It is difficult to know exactly when and where people started brewing beer. Because it has been an integral part of many cultures for thousands of years.

Until recently, the first traces of beer were found in China 9000 years ago. But in 2015, Liu, a professor at Stanford University, led an archaeological expedition to the Rockfet Cave in Israel, a place that many believe contains important information about man’s transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer.

When Liu and his team collected samples of 13,000-year-old stone mortars in the cave, they found remnants of starchy food.

In the beginning we only wanted to see what plant remains could have survived on these mortars, but after about a year we discovered that some starch grains showed fermentation damage, says Liu.

According to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, they discovered the first archaeological evidence of a cereal-based brewery by a semi-neighbour in search of food.


This has affected us all over the world because beer is generally the most widely used beverage that can be made from any carbohydrate, says Dr Patrick McGovern. He’s the author of the book Ancient Eyebrows: The past has been reopened, reconstructed and analysed: Looking for wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages.

McGovern also worked with Sam Calaggione, the founder of the Dog Head Brewery, to recreate old beers such as the Midas Touch, which contained ingredients from 2700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas.

Dr. Patrick McGovern and Sam Calaggione (right) perform at the Ancient Ales event in the Penn Museum / Photo by Jacklin Nash Sam Calaggione (left) from the Thornhead and Dr. Patrick McGovern (right) perform at the Ancient Ales event in the Penn Museum / Photo by Thomas Stanley.

Travis Rupp, director of research and development and beer archaeologist at Avery Brewing Co. and professor of classical philology at the University of Boulder, Colorado, thinks beer can be brewed much sooner than we thought.

The domestication of barley dates from 8000 BC. Chr. back, McGovern said, who is also the scientific director of a project on biomolecular archaeology for food, fermented beverages and health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Why would they tame it if they don’t make so much beer?

Rupp believes that beer was such an important part of everyday life that many cultures have not even recorded it. In today’s world he compares the former production of beer with the production of milk or paperclips.

Little is written about these things because we take them for granted, he says. It’s over there. And so is the beer.

clay screens or filters for beer production in the former Iraq/Alamiya

Beer as food

Ancient Mesopotamia, known as the cradle of civilization, lay in parts of present-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria. And it was a hotspot for beer. The brewery was especially important for the Sumerians who, according to some historians, were active between 4500 and 4000 BC. Chr. settled in this region. The average Sumerian consumed up to one litre of beer a day and the brew was considered an excellent source of nutrients thanks to the essential vitamins produced by the yeast.

During fermentation, the phytic acid in the grain is also broken down, which promotes the absorption of nutrients. People who drank beer probably lived longer than people who did not.

The Egyptians also used beer as vital food. According to McGovern it is not clear whether those who lived in Mesopotamia or Egypt were the first to brew beer. But they had contact, he says. I’m sure the ideas have come and gone.

Beer and bread were the main ingredients of the Egyptian diet, writes Catherine A. Bard in her textbook Introduction to Archaeology of Ancient Egypt.

The book says that most beers are made of barley. The barley was first malted and then mixed with another batch that was heated and malted. It will produce sugar, complex carbohydrates and vitamins.

The Egyptians often threw away their drinks and drank them for 48 hours, Rupp says, so they could drink them on the way.

Beer has also played an important role in China. A well-preserved sample of rice wine was found in a hermetically sealed bronze case, which was excavated at the Changqikou site in China during the Shang Dynasty (ca 1600-1046 BC).

McGovern and his team discovered that it contained a mugwort called Chinese mugwort that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.

Model of a man producing beer in Ancient Egypt Model of a man producing beer in Ancient Egypt / Alami

Beer in religion

In many cultures, brewing was considered a duty. And beer was mainly produced by women, an idea reflected in many religions.

In Egypt, for example, there was a feast called the Feast of the Tekh, which coincided with the time of year when the Nile turned red because of the iron-rich soils which, according to the ancient brethren, were washed away by the water from the upper reaches.

As the story goes, the goddess Hathor was ordered by the sun god Ra to go to earth and destroy mankind. But Ra gave in, and instead flooded the Nile with red beer. Hathor, who had transformed into her goddess of lions in the form of Sekhmet, was drinking, getting drunk and believing that she had accomplished her task when she saw the red beer she thought was blood – this beer saved mankind.

Dr. Patrick McGovern with a ceramic jug from the Iron Age/ Photo by Nicholas Hartmann.

Beer in Eygpt was so popular that ceramics filled with drinks and 3D models of breweries were found in the graves. It was to make sure the deceased had enough beer in the afterlife.

