The origins of beer: could alcohol have been the main driver for civilization?

The origins of beer

We all recall that first drink – or, let’s be honest, we wish we could! Alcohol holds more significance than just being a secret indulgence. Ranking as the world’s third most consumed beverage after water and tea, alcohol has been an integral part of cultures across the globe since ancient times. It’s so ingrained in our ways of life that you might start to ponder whether alcohol has been with us from the very beginning. Let’s dive back to the very origins of beer and find out more!

Some experts even suggest that the quest for that intoxicating feeling through alcoholic beverages might have played a role in driving the shift toward agriculture, which in turn propelled the growth of early civilizations, leading us right up to the present day.

It was the great social occasion, that privileged moment that took us away from the real world, from monotony, it was the era of collective drinking, a phenomenon as old as the world itself. The Vikings drank before going to war, with their leader sipping mead in his hall and distributing streams of mead and wine to those around him, a manifestation of his direct power over them. The Sumerians, at the very beginning of beer history, drank as a group through a straw plunged directly into the cauldron, a kind of cereal porridge with an alcohol content of around 3%.

In many ancient and less ancient civilizations, alcohol was the great unifier, the express route to society. Beyond the festive intoxication, this ritual also marked membership of a group, or even an elite, to a form of wisdom. The most important philosophical institution among the Greeks, the symposium, was nothing more than a drunken meeting organized by a master of wine, where the guests (unfortunately without women) competed in eloquence. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest epic saga to have come down to us, we are told how the man-god Enkidu acquired the manners of civilized men by drinking beer.

The origins of beer and alcohol : How it all started?

Around 7 million years ago, our ancestors would have developed an enzyme (attractively named ADH4) capable of accelerating alcohol metabolism by a factor of 20.

What use is that in nature, at a time when the most interesting cocktail in town is a lump of honey dropped into a pond?

The strongest theory so far is that ADH4 enzime would suggest increased exposure to dietary sources of ethanol during the early stages of our adaptation to a terrestrial lifestyle (you know, when we first started coming down from the trees?). Since fruit harvested from the forest floor might be expected to contain higher concentrations of fermenting yeast and ethanol than similar fruit hanging from trees, this transition could also mark the first time our ancestors were exposed to (and adapted to) substantial amounts of dietary ethanol.

What do Historians say?

The most likely theory is that the production of fermented beverages may have begun with the manufacture of cereal-based porridges, which were then left in the open air to ferment naturally due to the presence of wild yeasts in the environment. According to this theory, beer was the logical, if not direct, consequence of the discovery of bread.

But was agriculture necessary for beer production? This was the question posed by Jonathan Sauer’s famous “Beer before bread” debate in a symposium composed of some leading archeologists and botanists. The American botanist opined that the grain available (mostly emmer and spelt) would not have provided enough nutrients to justify the effort invested in bread, but would instead have created nutritious beers through yeast processing.

Contrary to popular belief, even hunter-gatherers would have been able to create surpluses, and these surpluses of perishable foods, including certain herbs like cereals, would have required some form of handling to prevent them from perishing in the rain or being devoured by mice and rats.

This debate brings us back to the whole social organization involved in beer production. Storing the grain would have posed astronomical challenges: the constant threat of rodents, the constant danger of rotting, theft and so on.

Learn More about the Origins of Beer with David Schellenberg on Hoppy History

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