Brewdiligence: January’s Beer Research

One month in to my year long beer drinking schedule and things are going quite well. January’s research, both scholarly and liquid, went swimmingly. Save for one Saturday that might have gotten out of hand, I made it through without having a single beer that was not new to me. I did allow myself multiple pints of the same beer in one sitting, provided I hadn’t tasted it previously, because going to a bar for one pint is dumb.

The research I did was mostly focused on the ancient world, because that is where my area of expertise as a historian lies, though that article I found most related to my own beer drinking experience was about Colonial America, which I suppose really shouldn’t come as any surprise.

In addition to the articles, I am making my way through Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer: An Insiders Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink. It’s a fun, light read, and packed with useful information, not just on tasting beer, but it’s history, the brewing process, glassware, etc. It’s a great place to start a beer education or just have on hand for reference. I’m considering it a primer to Michael Jackson’s epic, The World Guide to Beer. What makes Mosher’s book all the better is his admonition to not even think about reading it without a beer in your hand, and since he is an expert, who am I to say no?

Brewing an Ancient Beer, by Solomon H. Katz, Fritz Maytag, and Miguel Civil. Archaeology, Vol. 44, July/August 1991.

I’ve read, in more than once place now, that beer was the primary reason for domestication of grains. As a food historian I found this claim dubious, but never looked into it further; the times I have run across this it has been in beer-centric publications where one would expect this to be championed as fact. In this article the authors sought to explore the debate about what prompted grain domestication, and to then recreate an ancient beer as best can be expected.

Though the latter half of that might seem passé in the age of Dogfish Head’s  ancient recipe recreations, in 1991 there were significantly less people interested in such a thing. Fritz Maytag, craft beer visionary and former Anchor Brewing owner, helped research and write this article, and bottled the resulting beer. One wonders how well that sold. In today’s market it would likely do well. 1991 might not have been ready for it.

My bigger interest here was the veracity of the beer-before-bread assertion, and unfortunately this article did not shine any new light on the subject. The dispute goes back to the 1950s when Robert Braidwood and Jonathan D. Sauer held a symposium asking the question, “Did Man Live by Bread Alone?” Sauer, the progenitor of the beer-first argument, postulated that the work involved in grain domestication would not have been worth it to hunter-gatherers if the purpose was only food, but provides little evidence other than inconclusive archaeological remains to support such a claim. I read the entirety of the 1953 symposium (where not a single person agreed with him), in addition to numerous other articles, and none of them are able to convincingly argue a case for beer over bread. Maytag’s co-author here, Solomon H. Katz, wrote another article (Beer and Bread: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet) proposing the health benefits of a fermented beverage, along with the social impact of a readily available intoxicant might have motivate grain domestication, but readily admits any such conclusion cannot be definitively supported.

I love beer. You love beer. Beer being a prime mover in bringing wild grain under man’s sway is great fodder for conversation over pints, but until better evidence is presented, this notion should be put to rest. 

Beer and Its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story. Michael M. Homan. Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 67, June 2004.

An interesting look at the integral role beer played in the ancient Near East and Egypt. Beer was prized at every level of society, being utilized in religious ceremonies, as a form of payment to laborers, and poured for ne’er do wells in taverns and brothels (Another article from 1931 mentioned that harem girls got three quarts of beer a day and  also made the now very politically incorrect assessment that “Evidently the Orientals liked ‘em plump then just as they do now”). Material remains play heavily here, including the discovery of clay stoppers used to control fermentation, which were previously thought to be tools utilized in cloth making. In many depictions of ancient beer consumption people are seen to be drinking beer through straws in order to filter out grain hulls and other detritus (like bugs) left over from the brewing process. These straws were made of long, hollow reeds and capped with tips made of metal or bone, many of which have been found at sites across the region.

Did Ancient Greeks Drink Beer? Max Nelson. Phoenix Vol. 68. Spring/Summer 2014.

Using textual evidence in histories, dramas, comedies, and philosophical works, Nelson makes a sturdy, nuacned case for his argument that beer was most certainly looked down upon by the Greeks. Yes, some Greeks definitely drank beer. But enough evidence exists in literature, either positive or negative, that a strong conclusion can be made beer was almost a non-factor in Greek society, and that wine was the beverage of choice regardless of social status. Beer was a drink used by non-Greeks and became a means of what is referred to as “othering.” In broad terms, othering is a way in which one group delineates itself from another by way of culturally specific criteria. In the case of Greeks and beer, to be a drinker of beer was to announce oneself as not being Greek, and by virtue of that, a lesser person. 

On a related note, the oft seen quote from Plato that says, “He is a wise man who invented beer,” needs to be put to pasture along with the beer before bread argument. Should someone be able to find any text where Plato mentions beer, let alone praises its creator, I would love too see it.

Brewing Beer in the Massachusetts Bay, 1640-1690. James E. Nelson The New England Quertlery , Vol. 71, No.4, December 1998.

A detailed and well researched expert from a larger work on the internal economy of colonial New England. The selection here traces the evolution of brewing from its colonial origins as an activity taking place mostly in private homes to fledgeling industry by the end of the seventeenth century.

One of the more noteworthy aspect of this article, and one which should be of specific interest to today’s beer community, is the presence of women as brewers. It’s a well known fact that women made more beer than men, from antiquity until the time brewing became a real means of financial enterprise, that fact is really brought to life here. Since most early beer making was done at home, and more specifically, in the kitchen, it was a job often included in their may chores. Country records show an inordinate amount of brewing being done by widows, and fathers routinely willed brewing equipment to their daughters.

The tension at play between home and commercial brewers, and the regulations placed upon both might also strike a chord with modern craft beer enthusiasts. Another modern analog to be found is the use of adjunct grains, indian corn specifically. When prices for corn fell below that of wheat, barely, and rye, it wasn’t long before corn played an increasingly large role in some recipes. Then, as now, this was a source of consternation, so much so that legal measures were taken to ensure that good barely was used over corn. In spite of the distance time and modern techniques might seem to wedge between us the beer drinkers of colonial America, it turns out they might have held dear some of the same principles we see in today’s craft beer movement.

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