Chill — Issue 51 - Oct/Nov
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Happy Hour
Luke McKinney

How Beer Built Civilization


Relaxing with beer isn’t just the high point of civilization, it was the starting point too. Society started when humanity settled down to raise crops, but have you ever wondered why they’d bother? The advantages of agriculture might be obvious in retrospect, but “seeing the future” and “botany” were just two of many skills that cavemen didn’t have. They succeeded when they killed wild animals, ate meat, and had sex. Giving up that lifestyle for some really intense gardening wouldn’t appeal to guys back then. It still doesn’t appeal to most guys right now, ten thousand years later. So why would you do that?

The answer? Beer! The chemical upgrade to our brain is so natural it can happen by accident. Bread takes a lot of work, but a pile of forgotten grain ferments all by itself - and a hunter-gatherer’s entire job description is to “consume anything that they find.” We all know the pleasure of that first drink after a hard day. Now imagine the first drink ever after a hard lifetime. That’s the sort of pleasure that changes the course of an entire life. Every life, in fact, as it probably convinced people to hang around these “crop” things to get some more. Add the fact that these early beers were alcoholic gruels, second only to meat as a source of nutrition (and infinitely less likely to eat you back) and settling down to farm was suddenly a fantastic idea.

Dr. Solomon H. Katz, Professor of Anthropology at University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, agrees, telling The New York Times “The initial discovery of a stable way to produce alcohol provided enormous motivation for continuing to go out and collect these seeds and try to get them to do better.”

When he says “enormous motivation,” he’s discussing the entire foundation of human civilization, and he’s still understating it. Together with Professor Mary Voigt, he went on to write in Expedition magazine saying, “Individuals and groups who consumed beer were better nourished than those who consumed wheat and barley as gruel … In biological terms, beer drinkers would have had a ‘selective advantage’ in the form of improved health for themselves and ultimately for their offspring.”

Drinking beer didn’t just make these early settlers feel better, it made actually them better.

Patrick McGovern, Upenn’s Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health, agrees. “What I really find amazing is how people have ignored this,”

McGovern told the Pennsylvania Gazette. “These drinks reflect how our species has developed on this planet— by taking whatever we can in nature and making it into something really good.” That’s not just progress, that’s the entirety of human ingenuity in one sentence. And it’s about beer.

The increased food supply from beer (and its little sideeffect, bread) enabled people to live in larger villages, divide labour, develop crafts and eventually build Uruk, one of the first cities to exist. The invention of urbanity is the sort of breakthrough you’ll want to remember even if you have to invent writing to do it, and that’s exactly what happened. Some of the earliest written materials ever recovered describe workers’ daily beer rations in pictographic tablets from 3400–3000 BC.

Understand this: Humans had the ability to drink beer before we had an alphabet. Writing only happened because, for the first time in existence, a species had more food and wealth than they could see in one place. We needed to make marks to keep track of how well off we were, and many of those marks were due to beer. The earliest recorded recipe is also for beer, a Mesopotamian brew from 2000 BC, and was thought to have been handed down by gods because it was so beloved.

Beer has been helping humanity ever since because it’s better than water. That’s not a humorous sentiment: it’s an established fact throughout history. Boiling and fermenting kills many of the infectious agents in water, while Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the yeast which brings both bread and beer to life) only makes alcohol in the first place specifically to kill other microorganisms. Which means all of human history is a brilliant micro-organic side-effect.

The Roman legions mixed drink with their water rations so that the bactericidal effects could keep them in good health. The ancient Nubians brewed antibiotic beer containing tetracycline, over fifteen hundred years before modern medicine rediscovered it. And during the Dark Ages, Europe forgot almost all the best things about civilization, but remembered the beer. This is called “having priorities.”

Medieval workers drank just as much as the workers constructing the Pyramids of Giza a gallon a day, and for the same reasons: health and happiness. People noticed that those who enjoyed ale got sick less than people who drank water. By 1241, beer had replaced water in so many functions that Pope Gregory IX had to issue an edict reminding people not to baptize infants with it. Seriously.

Sam Calagione, founder of a Delaware brewery, summed it all up with a joke at a Pennsylvania Museum lecture with Robert McGovern: “As a brewer, it gives me a lot of pride that as far as I know, our industry is responsible for civilization as we know it.”

And like all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true.