A brief History of Beer

It All Starts with the Egyptians…
Beer brewing was practiced in Egypt and Mesopotamia at least 5,000 years ago, and beer was an important part of the Egyptian culture. In fact, the hieroglyphic symbol for food was a pitcher of beer and a cake of bread. Some ancient Egyptians even used the phrase “bread and beer” as a greeting.

Egyptian records show the regulation of beer shops in 1300 B.C. – the world’s first liquor licenses. In the Egyptian wing of the Louvre in Paris, you can see actual conical clay vessels once used to hold beer, and tiny replicas of them once entombed with a noble to provide refreshment in the afterlife.

Osiris, being the the Egyptian god of agriculture, was also revered as the god of beer. Diodorus, a Greek historian of the time of Julius and Augustus Caesar, wrote, “Wherever a country did not permit the culture of the vine, there Osiris taught the people how to brew the beverage which is made of barley, and which is not greatly inferior to wine in odor and potency.”

Our modern word “booze” comes from the Nubian “boosa,” one of many beer styles developed by the Egyptians. Their repertoire included a sweet beer lagered with dates, and special brews for various religious and medicinal uses.

For more information on Egyptian brewing, see the MSU eMuseum.

The ancient Babylonians also considered beer an important part of their economic and social life. They used beer in their religious ceremonies and, like the Egyptians, designated gods to watch over their brewing. The Sumerians drank beer through straws (to avoid the grain hulls left in the cup), and often depicted these straws and unique beer jars on urns and official seals. The Code of Hammurabi prescribed stiff penalties for offenses at beer taverns. And the Hymn to Ninkasi, inscribed on a nineteenth-century B.C. tablet, contains a recipe for Sumerian beer.

In his 1868 book, “The Beer of the Bible,” James Death, anthropologist and head brewer of the Cairo Brewery in Alexandria, postulated that the manna from heaven that God fed the Israelites in the desert was wusa, an Arab bread-based, porridge-like beer.

The Egyptians passed their knowledge on to the Greeks. Reaction to beer in wine-loving Greece was mixed. Despite Plato’s assertion that “He was a wise man who invented beer,” some Greek physicians thought beer caused leprosy, or at least too-frequent urination.

The Greeks, in turn, taught the Romans to brew. The Romans called their brew “cerevisia,” from Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and vis, Latin for “strength.” This is the root of the modern Spanish word for beer, cerveza.

When the Romans began their conquest of the British Isles in 55 BC, the Britons were already making ale from barley. The Romans refined the British brewing methods and, unbeknownst to them, started a long love affair between the British and their bitter.

Women’s Work
Spontaneously fermented beers (using wild yeast that floats into the brew on its own) occur all over the world, from Africa to the Andes. When Columbus arrived in the “New World” in the 1490s, he found Indians making beer from corn and black birch sap. Other cultures use the grains native to their region, from millet, maize and cassava in Africa to rice and sorghum in Asia.

In almost all of these cultures, brewing was and is women’s work.

From Ninkasi, the Babylonian “lady who fills the mouth,” to the native Amazon legends about a woman tricked into making the first beer to 18th-century alewives, women have taken on beer brewing along with other food production. Saint Brigid was alledged to have changed bath water into beer for a colony of thirsty lepers (take that, you Greeks).

Cultural anthropologist Alan Eames even postulates that “women have maintained power and status in macho, male-dominated, hunter-gatherer societies by developing their skills as brewsters.” Could be.

“In archeological sites in Egypt and the Sudan, in 5000-year-old Sumerian cuneiform manuscripts, among contemporary tribal people and rural farmers from Peru to Norway, you find the exact same thing: women making beer,” says Eames. “Same way, same basket, same pot, same rituals. Tibetan beers are very similar to Amazonian manioc beers. The nomads of the Yellow River area of Mongolia have these little portable breweries that go on horseback, and the women take them wherever they go. It’s kind of a collective unconscious.”

In Medieval Europe, women were brewsters in public taverns, although unless widowed they could only hold a tavern license under a husband’s name. Since beer was a key dietary component, bad beer and short measures were punished with flogging and worse – a church in Ludlow, England features a stone carving of an ale wife being cast into hell, false-bottomed pitcher in hand.

Of course, once brewing moved outside the home and became a commercial enterprise, it moved to the male domain. Home and small commercial brewing as women’s work continued through the 17th century, but slowly died out as mass production took over. It was big news when Elise Miller John took over the reigns at Miller Brewing for eight years beginning in 1938 – the first woman ever to run a major brewing company.

The Viking Age
Eames calls the Vikings “the most beer-drunken people that ever lived.” Like the Egyptians and Sumerians before them, the Vikings revered beer and brewing as holy pursuits. In fact, our modern word “ale” comes from the Norse “aul.”

Norse legend says that Odin, disguised as an eagle, spilled the secret of beer from the sky. The Norse sea god, Aegir, brewed ale for the gods in a giant kettle provided by Thor. Aegir’s role as the gods’ ale brewer probably comes from the association between the ocean’s foam and ale’s foamy head. Aegir was famous for his hospitality; the cups in his hall magically refilled themselves.

In Valhalla, essentially a giant ale house where the Viking dead feasted, ale streamed boundlessly from the udders of a mythic goat named Heidrun. In the Kalevala, the ancient Finnish account of the creation of the world, the creation of ale is given twice the narrative space devoted to the creation of the world.

The mortal Vikings brewed ale on board their ships, spreading their ale throughout Europe as they raided and colonized during the 8th through 10th centuries. Viking brewers commonly used juniper berries as a preservative and bittering agent in place of hops. (Other cultures developed similar substitutes, such as the heather and pine ales produced in the Scottish isles.)

Today you can sample a number of beers brewed in the Viking tradition or at least inspired by the Norsemen, from Legends Ltd.’s Skullsplitter Orkney Ale (named for Thorfinn Hausakluif, the Seventh Viking Earl of Orkney) to Norvig Viking Ale, made in England with yeast and recipes that date from Viking times. (Norvig was brewed in the mid-90s by the always-interesting Legends Ltd., but I don’t think they make it any more.)

Ale was more than a means to divine intoxication for the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. In a world without refrigeration or good sanitary technique, brewed beverages were both a bankable source of nourishment (high in carbohydrates and containing some protein) and a safe substitute for drinking water of dubious quality.

Even today, some events are so closely associated with beer that their Scandinavian names incorporate the Norse word for beer: gravl (a wake, or “funeral ale”), barnl (a christening, or “child-ale”) and taklagsl (a barn-raising, or “roofing-ale”).

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the first phrases I learned in Swedish, after some of the hymns and kitchen terms supplied by my grandmother, was the ever-useful “Jag tycker om l!” (I like beer!).

(By the way, if you need your very own Viking drinking horn, check in with the folks at The Jelling Dragon.)

Monking Around
During the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, many of the key advancements in brewing science and styles came out of monasteries. Some credit the 12th century mystic, St. Hildegard of Bilgen, with introducing the use of hop flowers in brewing. Others say the Bohemians and others were already cultivating and using hops as early as the 800s A.D. In fact, Bohemian hops were so prized that King Wenceslas (yes, that King Wenceslas) ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting the cuttings, from which new plants could be grown. Regardless of the source, hops helped preserve the beer and paved the way for wider distribution.

It was during the first half of the Middle Ages (500-1000 AD) that brewing begin to shift from a household chore to centralized production in monasteries and convents, which provided hospitality for traveling pilgrims.

During Medieval times beer was used for tithing, trading and payment of taxes.