As always when writing about a specific topic, I have used a combination of different sources when doing research for this essay, but the single most important source of information was A History of Beer and Brewing by I. Hornsey. His book is perhaps a little bit too much focused on Britain but is overall very comprehensive and well worth reading. It traces the history of brewing from prehistoric times until the turn of the twenty-first century. Another work I found valuable was Richard W. Unger's book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Unger's text contains a little information on brewing-practices in the ancient world and even less of the scientific-industrial brewing that we know after the Industrial Revolution. However, his coverage of the Middle Ages and the early modern period is quite good, and I will quote his work extensively when writing about this period.
Fermented beverages brewed from grains such as rice or wheat have been used in East Asia for thousands of years and played an important role in the early religious life of China. The use of alcohol in moderation was believed to be prescribed by heaven. Inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells as well as bronze inscriptions preserve many records of people from the Shang era (second millennium BC) worshiping their ancestors with a variety of alcoholic beverages. Such beverages were widely used in all segments of Chinese society for hospitality and as a source of inspiration. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup included some of the greatest scholars and poets in China's history, among them Li Bai and Du Fu, known for their love of alcoholic drinks. Fermented beverages made from grapes were not totally unknown in East Asia, but wine was never as widely consumed there as it was in the western regions of Eurasia, although this is slowly changing now due to Western cultural influences.
Kaffir beer is the traditional drink of the Bantu peoples of southern Africa. It has been likened to "bubbling yogurt." The shelf-life of the product is restricted to a few days, and "unlike most European beers, African products contain a mixture of acids and alcohols, and have a sour taste." In Mesoamerica, fermented drinks were known, including one made from cacao beans, but north of Mexico, few or none alcoholic beverages were produced in pre-Columbian times. The Berbers of North Africa grew barley and wheat and made wine for centuries, but beer was unknown in the region until it was introduced in modern times by Europeans.
In South America, chicha is the generic name applied to native beer. This brew typically contains a slight amount of alcohol, 1-3%. The Incas used the drink for ritual purposes, and traces of its making have been found at the city of Machu Picchu. According to scholar Terence N. D’Altroy in his book The Incas, fermented beverages were so much a part of the cuisine in the Andes region “that being forced to drink water was a form of punishment.” The Incas around AD 1500 ruled over a vast empire stretching from Ecuador to central Chile, despite many natural obstacles in this mountainous region, held together by a network of roads and chains of runners who bore messages either orally or recorded in quipu, a code of knots in colored cords.
As historian J. M. Roberts states, “Though preliterate, the Andean empire was formidably totalitarian in the organization of its subjects’ lives. The Incas became the ruling caste of the empire, its head becoming Sapa Inca – the ‘only Inca’. His rule was a despotism based on the control of labour. The population was organized in units of which the smallest was that of ten heads of families. From these units, labour service and produce were exacted. Careful and tight control kept population where it was needed; removal or marriage outside the local community were not allowed. All produce was state property; in this way agriculturalists fed herdsmen and craftsmen and received textiles in exchange (the llama was the all-purpose beast of Andean culture, providing wool as well as transport, milk and meat). There was no commerce. Mining for precious metals and copper resulted in an exquisite adornment of Cuzco which amazed the Spaniards when they came to it. Tensions inside this system were not dealt with merely by force, but by the resettlement of loyal populations in a disaffected area and a strict control of the educational system in order to inculcate the notables of conquered peoples with the proper attitudes.”
Chicha was most commonly associated with maize, but other raw materials could be used, for instance potatoes. The greatest diversity in wild potato species occurs in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia, where the now-familiar crop probably was domesticated between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago. According to Ellen Messer in The Cambridge World History of Food, "In their Andean heartland, potatoes have always been consumed fresh (boiled or roasted) or reconstituted in stews from freeze-dried or sun-dried forms. They have been the most important root-crop starchy staple, although other cultivated and wild tubers are consumed along with cereals, both indigenous (maize and quinoa) and nonindigenous (barley and wheat). Despite the importance of the potato, cereals were often preferred. For example, Inca ruling elites, just prior to conquest, were said to have favored maize over potatoes, perhaps because the cereal provided denser carbohydrate-protein-fat calories and also was superior for brewing."
According to scholar Patrick E. McGovern in his book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture, “The discovery and rediscovery of how to make a fermented beverage from a natural or derived source of simple sugars has occurred in many places and at many times. Before the modern period, only the Eskimos, the peoples of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, and the Australian aborigines apparently lived out their lives without the solace and medical benefits of alcohol. The polar regions lacked good resources for monosaccharides; bear meat and seal fat may degrade and go rancid, but they do not ferment. Temperate parts of the globe, by contrast, were blessed with honey and fruit, above all the grape, and the tropics were awash in sugar-rich plants.”
