Origins and Ancient History

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Origins and Ancient History

The Origin of the "Cereal Wine"Beer

The origin of beer lies far back in prehistory; there is evidence that it was being made at least eight thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, but it had probably been produced for many thousands of years before, and perhaps in many different places. Its great success must be closely related to the development of cereal agriculture, which occurred about ten thousand years ago. The sequence of events might well have been:

  1. Making a dough of grain (whether crushed or uncrushed), which then underwent spontaneous fermentation.
  2. Baking dough into bread, soaking the bread in water, heating the result, and allowing it to cool and then to undergo spontaneous fermentation. (A similar process would have occurred if the grain had been mixed with water and boiled into porridge: after cooling, it would have undergone spontaneous fermentation.)
  3. Steeping the grain induces sprouting and the synthesis of amylase enzymes that decompose the starch of the grain into sugar, a process that is aided by heated water and/or baking. After cooling in water, the spontaneous fermentation will start. Barley has the advantage of having a rather large excess of amylases in comparison with other cereals such as millets and sorghum.

When people learned to steep grain in water and then heat it slowly, the overall product was greatly improved. Another improvement to the process that was invented was to bake bread from crushed or malted grain and then immerse it in water and heat the result. If bread was the intended product, more crushed or malted grain could be added to the dough; if beer was desired, all that was needed was the addition of more water instead. It is unknown when the use of a starter (a small amount saved from a previous fermentation for use in the next fermentation) began.

All these primitive beers were, technically, ales (that is, top-fermented)spontaneously fermented both by yeasts and by Lactobacillus, which gave the beverage a sour taste.

Domestication of Barley, Wheat, and Rye

Domestication of the most important beer cerealsbarley, wheat, and ryestarted at least ten thousand years ago at the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene period in the Fertile Crescent, the region from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to the eastern part of the Tigris and Euphrates area. When the glacial ice finally started to withdraw in the Northern Hemisphere, the climate of the Fertile Crescent was mild, wet, and ideal for early man, and numerous species of wild cereal grasses (grains) available for gathering flourished. Subsequently, the climate got warmer and drier and agriculture, a more prolific and dependable source for grains and other foods, was developed through the domestication of wild plants. The exact course of this domestication is complex, and is based in part on climatic changes, plant availability, preadaptive technology, population pressure, and resource stress.

All three cereals, barley (Hordeum ), wheat (Triticum ), and rye (Secale ) are grasses in the tribe Triticeae, and they have all in different varieties played a great role in the development of beer in the Eurasian region. In other parts of the world, other cereals have had the corresponding importance, for example, sorghum (Sorghum bicolour ) in Africa, rice (Oryx sativa ) in Asia, corn or maize (Zea mays ) in America, and millets. Cereals not belonging to the wheat, barley, oats, maize, or rice genera are commonly referred to as millets and are found in America, Africa, India, and Eurasia.

All domesticated varieties of barley belong to the same species, Hordeum vulgare, and its wild form H. vulgare spontaneum crosses easily with all domesticated forms. The major morphological difference between the wild and the domesticated forms is a tough rachis (the main stem holding the seed clusters) in the latter. In principle, there are three forms of barley, the two-rowed, the six-rowed, and the naked-grain form.

In connection to beer, the most important domesticated wheat varieties have been einkorn (Triticum monococcum ), emmer, and the bread wheat, Triticum aestivum. Einkorn is a diploid form close to its wild ancestor, emmer is tetraploid, and the bread wheat is hexaploid.

Domesticated rye, Secale cereale, is very closely related to wild rye, Secale montanum, which still grows in the mountains of Turkey, northwestern Iran, and the Caucasus. Wild rye is more cold-and drought-resistant than are wild wheat and barley. Cultivated rye is predominantly a winter crop and it can succeed under less favorable climatic and soil conditions than can wheat.

There was probably a close connection between the production of beer and bread, the domestication of barley, and the social and ceremonial importance of the alcohol in beer. Beer was produced from bread, and barley is a very suitable cereal for both bread and beer production. Additionally, alcohol has been emphasized to have an important role in social relationship, in matters of reciprocity and obligation. The archaeologists Solomon Katz and Mary Voight have proposed that the development of settled agriculture was dependent on the desire to brew beer.


The oldest documentary evidence of beer brewing comes from Uruk in Mesopotamia and dates to about 3500 b.c.e.; it is found on clay tablets that tell the story of Gilgamesh in Sumerian, written in cuneiform with accompanying pictures. The tablets describe in great detail how beer was prepared, the different varieties of beer, how its brewing and selling was arranged, and how it was consumed. Röllig (1970) gives an excellent review of most of the details from the historic periods in Mesopotamia from the old Sumerian period (about 3000 b.c.e., which is the most interesting period for our present purposes) until about 1000 b.c.e.