For the Sumerians, beer was seen as a gift from the gods to promote the well-being and happiness of the people, according to the research work Beverages of the Ages, published in 2019. The four Sumerian deities were closely related to beer, such as the beer goddess Ninaski. The Ninaski hymn, written in 1800 B.C., is a recipe for beer in poetry form.

Beer also played an important role in the former South America. For the Peruvian Incas, who ruled an empire that stretched from Colombia to Bolivia as of 1438 n. Chr. until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in 1500, chicha (corn beer) was essential for religious rites. Their sun god, Inti, was given a large amount of beer to quench his thirst, writes McGovern in Ancient Brews. And beer was at the centre of religious festivities.

Long before Europeans colonized present-day America, Native Americans made fermented beverages from ingredients such as corn and fruit, maple juice and agave, said Teresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Apache tribes, for example, lived in parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and beyond before the arrival of the Spanish settlers. They make herbal tea or corn beer. Although according to Ferment’s Landscapes it was not a basic element of everyday life, it was an integral part of rituals and other ceremonies.

Two Smithsonian artifacts Photo by Jacklin Nash / Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Beer in the economy and innovation

Beer also played an important role in the old economy. Take Egypt, for example.

It was an industry, Mr. Rupp said. It wasn’t just a simple home-cooked meal where everyone made a one-way trip to spend the day. It was a big industry.

A place in the Nile delta called Tell el Farha was excavated in 2014. The remains of several breweries were found there, allegedly from a period before the crisis.

They were involved in the mass production of beer even before the Pharaohs appeared, Rupp said. These breweries produced 200 gallons of beer a day. And that shows it was an industry, a commodity.

The beer was used as payment for the employees. According to ancient sources, the workers on the Plateau of Giza received beer three times a day as payment.

In ancient Mesopotamia there are indications that beer was used as a means of payment and as a means of exchange for materials such as wood and metal.

Beer helped women fight for their place in Sumerian society. The women were expected to brew beer because it was considered a duty, but some women opened taverns to sell their beer.

But it’s not just ancient civilizations that used beer to do business.

During the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century, factories were built in the United States, agriculture was modernised, the railways were connected to the country and beer was the focus of action.

American beer titans, such as Anheuser-Busch, grew enormously during this period thanks to innovations such as mechanical cooling. Before cooling, most breweries in the United States were quite small because it was difficult to ship the product without damaging it.

They had mechanical refrigerated trucks and eventually a fleet of mechanical refrigerators and coolers in the factories and breweries, it was like a game that made the beer explode and get so big, says McCall.

According to the Association of Brewers, 580,000 jobs were created in artisanal breweries in 2019. And in 2017, New Food reported that there are more than 19,000 breweries worldwide, based in more than 200 countries and territories.

Brewery Showcase in the Smithsonian Museum Brewery Showcase in the Smithsonian Museum / Photo by Jacklin Nash / Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Beer in the enterprise

Beer brought people together from the beginning. Take the famous example of Israel. According to Liu, the opening of the brewery in the cemetery shows the emotional bond between hunter-gatherers and their ancestors.

I literally believe that beer is one of those machines that govern culture and society, Rupp said. Beer is undoubtedly a very social drink, and it always has been.

I mean, you look at some of the oldest examples of Sumerian, Babylonian [and] Egyptian art, and there are some people surrounded by a jar with all those sticks coming out… and they’re talking, and they’re probably doing business there, and they’re getting together to do something.

The people certainly continued the practice of the ancient civilizations, which began when they met to discuss things over a drink.

This is how the beer was used to create the American salon, which was founded in the second half of the 19th century. It was the centre of public life at the end of the 19th century, when millions of European emigrants started working in new factories and warehouses.

Many immigrants came to these metropolitan areas, such as New York, Boston or other areas, and saw these shows. And the beer served in those salons played a very important social role, but they [the salons] were a very large political space, McCulla said.

Many immigrants do not speak English, so the lounges soon become a place where men can finish their workday, have a beer, learn to vote and find out which political candidates represent their interests.

According to McCulla, the American saloon never returned in full glory after the Dry Act. But at Happy Hour, on Friday or Saturday evenings, you will probably find many regulars telling you about their days over a beer.

Beer stimulates other creative activities such as dance, music, spoken languages and is a social lubricant, McGovern said. So even in normal relationships between groups of people, like the first people in their caves, it would bring them closer together… It takes you away from your daily activities to fall asleep. It has so many different functions.

After all, it’s beer that makes us human, Rupp said.

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