Exactly when humans first began making alcoholic beverages is not known with certainty. A major turning point in human history was the transition from an extractive economy (foraging and collecting) to a productive, agrarian economy with domesticated plants and animals, the so-called Neolithic Revolution, a term coined in the 1920s by the Australian scholar Gordon Childe (1892-1957). This gradual transition from the life of nomadic hunter-gatherers to more settled communities of food producers happened independently in several parts of the world, but very early (ca. 9000-7000 BC) in the Near East and the Fertile Crescent, where many useful plants and animals were naturally available. It is theoretically possible that alcoholic beverages could have been made prior to this. Some raw materials of fermentation (i.e. sources of sugar) were naturally available to pre-Neolithic peoples, primarily wild berries and fruits, tree sap and honey. These raw materials and end-products were unstable and not available for consumption at all times of the year. However, it is unlikely that reproducible beers could be brewed until after the invention of some sort of pottery vessels. The earliest pottery containers we currently know of were produced before 10,000 BC in China and Japan, somewhat later in other regions.
In temperate zones there were relatively few abundant sources of sugar. According to Hornsey, “Thus, for much of Europe, at least, honey is the logical candidate for being the basis of the original fermented beverage, some sort of mead. According to Vencl (1991), mead was known in Europe long before wine, although archaeological evidence for it is rather ambiguous. This is principally because the confirmed presence of beeswax, or certain types of pollen (such as lime, Tilia spp., and meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria), is only indicative of the presence of honey (which could have been used for sweetening some other drink) - not necessarily of the production of mead. For more southerly parts of Europe, and for the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, the fermentation of the sap and fruits of tree crops, such as the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.), offers the most likely means by which alcoholic drinks were first produced with any degree of regularity. The date palm was one of the first fruit trees to be taken into cultivation in the Old World (ca. mid-4th millennium BC), and its sap and fruits contain one of the most concentrated sources of sugar (60-70%) known on the planet.”
Moreover, as Hornsey states, “In more temperate zones, mature specimens of trees such as birch (Betula spp.) and maple (Acer spp.) were bored early in the year (January or February) and sap was collected until the trees set bud. In early spring it has been reported that a mature birch can yield some 20-30 litres of sap daily (with a sugar content of 2-8%, plus some vitamins and minerals), some of which can be stored until summer. Such activities are historically attested for in North America, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe, and in many instances it would appear that the sap was consumed ‘neat’….It is thought that sap was more important than fruit juices in prehistoric times, especially in northern Europe, something that can be gleaned from the fact that the Finnish word for sap is mahla, and that this gave its name to the month of March in both the old Finnish and Estonian languages. The sugar levels of tree sap can be concentrated by boiling, and it is of note that maple sugar was manufactured in Europe until the early 19th century (and still is in North America in the 21st century).”
Archaeologist Merryn Dineley claims that ritual brewing in Neolithic ceremonies in Scotland dates back at least to 3000 BC. Meadowsweet, the addition of which can extend the shelf-life of such early beer by several weeks, was one component of a number of possible prehistoric brews discovered in Scotland. This ale would have been flavored with meadowsweet in the manner of a kvass made by various northern European tribes, including the Celts and the Picts. We know of several ancient, simply prepared fermented drinks that might have been precursors of what we today know as beer. One of these is braga (or bosa), which has been made until recent times over a huge area of Europe, from Poland to the Balkans and eastwards into Siberia. Kvass or kvas is a fermented beverage, typically with an alcoholic content as low as 1%, which has been produced and consumed in Russia, the Ukraine and many Eastern and Central European countries for a very long time, often flavored with fruits or herbs. It may constitute a "fossil beer," and there are those who believe that the beers consumed in early Mesopotamian literate civilizations may have been a form of kvass.
Recorded human history begins with the rise of urban literate civilization in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, starting with the Sumerians and the cities of Uruk, Ur, Lagash and Kish in the fourth millennium BC. These civilizations had access to barley and wheat, which by consensus would be regarded as the preferred grains by most brewers. The origin of wheat and barley is believed to lie in the Fertile Crescent. Wild barley grew in Israel and Syria, the Jordan Valley with the extremely ancient Neolithic town of Jericho via eastern Anatolia to northern Mesopotamia and western Iran. Apart from barley, all of the major cereal crops such as wheat, oats, rye, millets, maize, sorghum and rice can and have been used to make beer. Some of the oldest written texts in the world contain lists of grains and ingredients for making beer. Sumerian Mesopotamia produced a great variety of beers, most of which were probably weaker than the European beers of medieval times. Wine was made in the Zagros Mountains in Iran and imported to the main urban sites. Beer was a popular drink in Mesopotamia during all eras and was consumed by all social groups, interlinked with mythology, religion and medicine, synonymous with happiness and a civilized life. Both filtered and unfiltered beers were brewed in the region.
