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Beer and the Dawn of Civilization Part I

cuneiform tablets showing ancient beer recipe
"Hymn to Ninkasi" an ancient recipe for beer

Today we take beer for granted as being a refreshing adult beverage to enjoy in our leisure time, and as consumers we are particular about what styles and brands we choose based on our personal preferences.  In the very early days of human civilization however, beer was much more.  Beer was the source of life for our ancestors and was a necessity as much as food and shelter.

The act of brewing beer coincides directly with the first archaeological evidence of people getting together and living in larger groups.  In fact, many argue that there appears to be a ‘chicken or the egg’  scenario where it is hard to decipher whether people developed agriculture and beer just happened to be one of the first products produced, or if agriculture itself came out of the desire to have more ingredients to brew beer.  Either way, cereal grains including emmer and barley were among the first crops raised by humans and both were fermented to make beer.

In the cradle of civilization near present day Iraq, the Sumerians were brewing beer by 4000 BC.  A cuneiform tablet containing a lyric text known as the ‘Hymn to Ninkasi’  was dated to around 1800 BC and contains a crude recipe for brewing beer.  Ninkasi was the goddess of beer to the Sumerians and held an extremely important role.  Though there is still some debate as to the particular processes involved, many agree that barley was malted, natural enzymes were used to mash the barley and extract sugars, and the final product was fermented for some period of time with wild yeast.

By the time of King Hammurabi of Babylon, beer was such an important part of life that laws needed to be developed to protect its purity and to make sure people were getting enough.  Hammurabi ordered that workers receive 2 liters of beer a day, civil servants got 3 and administrative officials and high priests were given 5 liters of beer PER DAY!  For those who aren’t metrically inclined, there are 3.8 liters to the gallon.  That’s a lot of beer!  Hammurabi also wrote that tavern keepers who were caught cheating their customers on a pour of beer would be thrown into the river… He also codified the first beer styles guidelines differentiating styles from each other.  He was serious about his beer.

Hammurabi wrote the first laws about beer

Why all of the fuss about beer in these early days?  It’s because for these early civilizations, beer was a source of life.  Our ancestors figured out fermentation long before they figured out sewer systems, and because of beer they were able to survive the squalor that was rampant in these early cities.  In those days, your neighbor would dump his chamber pot into the river upstream in the morning and you would collect your drinking water for the day downstream.  Obviously, the water supplies were contaminated and water-borne illnesses were devastating until better systems were developed.  Beer, however, was boiled during its making, thus sanitizing the water, and then it was fermented to create alcohol which kept the bacteria at bay after fermentation was complete.

As you can see, though these early city dwellers didn’t know exactly why, they definitely learned that those who drank a lot of water got terribly sick and those who drank a lot of beer stayed healthy.  And it helped that the beers of those days were not the six and ten percent craft creations we love today but very low alcohol beers that had limited intoxicating effect.  Also, beer was a great way to store the year’s barley harvest.  While barley would rot in a short amount of time after picking, beer would store the nutrients and calories of the barley in a form that lasted longer.  This idea is similar to that of raising livestock.  Animals become a savings account for the year’s crops.  Beer was likely used the same way.

So, next time you feel like having a beer, take pride in choosing a beverage that helped create the world in which we live.  And if you’d like to learn more about the early days of beer, join me on an Asheville brewery tour!

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