then mixed into another batch that was heated and malted. It would produce sugars, complex carbohydrates and vitamins.

Egyptians would often “ferment their beverages and consume it within 48 hours,” says Rupp, which enabled them to drink it on the go.

Beer also played a major role in China. A nearly perfectly preserved sample of rice beer was discovered in Jiahu, a Neolithic site from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 B.C.).

McGovern and his team discovered it contained Artemisia argyi, known as Chinese wormwood, which has been employed in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.

Beer in religion
In many cultures, brewing was considered a domestic chore. And beer was primarily crafted by women, an idea reflected in many religions.

In Egypt, for example, there was a celebration called the Tekh Festival, which coincided with the time of year where the Nile runs red due to iron-rich soils that are washed from upstream, according to Ancient Brews.

As the story goes, the goddess Hathor was commanded by the sun god Ra, to go to earth and destroy humanity. But Ra relented, and instead flooded the Nile with red beer. Hathor, who had transformed into her lioness goddess form, Sekhmet, took a drink, became drunk and believed she completed her task when she saw the red beer, which she mistook for blood—thus beer saved humanity, according to Ancient Brews. 

Beer was such a staple in Eygpt that pottery filled with the beverage along with 3D models of breweries have been discovered in tombs. This was so the deceased would have plenty of beer in the afterlife.

To the Sumerians, beer was considered a gift from the gods meant to promote “human well-being and happiness,” according to a 2019 research paper, The Beverage of the Ages. Four Sumerian deities were closely associated with beer, like the goddess of beer Ninaski. The Hymn to Ninaski, written in 1800 B.C., is a beer recipe in the form of a poem.

Beer also played a major role in ancient South America. To the Peruvian Inca, who ruled over an empire that stretched from Columbia to Bolivia from 1438 A.D. until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, chicha (corn beer) was vital to religious practices. Their sun god, Inti, was gifted large amounts of beer to quench his “overwhelming thirst,” writes McGovern in Ancient Brews. And beer was at the center of religious festivals.

Long before Europeans colonized what are now the Americas, indigenous communities were “making fermented beverages from a variety of things like corn and fruits and maple sap and agave,” says Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Brewing Showcase at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Apache tribes, for example, lived in parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and beyond before the arrival of Spanish colonizers. They brewed a tizwin, or corn beer. While not a staple in everyday life, according to Fermented Landscapes it was an integral part of rituals and other ceremonies.

Beer in business and innovation
Beer also played a vital role in ancient economies. Take Egypt, for instance.

“It was an industry,” says Rupp. “This wasn’t simple homebrewing, where everybody is just making their own hooch to get through the day. It was a large-scale industry.”

A location in the Nile delta called Tell el-Farkha was excavated in 2014. Unearthed were the remains of several breweries there that reportedly dated to the pre-dynastic era.

“So even before there were pharaohs, they were mass-producing beer,” says Rupp. “They were producing beer on a scale in some instances upwards of 200 gallons a day at these breweries. And it shows that it was an industry, it was a commodity,”

Beer was used as payment for workers. Laborers on the Giza Plateau were given beer three times a day as a form of payment, according to Ancient.eu.

In ancient Mesopotamia, there’s evidence that beer was used a form of currency for labor and to barter for materials like timber and metal.

Beer helped women carve their place in Sumerian society. Women were expected to brew the beer since it was considered a domestic chore, but some women opened taverns to sell their brews.

But it wasn’t just ancient civilizations that used beer to drive business.

In the U.S., during the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s, factories were starting to pop up, farming was becoming modernized, railroads were connecting the country and beer was at the center of it all.

The titans of American beer like Anheuser-Busch grew enormously during this period, due to such innovations as mechanical refrigeration. Prior to refrigeration, most brewing operations in the U.S. were quite small, as it was hard to ship products without spoilage.

“Once you had mechanically refrigerated rail cars and, eventually, fleets of refrigerated trucks and mechanical refrigeration in factories and factory-type breweries, it was like the match that allowed beer to explode and grow so big,” says McCulla.

In 2019, craft breweries represented 580,000 jobs, according to the Brewers Association. And in 2017, New Food reported that there are more than 19,000 breweries worldwide, spread among more than 200 countries and territories.

Beer in society
Beer has brought humans together from the very start. Take the earliest-known instance of it in Israel, for example. According to Liu, “the discovery of beer-brewing at the graveyard signifies the emotional ties the hunter-gathers had with their ancestors.”

“I literally think beer is one of the machines that is driven culture and society,” says Rupp. “Beer, beyond doubt, is a very social beverage and it always has been.

“I mean, you look back at some of the oldest pieces of ancient Sumerian, Babylonian [and] Egyptian art, and there are a whole bunch of people surrounding a jug with all these reeds sticking out of it… and they’re conversing, and they’re probably conducting business right there and meeting to get stuff done.”

Humans have definitely continued the practice ancient civilizations started by gathering together to discuss matters over a brew.

For example, beer gave rise to the American saloon, which were centers of social life during the second half of the 1800s when millions of European immigrants began to work in new factories and stockyards.

“Many immigrants arrived in these metropolises, like New York City or Boston or elsewhere, and saw these saloons. And the beer that was served in those saloons played a super important social role but they [saloons] were very much political spaces,” says McCulla.

Many immigrants didn’t speak English, so the saloons quickly became a place for men to end their workday, socialize over a pint, learn how to vote and which political candidates would support their interests.

According to McCulla, the American saloon never returned in its full glory after Prohibition. But during happy hours or a Friday or Saturday night, you’re likely to find many patrons talking about their days over a pint.

“[Beer] stimulates other creative activities like dance, music, speaking languages and is [a] social lubricator,” says McGovern. “So even in just ordinary relations between groups of people, like early humans in their caves, it would have brought them together… It brings you down from the day’s activities to put you to sleep. It has so many different functions.”

After all, “Beer is what makes us human,” says Rupp.
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Credit: Wine Enthusiast  

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