According to I. Hornsey, “Beer that had not gone through any sieving or settlement phase was always drunk through straws, in order to avoid gross sediment. Numerous cylinder seals have been recovered which show individuals (usually two) drinking through straws from a communal vessel, something that supports the notion that drinking beer was a social activity….Drinking straws were usually made of reeds, and hence have long since perished, but one or two elaborate and more substantial structures have survived. Three such items were recovered from a royal tomb at Ur. One was made of copper encased in lapis lazuli; one was made of silver, fitted with gold and lapis lazuli rings, and the third was a reed covered in gold, and found still inserted in a silver jar. The silver tube was an impressive L-shaped structure, being ca. 1 cm in diameter, and some 93 cm long. A number of metal ‘straws’ have also been recovered from Syrian sites. Unfiltered Mesopotamian beer, which was thick and cloudy, was low in alcohol but high in carbohydrate and proteins, making it a nutritious food supplement.”
Beer played an important role in the ceremonial life of ancient Egypt, too. As Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter state in their book Egypt and the Egyptians, second edition, “The most popular drink in Egypt was beer, and we assume that all Egyptians – rich and poor, male and female – drank great quantities of it in spite of advice such as ‘Don’t indulge in drinking beer, lest you utter evil speech, and don’t know what you are saying’ (from the ‘Instructions of Ani’). Wages were paid in grain, which was used to make two staples of the Egyptian diet: bread and beer. Beer was made from barley dough, so bread making and beer making are often shown together. Barley dough destined for beer making was partially baked and then crumbled into a large vat, where it was mixed with water and sometimes sweetened with date juice. This mixture was left to ferment, which it did quickly; the liquid was then strained into a pot that was sealed with a clay stopper. Ancient Egyptian beer had to be drunk soon after it was made because it went flat very quickly. Egyptians made a variety of beers of different strengths.”
All kinds of workers were paid in grain and in grain products such as beer and bread. People at all levels of Egyptian society drank beer, with brewing not as tied to the temples as it was in Mesopotamia, although there was some government interference and regulation here as well. Breweries in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria could be large, but in the warm climate the beer would quickly become undrinkable and could thus not be transported too far or exported to distant regions. Baking and brewing often went on in shared quarters on the estates of Egypt since these two processes involved the same raw materials and similar equipment. Artistic evidence suggests a strong link between brewing and bread-making, both being domestic duties usually performed by women. Women made much of the beer in medieval Europe, too, until brewing become a major, capital-intensive industry and gradually became dominated by men. The roles of microscopic organisms in baking and brewing, however, were not fully appreciated until the scientific advances of nineteenth century Europe.
Beer was also consumed by many other ancient peoples, including the Hittites, Hebrews, Philistines, Thracians, Illyrians, Phrygians and Scythians. Some peoples, like the Nubians and the Ethiopians, would appear to have developed their own methods of brewing, making use of indigenous raw materials. The Eskimos drank chiefly iced water and warm blood before they were confronted by Europeans and their alcoholic drinks.
Wine has frequently throughout recorded history enjoyed greater prestige than beer and has often been the preferred choice of the wealthy and the privileged. It is difficult to say why. Maybe it was because wine was usually stronger than beer or that it kept longer. We cannot say with certainty that it always tasted better. Regardless of the reason for this, it is a fact that wine was often valued more highly. This attitude arguably still exists today, when beer is often viewed as the drink of the "common man," while those eating at expensive restaurants will normally prefer a glass of fine wine rather than a glass of beer to accompany their food.
Wine was widely consumed in the ancient Middle East, and sometimes its effects were enhanced by additives. Along with eating and drinking went song and dance. Egyptians and Mesopotamians found it difficult to grow large amounts of grapes for wine and instead imported what they could not make. Thousands of wine jars were deposited in the tombs of the first pharaohs of Egypt at Saqqara (Memphis) and Abydos, the main centers of the recently united country. The about 700 jars of wine found in the tomb of one of Egypt’s first kings at Abydos, Scorpion I, contain some of the earliest known hieroglyphic writing ever discovered in Egypt, from before 3100 BC. This wine was apparently imported from southern Palestine, and it is quite clear that there was large-scale production of wine in the Levant – present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan – already at this early date.
Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist, has suggested that the first "wine culture" emerged in Transcaucasia, the region stretching between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, comprising modern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not all scholars agree with this theory, but it is clear from archaeological evidence that the Black Sea region and the Eastern Mediterranean contain some of the earliest wine-producing regions in the world. The Phoenicians from present-day Lebanon brought wine to new areas in Spain and Portugal, a number of Mediterranean islands as well as Carthage, the Phoenician-derived North African city which was to prove a serious challenge to the emerging Roman supremacy in the Mediterranean world during the Punic Wars, especially under the leadership of the great Carthaginian general and military strategist Hannibal (ca. 247-ca. 183 BC).
