Beer: An Early History

People’s need or desire for various intoxicating drinks may have been one of the first civilizing influences on mankind. Some historians have argued that when hunter/gatherers first abandoned their old vocation in order to till the land, the bulk of the grains that they grew were used not for food but to brew beer.

After yeast, sugars are the most important ingredient in the fermentation of any liquid. Grapes provide the only fruit juice that’s at once both liquid and sweet enough to allow fermentation to take place – unless one were to add cane, corn, or beet sugars. The Greeks, of course, were renowned for their wines. But honey has an even greater concentration of sugar than grapes, and it also has fungus, mold and yeast spores that cause spontaneous fermentation when it’s mixed with water and left to sit. Cave drawings have been discovered that depict primitive people collecting honey and using it to prepare mead by this method.

Some 5,000 years ago, the Sumerians recorded the first descriptions of beer – more than twenty varieties of brews, in fact – on clay tablets that have since been discovered. They also documented detailed recipes that include beer as an ingredient.

Mass breweries were probably the invention of the Egyptians; they supplied not only the Pharaoh’s courts but also the general populace right down to the slaves responsible for building the pyramids. Indeed, the Egyptian god Osiris was believed to be the protector of brewers.

Norsemen drank copious quantities of beer from ale horns that were decorated with runes intended to ward off poisons. And where, according to their legends, would the Vikings who had been slain in battle finally find their peace? Their paradise awaited them in Valhalla, where they would pass their endless days feasting and happily getting drunk.