Any self-respecting beer lover knows that their preferred beverage has a rich, deep history and takes great pride in that fact. However, many don't realize just how deep that past goes, nor how it ties into our culture, our ways of thinking and even our character. In a way, you could say that beer is in our blood. It's been part of most civilizations since the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, and shows no signs of letting up. In fact, beer is enjoying yet another renaissance, as the booming craft beer industry can attest. Just how deep does the history of beer go?
8,000 Years Ago
Picture yourself 8,000 years ago. The hunter-gatherer way of life is beginning to die out (though it will never completely fade away). The force responsible for that massive, incredible change was agriculture – the growing of grains. There were two hallmarks of the Agricultural Revolution (also known as the Neolithic Revolution) that occurred almost simultaneously – the invention of bread and the invention of beer.
In fact, for the greater part of recorded human history, the daily diet for most people consisted of mostly bread and beer, with a little bit of meat and greens thrown in every now and then. Grains provided the fuel to start civilizations and to build empires. Laborers during this time needed 4 to 5,000 calories a day to survive, and carbohydrate rich foods like beer and bread helped them do that. When you add on the fact that many sources of water during this time were unsafe to drink, the average man or woman had to drink as much as two gallons of beer a day.
Of course, the beer brewed during these times probably didn't resemble what we know today. Partially, this is because hops weren't used in the brewing process, but there were many other differences, as well.
The Place in Culture and Blood
Beer remains celebrated for its flavor, its aroma and its complex characteristics. Thanks to the resurgence in the interest in home brewing and craft brewing, the connection with the deep past is even easier to see – especially when you factor in some of the more exotic brews available today, which might just be closer to what beer was like originally than you think.
Throughout the long millennia, beer has remained a staple in most societies. It provided something safe to drink, it was used as a food source, and it even worked as a form of currency at times. This rich lineage helps to highlight why beer is still so popular today, thousands of years after it was first brewed. It's a part of who we are, a part of our heritage and culture. It's in our blood.
The Rebirth of Iron Age Beer
As mentioned, beer has not always been brewed the way we think of it today. However, ancient brewing techniques can (and have been) revived. At the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, one particular type of ancient beer has been reborn, right down to traditional brewing methods. Of course, the professor responsible (Hans-Peter Stika) has gone to considerable lengths to explain the difference in ancient beer to what we enjoy today.
As mentioned, the key difference is the lack of hops. Instead of hops, ancient societies like the Celts used other things to flavor their beer, and not all of them were pleasant. A typical sampling of Celtic beer flavorings includes henbane (also called stinking nightshade). Mugwort (common wormwood) was also used to flavor ancient brews (and to season fat, too). Carrot seeds were also used to flavor beer (and might be possibly the least offensive on this list).
To malt their grains, ancient societies dug pits and filled them with grain. The grain was then soaked and allowed to sprout. After sprouting, the water was drained and the entire pit was set ablaze (not quite the same has having a good kiln!). Lactic acid was produced from the burning, which added a sour taste to the finished product.
After burning, the grains were combined in a brew, to which heated stones were added (for caramelizing) and the entire batch was left to ferment using wild yeast. To top it all off, it was served warm and unfiltered, in all its glory. According to one Roman emperor, the smell of ancient beer was pretty close to that of a goat – not something that sounds very appetizing, is it?
Beer, Here to Stay
The fact that beer reaches so far back into the mists of time should come as confirmation that our beloved brew is here to stay. While it might well undergo further transformations (imagine someone eight millennia from now saying, "They used hops for WHAT?"), it will be with us for the duration. That's definitely something to be thankful for.