05/16/07 - beer

In today's excerpt - beer, the first drink beyond water to come to prominence within civilization. It was the first of the six beverages through which the flow of world history can be charted, each helping to both define and influence its era. The five that followed were wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola:

"There was almost certainly no beer before 10,000 BCE, but it was widespread in the Near East by 4,000 BCE, when it appears in a pictogram from Mesopotamia, a region that corresponds to modern-day Iraq, depicting two figures drinking beer through reed straws from a large pottery jar. (Ancient beer had grains, chaff, and other debris floating on its surface, so a straw was necessary to avoid swallowing them.) ...

"[The], cereal grains, it was soon discovered, had an unusual property: Unlike other foodstuffs, they could be stored for consumption months or even years later, if kept dry and safe ... [and] the ability to store cereal grains began to encourage people to stay in one place. ... Cereal grains ... took on greater significance following the discovery that they had two more unusual properties. The first was that grain soaked in water, so that it starts to sprout, tastes sweet. ... Moistened grain produces diastase enzymes, which convert starch within the grain into maltose sugar, or malt. ... At a time when few other sources of sugar were available, [this] would have been highly valued. ... The second discovery was even more momentous. Gruel [mashed cereal grains mixed with water] that was left sitting around for a couple of days underwent a mysterious transformation, particularly if it had been made with malted grain: It ... turned into beer.

"Even so, beer was not necessarily the first form of alcohol to pass human lips. At the time of beer's discovery, alcohol from the accidental fermentation of fruit juice (to make wine), or water and honey (to make mead), would have occurred naturally in small quantities as people tried to store fruit or honey. But fruit is seasonal and perishes easily, wild honey was only available in limited quantities, and neither wine nor mead could be stored for very long without pottery, which did not emerge until around 6,000 BCE. ...

"Later Egyptian records mention at least seventeen kinds of beer, some of them referred to in poetic terms that sound, to modern ears, almost like advertising slogans: Different beers were known as 'the beautiful and the good', 'the heavenly', 'the joy-bringer', 'the addition to the meal', 'the plentiful', 'the fermented.' Beers used in religious ceremonies also had special names. Similarly, early written references to beer from Mesopotamia, in the third millennium BCE list over twenty different kinds, including fresh beer, dark beer, fresh-dark beer, strong beer, red-brown beer, light beer, and pressed beer."


Tom Standage


A History of the World in Six Glasses


Random House


Copyright 2005 by Tom Standage


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