Brewing is almost certainly the most ancient manufacturing art known to man, and is probably as old as agriculture. Beer is also as old as bread – in fact it is probable that either beer or bread may have been a by–product of the other. According to archaeologists, ‘beerbread’ was known in many eras.
Earliest references to beer
The Chinese brewed beer called ‘Kui’ some 5,000 years ago. In Mesopotamia, a 4,000 year–old clay tablet that was found indicates that brewing was a highly respected profession – and the master brewers were women.
In ancient Babylon, the women brewers were also priestesses. The goddesses Siris and Nimkasi were patronesses of beer, and certain types of beer were reserved exclusively for temple ceremonies.
In 2100 BC Hammuabi, the 6th King of Babylonia, included provisions regulating the business of tavern keepers in his great law code. These provisions covered the sale of beer and were designed to protect the consumer. The punishment of short measure by an innkeeper was drowning.
An ancient tablet now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum lists Babylonian beers as dark beer, pale beer, red beer, three fold beer, beer with a head, without a head etc. It also records that beer was sipped through a straw.
3,000 year old beer mugs were uncovered in Israel in the 1960s. Archaeologists said that their find at Tel Isdar indicated that beer drinking in Israel went back to the days of King Saul and King David.
The Egyptian Era
Some 5,000 years ago in Egypt, beer was already an important food item in the daily diet. It was made from lightly baked barley bread, and also was used as a sacrament.
People gathered in the evening to drink at a ‘house of beer’. Beer was the natural drink of the country, as well as being used as medicine. A medical document, which was written in about 1600 BC, lists about 700 prescriptions of which about 100 contained the word ‘beer’.
The Egyptians also provided their dead with food and beer. An old Egyptian tomb bears the inscription: “….satisfy his spirit with beef and fowl, bread and beer”. In the taverns or houses of beer in Egypt, the favourite toast was “Here’s to your ghost”.
Beer also had status – a keg of beer was considered the only proper gift to be offered to the Pharaoh by a suitor seeking the hand of a royal princess. 30,000 gallons a year was also offered as a fitting gift to the Gods by Pharaoh Rameses II (1,200 BC). It is recorded that a similar amount was also offered to appease the gods when they became angry.
The Greek and Roman Era
It was the Egyptians who reputedly taught the Greeks how to brew beer. In fact it has been suggested by historians that Dionysus, the wine-god of Greek mythology, was actually a superimposition of Dionysis, the beer-god from pre-historic times.
The famous Greek writer Sophocles (450 BC) stressed moderation, and suggested a diet of “bread, meat, green vegetables and zythos (beer)”.
The Greeks in turn taught the Romans to brew, and Julius Caesar, following the fateful crossing in 49 BC of the River Rubicon, toasted his officers with beer.
The Romans then showed the savage tribes in Britain the art of brewing.
Pliny and Tacitus are among the classical writers who record the development of the brewing art among the Celtic and Teutonic peoples of Britain and Central Europe.
The Christian Era
Beer really came into its own with the advent of the Christian era, largely through the influence of the monasteries, which brewed and improved the beer. Monks often built the first breweries as pioneers of the hotel business, providing shelter, food and drink to pilgrims and other travellers.
The Emperor Charlemagne (AD 742-814), the great Christian ruler, considered beer as essential for moderate living, and personally trained the realm’s brewmasters. King Arthur served his Knights of the Round Table with beer called bragget.
Even in medieval times, women generally brewed beer. Being the cooks, they had responsibility for beer that was regarded as ‘food-drink’..
In England at this time a chequered flag indicated a place where ale and beer could be purchased.
Of course few people other than the clergy could read or write, and a written sign would have been of little use.
Many events of this era incorporate the word ‘ale’, reflecting its importance in society. Brides traditionally sold ale on their wedding day to defray the expenses – hence ‘bride-ale’ which became ‘bridal’. The Christmas expression ‘yule-tide’ actually means ‘ale-tide’.
Saint Thomas A’Becket, martyred archbishop of Canterbury, was selected as patron saint of one of the London Guilds, the Brewers’ Company. When he went to France in 1158 to seek the hand of a French princess for Prince Henry of England, he took several barrels of British ale as gifts.
Beer was also handed out free of charge to weary travellers when the Wayfarer Dole was established in England.
Today, “ale” and “beer” are used as interchangeable terms. However, ale, which consisted of malt (usually made from barley although other grains were used), water and yeast, was replaced at the start of the 15th century by beer. Introduced from Flanders, beer was bittered with hops and kept better than English ale because of the preservative quality of the hops.
By the end of the century, beer had almost completely replaced the old English sweet ale, and was being exported to Europe. Records dating back to the 15th century show that almost half of the ships’ cargoes taken across the North Sea and the Baltic Sea were barrels of beer.
Until the middle of the 16th century, beer making was mainly a family operation and had little commercial application. However, it was certainly an integral part of everyday diet.
European beer first arrived in America with Christopher Columbus’ ships. On his last voyage to America in 1502, Columbus found the natives of Central America making a first-rate brew “of maize, resembling English beer”. The Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock, instead of further south as planned, partly because they were out of beer.
A journal entry dated December 19, 1620 said: “We could not take time for further search or consideration; our victuals being much spent, especially our beer”.
At the end of the 17th century, the weekly allowance for pupils of all ages at one English school was two bottles a day. Beer was a good deal safer and more palatable than the available drinking water that was often drawn from polluted rivers. And beer was also common in the workplace. The American scientist and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who lived in London from 1757-1774, recorded the daily beer consumption in a London printing house that he visited. The employees each had a pint before breakfast, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint at six o’clock and a pint when they finished work.