Get ready for a brief history lesson about the making of beer. Here are ten things you may or may not know about when, how and by whom beer was made and why it was the beverage of choice in ancient times.
10. Beer Was Invented by Accident
No one really knows for sure exactly how or when or by whom beer was invented, but that hasn’t stopped people from theorizing. According to the History Channel, the invention of beer most likely coincided with the development of cereal agriculture. As people settled into civilizations based around maize, wheat, barley and other staple crops, they likely stumbled upon the fermentation process.
DID YOU KNOW?
The earliest known alcoholic beverage came from China. It was a mixture of rice, honey and fruit. Evidence of beer production dates back to the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia as well. In fact, archaeologists discovered ceramic vessels from 3400 B.C. that still had sticky beer residue in them. They also discovered a hymn that describes a recipe for a brew made by female priestesses.
9. You Have Women to Thank for Beer
Even though most of the breweries popping up today are owned and run by men, brewing was traditionally woman’s work. It was considered a domestic task and therefore delegated to housewives. Women’s earliest known involvement in beer making dates back to at least 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
-Ancient Sumerians had a goddess of beer named Ninkasi.
-The roles of women in colonial America included brewers and tavernkeepers.
-Housewives in colonial America brewed beer, too. It was one of their daily duties.
-Mary Lisle was America’s unofficial first brewster (i.e. female brewer).
-Thomas Jefferson is often credited with being a “Founding Home brewer” but his wife, Martha, was the one who actually supervised most of the brewing.
-Women in parts of South America traditionally brewed chicha, a type of corn beer.
8. You Should Thank Monks, Too
Monks began brewing beer in medieval times, but it’s likely that this practice started even earlier than that. In fact, the oldest known drawing plans of a modern brewery date back to 820 A.D. These drawings were found in the monastery of Saint Gall, in Switzerland, and showed three breweries that would produce beer for monastery guests, pilgrims, monks, and the poor.
Brewing beer proved to be a good source of income for monks. Another reason they brewed it is because the water in those times wasn’t clean.
DID YOU KNOW?
The practice of monastic brewing continues today. In fact, a number of Belgian monasteries are some of the greatest breweries in the world.
7. Dirty Feet Were an Important Part of the Fermentation Process
It’s no secret that wine producers used to mash grapes with their feet. But, what they didn’t know was that a microorganism transferred from their feet into the mixture was responsible for producing alcohol during the fermentation process. This microorganism was a tiny, single-celled fungus that could only be seen under a microscope or with special high-quality lenses. So, just what was this mystery fungus anyway? Yeast, of course!
DID YOU KNOW?
Saliva also converts starch into a fermentable sugar. Ancient brewers made Cassava beer by peeling, boiling and chewing the starchy root.
6. Beer Has Had Many Additives Over the Years
Many ancient brewers flavored their beers with some very unusual additives. These included grated goat cheese (used by Greek warriors), pine needles, spruce boughs, dried flowers, tree resins, olive oil, dates, mandrake, and even psychoactive herbs (not sure if flavor is what they were after here, lol).
Rosemary and bog myrtle were used to flavor Gruit beer around 500 A.D.
Today’s brewers flavor beer with hops. The use of hops became common around the twelfth century and was popularized by, you guessed it, monks. German monks began using the ingredient around 1150 A.D., and it soon caught on. In addition to adding a nice flavor, brewers also discovered that hops acted as a preservative.
5. Beer Led to Civilization
According to Dr. Patrick McGovern, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, there’s a possible link between alcohol and the dawn of civilization. The nutritional benefits of beer possibly led to the building of some of the world’s earliest cities, as well as the invention of writing, McGovern said in a National Geographic article.
Adelheid Otto, an archaeologist at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, also believes that the nutritional benefits of beer led to early cities being built–especially the Mesopotamian civilization. “They had bread and barley porridge, plus maybe some meat at feasts. Nutrition was very bad,” Otto told National Geographic. “But as soon as you have beer, you have everything you need to develop really well. I’m convinced this is why the first high culture arose in the Near East.”
4. Different Cultures Produced Alcohol in Different Ways
-Honey wine, also known as mead, was produced in Asia around 1700-1100 B.C. The Celts, Greeks, Saxons and Vikings also produced mead.
-People in Babylon, China, Egypt and Rome produced beer from malted barley.
-South Americans made chicha from fruits or grains, primarily maize.
-North Americans made octli, also known as pulque, from a type of cactus called agave.
NOTE: Producing alcohol in early times required a lot of trial and error. If the mixture didn’t sit long enough, there was no alcohol. If it sat too long, it rotted. Over time, they learned that temperature and air exposure were key elements of the fermentation process.
3. Beer Was Consumed for a Number of Reasons
As we mentioned earlier, monks often drank beer because the water was unclean. The same can be said for the Sumerians, whose waterways were often contaminated by animal waste. People living in the Middle Ages also had to deal with contaminated water. As a result, families brewed their own beer at home.
Egyptians–including the children–drank beer on a daily basis. Workers building the great Pyramids at Giza were even paid with beer.
Lastly, the Paulaner monks of Bavaria produced beer for consumption during Lent since solid food was prohibited during this time of solemn reflection.
DID YOU KNOW?
Beer was such an important part of fellowship and celebration that:
-Early Romans honored the grain on their silver and gold coins.
-Pharaohs appointed a royal chief beer inspector to ensure its quality.
-Beer played an important role in early Chinese religious rituals.
-A Mesopotamian official was buried with a golden straw for sipping beer.
-Egyptian royals were buried with miniature breweries.
-Ancient Roman warriors went into battle drunk.
-The Inca drank chicha in feasts that lasted days and offered it to the gods on altars.
2. Louis Pasteur was the First to Demonstrate the Role of Yeast in Fermentation
Louis Pasteur, a great scientist who made major contributions to chemistry, medicine and industry, was the first to demonstrate through experiments that fermentation was the result of living yeast converting sugar into alcohol. He also demonstrated that fermentation occurs in the absence of oxygen.
FUN FACT: While helping a man who was having problems at his distillery, Pasteur discovered that there are two types of fermentation: alcoholic, which occurs by the action of yeast, and lactic acid, which occurs by the action of bacteria.
1. Most Yeast Strains Can Only Tolerate a Limited Amount of Alcohol
Have you ever wondered why the percentage of alcohol in wines and beers is usually in the 10 to 15 percent range? That’s because this is the amount most yeast strains can tolerate before being killed. Excess amounts of alcohol can become toxic to the yeast, eventually killing its cells. Different strains, however, can tolerate different amounts. For example, some brewers select strains of yeast capable of tolerating 21 percent alcohol concentration. Any higher than that, and the fermented products must be distilled. Liquors fall into this category.
The next time you reach for a cold one, be sure to thank a woman or a monk, if you happen to know one! Thanks for reading. Cheers!