Beer in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt
Beer is as old as civilization itself. Although we are not sure when beer was first invented, it is clear that it was one of the earliest products made as man began converting from nomadic lifestyles to agriculture. Some historians have even theorized that beer made from barley was produced even before bread.
The earliest evidence of beer comes to us through an ancient Sumerian tablet about 6,000 years old. The tablet depicts a group of individuals drinking beer from a communal bowl through reed straws. In ancient times beer was not nearly as refined as it is today, and straws were used to keep from tasting the brewing residue that had a very bitter taste.
Our earliest literary reference to beer also comes from ancient Sumeria, in the form of a hymn to the goddess Nimkasi. Nimkasi was the goddess of brewing, and the hymn while praising the gifts of Nimkasi also provides the earliest recipe for beer.
Beer was considered to be very important to the Sumerians, in fact the drinking of beer was even linked with civilization. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving piece of literature in the world, the savage nomad Enkidu, upon being introduced to the civilization of the people of Ur, is given bread to eat and beer to drink. The eating and drinking of these items was seen as that which separated the civilized from the barbaric.
Hammurabi’s Code, the most important legal document of ancient times written around 2,100 BCE, prominent features beer. Hammurabi set up a daily beer ration for the people of Babylon: 2 liters for workers, 3 for civil servants and 5 liters for administrators and high priest. The Code also prescribed harsh punishment for tavern keepers who attempted to cheat their customers.
In Egypt beer also held high status. Egyptian records indicate that it was used there at least as early as 5,000 years ago. The drinking of beer was considered to be a sacrament as well as part of everyday life. It also had many medicinal uses.
Beer in Ancient Greece and Rome
The art of brewing was brought to ancient Greece and the broader Mesopotamian world and became quite popular. The ancient Greek champion of moderation Sophocles named beer as part of a balanced diet, including also bread, meat and green vegetables. The famed philosopher Plato declared, “He was a wise man who invented beer.”
Sometime during the centuries proceeding the birth of Jesus wine was developed and its popularity began to exceed that of beer. Many believe that the Greco-Roman god Dionysis, God of Wine is actually based upon earlier stories of a similarly hedonistic God of Beer.
By the days of the Roman Empire beer was considered a common drink, suitable only for the barbarians who still brewed it with vigor. Wine was the drink of the civilized man. These sort of biases persist to this day.
Beer in Medieval Europe
During the Middle Ages beer truly hit its prime. Although throughout much of its history the brewing of beer was considered a family affair, during the Middle Ages it began to move out of the home and into monasteries and later on into commercial institutions.
It was in the monasteries that hops were first used in the brewing of beer. Prior to the addition of hops herbal concoctions of many differing varieties were used. Hops were somewhat controversial in the beginning, although they have now become universal in the brewing of beer.
Ale and beer were often provided for travelers by monasteries, as well as provided to those in need. There are three patron saints associated with brewing: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Luke the Evangelist and St. Nicholas of Myra.
Starting in the 1200’s brewing began to become an important commercial enterprise, especially in countries such as Germany, Austria and England. This has only grown to the present day.
As the New World began to be colonized the Europeans brought with them the art of beer-making. The Native Americans already had their own alcoholic beverage made of corn and black birch sap. The first English brewery in the New World was in the lost colony of Roanoke. The colonists, however, were not satisfied and sent back word for English beer to be sent.
Today beer is still an important commodity, an industry worth billions of dollars. While in the first half of the 20th century it was generally considered to be the drink blue collar males, it now is almost universally popular.
That said, there are many opponents to beer and all alcoholic beverages. In the early twentieth century strong temperance movements succeeded in banning alcohol in the United States as well as Canada. These laws have since been revoked and today beer is enjoyed by millions upon millions of people across North America and around the world.