At this time in Mesopotamia, barley was the most important cereal for both humans and animals. The grain was steeped into water and then either air-or oven-dried. After removal of the sprouts, the malt was milled. For brewing, various kinds of beer-breads or bappir were baked from unmalted barley or other cereals and added, along with sweeteners and spices; it has been proposed by some investigators that hops were sometimes used also. (The amount of emmer used was taken as indicative of the quality of the beer.) Then the malt and the beer-breads were probably mixed with water and heated, after which the vessel was removed from the oven to cool. It has been pointed out by Katz and Maytag (1991) that the "cooked mash" was spread out on mats to remove the spent grains and to allow the liquid to drain. By the time of the hymn to Ninkasi, from about 1800 b.c.e., a "filter" had become the symbol of the brewers. Consequently, long straws were not necessary any longer, and the beer could be consumed directly from cups. Before fermentation, spices, herbs, and sweet plant extractives with effects that were believed to be medicinal were added; the augmented sugars and microorganisms from the herbs helped to induce fermentation. (It is known that the brewers saved some of the wort from one fermentation to use it as a starter for the next brew, as has often been done in sour-bread fermentation.) Katz and Maytag (1991) also found in the hymn of Ninkasi that date juice and grapes or raisins were added to the wort to induce fermentation. The entire concoction was then transferred, with more water, into a fermentation vessel, which was long and narrow-necked to minimize the mixture of inside and outside air and decrease infection from outside. We do not know how long fermentation lasted, but probably most of the beer was quickly top-fermented into weak ale, which was tapped from the bottom of the vessel through a filter after a few days.

In early Sumerian times, beer was drunk through long straws, with the remnants of all the ingredients still present in the beer; such a straw, made of gold, has been found in a tomb at Ur. In later times, the beer was filtered as described above and then drunk from small vessels.

Many different recipes and descriptions are preserved from the Mesopotamian period: "strong beer," "red-brown beer," "pressed beer," "dark beer," and "good dark beer," for example. These beers were very heavy and thickalmost like syrupand very nutritious. Although they were very strong and heavy, they could not stand long storage in the warm climate, and so the people had good reason to complain about sour beer. The goddess of beer of the Sumerians was Ninkasi, who was in charge of everything concerning beer, one of the most important ingredients of life in Mesopotamia, both as a food and socially. A Sumerian proverb says: "Who does not know beer, does not know what is good. Beer makes the home pleasant." It is interesting to note that the first very important king of Babylonia, Hammurabi, who reigned between 1792 and 1750 b.c.e., issued a set of laws (known as the Code of Hammurabi) that governed civil and criminal matters, included in which are rules for making and serving beer. (One copy of the code can be viewed on a column made of green diorite that is housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.)


For the ancient Egyptians also, beer was the preeminent beverage and was more popular than water, which often was contaminated; and although beer had a lower social status than wine, beer was a necessity for the household and the kitchen. Brewing was the woman's task, as it was in Mesopotamia. The divinities presiding over it were goddesses and some kind of chief brewer (the official Kha-bau-Seker, who bore the title of "Controller of the Brewing Women"). According to Egyptian religious tradition, Osiris, the god of agriculture, taught the people to prepare beer. The Greeks connected Osiris with Dionysus, the wine god, who in turn was associated with the earlier Thracian god Sabazius. The connection between the Egyptian people, beer, and their godsfor instance, Hathor-Sekhmetwas very close. The intimate relation between baking and brewing in Egypt and in Mesopotamia is supported both by the use of the Sumero-Akkadian word lahamu, originally meaning "loaves" (compare Hebrew laham, "bread"), to indicate brewing and by the constant association of baking and brewing in Egyptian art. "Bread and beer" was the symbol of food and a greeting formula.

Artifacts dating from about five thousand years ago found in the ancient tombs of Beni Hassan in Egypt show an established practice of brewing, serving beer to the public, and exportation of beer through the city of Pelusium to many Mediterranean ports. The Book of the Dead,which dates from the same era, depicts beer being made from barley and offerings of cakes and beer to various deities.

The process of malting and dehusking the malted grain is probably thousands of years old, and the methods of today are very similar. In general, the preparation of beer, as described in late Egyptian documents and in tomb art of all periods, did not materially differ from the methods of preparing present-day bouza or its African analogues; however, Egyptian beer was often flavored by such plants as skirret (Sium sisarum a member of the water-parsnip genus).

The Egyptians used either malts of various grains (principally emmer), which were formed into dough, or dried bread, and yeast (Saccaromyces winlocki ), which was fermented in a rather warm place. In principle, there were two methods:

  1. Steeping the grain in water, and then aerating it, remoistening it, grinding it, working it into a dough, and adding yeast. Finally, after fermentation, the whole mass was strained though a cloth or a sieve, and the filtrate recovered.
  2. Drying bread, soaking it in water, and leaving it to ferment in a warm place, which is identical to the traditional method for making kvas ("kvass," in Englisha beer made in Russia, typically from rye).

The preparation of bouza in modern southern Egypt and the Sudan consists of the following steps:

  1. Ground wheat, barley, or other cereal is kneaded with water and yeast.
  2. After a short leavening, the dough is lightly baked into thick loaves.
  3. Another fraction of wheat is moistened, exposed to air for some time, crushed, and then added to the previously prepared loaves after they have been crumbled.
  4. The fermentation is initiated by adding some old bouza.

Flavorings are not added. The result is a thick beverage with a strong yeasty odor.

Beer was consumed primarily for pleasure and nutrition, but it was also used for cooking and for medicinal purposes, often as a constituent of mixtures. The beer given to the slaves was unfiltered and crude, but was very nutritious because it contained residual grain proteins and vitamins.

See also Barley; Cereal Grains and Pseudo-Cereals; Wine.


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