The Phoenicians competed with and taught another wine-loving people, the Greeks, as both groups plied their ships throughout the Mediterranean, traded their goods and planted vineyards as they went. One of the fruits of these contacts was the Greek - and by extension the Roman or Latin - alphabet, adopted with added vowel letters from a modified version of the early Semitic alphabet employed by the Phoenicians before 1000 BC. Where the Greek alphabet was first created is not clear, but it may well have been on some of the islands where the ancient Greeks came into frequent contact with Phoenician traders, for instance Cyprus or Crete, possibly around 800 BC. The period from roughly 800 BC to 500 BC saw the establishment of Greek city-states. By the time of Aristotle in the fourth century BC, Greek colonies existed in southern France, the Iberian Peninsula, southern Italy, Asia Minor and in what is now southern Russia and Georgia. Krasnodar Krai on the Black Sea coast remains an important Russian wine district to this day.
As scholar Nicholas Ostler puts it, “the colonisation of the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts by Greek cities lasted from the middle of the eighth to the early fifth century BC. The question why, of all the inhabitants of these shores, only the Greeks and the Phoenicians set up independent centres in this way has never been answered. The foundations clearly served a variety of purposes, as political safety valves, as trading posts for raw materials, and as opportunities to apply Greek agriculture to more abundant and less heavily populated soil, but it is noteworthy that they are exclusively coastal, never moving inland except on the island of Sicily. The Greek expansion came after the period of Phoenician settlements (eleventh to eighth centuries), so it may be that the most important factor was who had effective control of the sea.”
The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with beer, but to them, drinking alcohol above all meant drinking wine. Wine was civilization. When Classical authors did mention beer, its most beneficial property was considered to be its ability to soften ivory to make jewelery. Beer was nevertheless consumed within the Roman Empire, especially in the border regions in the north. Most of the major wine producing regions in Western Europe today, and some of those in Eastern Europe, were established by the Romans, including probably the famous Bordeaux region of France. Wine production grew so much that some provinces soon exported wine back to the Italian Peninsula.
By the third century BC the Celtic world consisted of a series of autonomous tribes stretching across much of Europe from Ireland to Poland and Hungary, plus pockets of Celtic influence in Anatolia, the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere. After this, the Celts were more and more under pressure by the advancing Romans and the Germanic peoples. The loss of northern Spain and Italy, but especially France (the Gaul) to the Romans was a serious setback, and the Celts of the Danube soon disappeared. This left mainly the British Isles as a Celtic repository. In Britain, the Celtic-speaking peoples were eventually pressured into Ireland, Scotland (Calcedonia) and Wales. In France, even the name “Gaul” disappeared. It's current name comes from a post-Roman Germanic tribe, the Franks, although Celtic speech survived in some northern regions such as Brittany (Bretagne in French).
The standard container for wine, olive oil, grain and other commodities in the ancient Mediterranean world was the amphora, a clay vase with two handles. According to Julius Caesar, the Gauls in the first century BC were happy to swap a slave for a 25-liter amphora of wine. A slave would have been worth six times more in the Roman marketplace. The amphora was eventually superseded by the wooden barrel for the transport of wine.
As Hugh Johnson writes in his book The Story of Wine, “Wood and metal were the Celts’ favourite materials. So skilful were they with roof beams that some of the more ambitious of the stone vaults of Rome could not have been achieved without Celtic carpenters to make the templates. Iron wood-working tools have been found from the La Tène culture of Switzerland in the fifth century BC which would be familiar in a cooper’s shop today. The earliest barrels even had iron hoops, which gave way to wooden encircling bands in Roman times, only to be reinstated in the barrels of the seventeenth century. The historical trend has been for barrels to become shorter and fatter – otherwise there has been almost no change in form. The Romans soon realized the superiority of the light, resilient, rollable barrel over the cumbersome, fragile amphora, particularly in cooler northern climates with high humidity. The one advantage of the amphora that the barrel did not possess was that it could not be made airtight. Wood ‘breathes’; wine cannot be ‘laid down’ to mature for years in a barrel, as it can in an amphora.”
The Celts drank mead at certain great calendar festivals; otherwise they primarily consumed beer. As Richard W. Unger writes in his well-researched book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance:
“In the early fifth century, Orosius said that beer was the typical drink of those living in the high plains of Spain and, in all likelihood, the peoples of Celtic origin in that part of the Roman Empire continued the practice of brewing throughout the Middle Ages as did many others in the lands once ruled from Rome. Beer drinking was identified with Germans, including those who lived on both sides of the northern limits of Roman rule. The description of daily life among Germans in Germania by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus gives a documentary basis for the connection. A law of one German tribe, the Alemanii, set a contribution of beer to be made annually to a temple, so the drink may have had a religious function among the Germans.”