In the beginning there was beer and it was good. Very good. So good, in fact, that some anthropologists credit its genesis – as it relates to the rise of agrarian culture – as the catalyst that led to civilization as we know it. While it’s unclear exactly how beer was discovered, suffice to say, sometime after grain cultivation became the norm, a happy accident led to the discovery of the magical elixir we still hold so dear.
The earliest known beer dates back more than 9,000 years to ancient China. Shards of pottery were analyzed by molecular archeologists, who determined that the brew was made from rice, orange blossom honey, grape juice and hawthorn fruit. In 2005, Dr. Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology enlisted the help of Dogfish Head Brewing Company in Milton, Delaware, to recreate the ancient Chinese brew. The result was Dogfish’s Chateau Jiahu.
Chateau Jiahu is part of Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series, which strives to recreate ales with ingredients and techniques as close as possible to those used in the past. Ancient Ales are released sporadically, but can be found at local beer sellers when available (check out dogfish.com/ancientales for details).
While the Chinese brew can technically be called beer because it’s made from fermented grain (in this case, rice), most beer is brewed with at least some barley malt. Evidence of this method of beer production, dating back more than 5,000 years in what was Mesopotamia, has been discovered. Amazingly, the ceramic vessels found in this area were still sticky with beer residue. Other evidence of early beer production is heard in an ancient Sumerian song to the goddess of beer; “Hymn to Ninkasi” dates back more than 3,800 years. Within the song’s lyrics is a recipe for making the lauded beverage.
Even some of the world’s most celebrated monuments owe a debt to the popularity and significance of beer. As far back as the reigns of Egyptian pharaohs, beer was used as a form of compensation. Workers building the Great Pyramids were often paid with an allotment of beer. Everyone in those times, from the elite in the loftiest positions including pharaoh to the lowliest peasant, drank the nutritious – and tasty – brew.
Later, beer became a staple in European homes because water, due to poor sanitation, was full of disease-causing bacteria. Through a combination of cooking and the antiseptic properties of alcohol, beer was the much safer quaff. As Christianity spread across the continent, the Catholic Church became involved in brewing beer. As early as the Sixth Century, Benedictine monasteries began to appear throughout the land. With a dictate to be self-sustaining and to provide food and beverage to passing pilgrims, monks began brewing and refining beers – and continue to do so today.
From there, the story goes forward to the era of mass production and distribution. That’s a tale for another time, however – so stay tuned.