“Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.” -Dave Barry
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” -Benjamin Franklin
“He was a wise man who invented beer.” -Plato
Yes, beer is pretty great. But it also has a very weird history, as these facts attest.
Beer brewing dates to almost 6000 BC. However, it was the Sumerians around 2000 BC who really loved the stuff. Their plaques and carvings often center on people or gods drinking from large jars of beer. A hymn to one of their most important goddesses, Ninkasi, is actually a very detailed explanation of how to make beer; this was helpful in a society that was almost entirely illiterate. Want to make some beer but can’t read the recipe? Just start reciting the hymn and you’re set. Beer was so important that the average Sumerian couldn’t be bothered to stop drinking it for anything apparently, as there is a carving of a woman drinking out of a beer jug in the middle of sexual intercourse. That’s some dedication to your booze.
For your liver, obviously. But beer brewing is also a dangerous process due to the chances of bottles exploding, as today’s home brewers know. Sometimes, however, you get beer destruction on an even larger scale. At a London brewery in 1814, a vat containing more than 100,000 gallons of ale exploded, sending the beer rushing down the street through poor residential areas. It destroyed two houses and one pub, killing nine people in the process. However, one of those people only had himself to blame. When the beer settled into the gutters, people, enticed by free booze (even if it did have bits of road in it), rushed to the streets to drink it. A gentleman indulged a little too much and died from alcohol poisoning the next day.
Seriously, they will. During Prohibition in America people took to drinking hair tonic and posing as members of the clergy to get alcohol. Sometimes people come together on a large scale in the never ending quest for free beer. In Australia on Easter weekend in 2001, a beer truck blew a tire and overturned into a river. The driver was able to escape but his cargo sank to the bottom of the river. Hearing about the accident, people gathered at the scene, some in full scuba gear, and spent the entire weekend recovering the beer. One man managed to get 400 bottles. Did they return it to the company? Of course not. Despite a warning from police that what they were doing was theft, the divers took off with the whole lot.
In ancient and medieval times the job of making beer fell to women. In some cultures it was considered such an honor that only beautiful or noble women could do it. In medieval Europe brewing was one of a housewife’s regular tasks, just like cooking and cleaning and baby making. Some of these women became famous for being exceptional brewers and started supplying people other than their own families. You never knew what you were getting though. One brewer let her chickens roost over her beer vats and when they defecated would simply stir the refuse into the beer. Yummy.
The few beer producers who weren’t women tended to be monks. Monasteries have a rich history of brewing beer in order to refresh tired travelers and to sell to make money to run the monastery. Today some still have active breweries, especially the Trappist Monks in Belgium and the Netherlands. Trappists make beer in order to remain entirely self-sufficient, allowing them to run their monasteries on the money they make from the brewery and that alone. So, strangely, while some religions look down upon or even forbid the consumption of alcohol, others have making beer as a tenant of their doctrine. The most famous monk-made beer produced today is probably Chimay.
Beer was often used as medicine in medieval times. But those people used just about anything as medicine whether it worked or not, right? Modern people wouldn’t be so silly. Or would they? Shortly after the start of Prohibition the government ruled that doctors could give out beer for medicinal purposes (sound familiar?). This made members of the temperance movement furious; here they had finally won their long fight to outlaw alcohol and people were still going to be able to get it because of a loophole in the 18th Amendment. Would doctors’ offices become the new dens of vice that bars had recently been? Debate broke out in Congress and the American Medical Association about the importance of medicinal beer. In the end, the temperance movement won out again, leading to the rise of speakeasies and organized crime.
It’s a terrible stereotype that Germans are all huge beer drinkers. However, their country of 80 million did until just a few years ago have more breweries than the 300 million strong USA. They also lay claim to the oldest brewery. Located in Bavaria, Weihenstephan Abbey has been making beer since 1040. That’s almost 1000 years of continuous beer production. While it hasn’t been a religious house in 200 years the brewery is still in operation.
Virtually every polytheistic religion has a god or goddess of beer. The epic Finnish poem Kalevala spends more time on beer than on the creation of man. The Egyptian lion-goddess Sekhmet gave up killing forever once she got drunk enough. And the Greeks and Romans had Dionysus and Bacchus, respectively, the god of pleasure and wine and freeing ones inner self from care and worry. Cults sprung up around him and his worshipers would go outside of the cities at night for huge drunken orgies. All in the name of worshipping their god of course.
The age at which you are allowed to buy alcohol varies surprisingly little from country to country, usually falling between 16 and 21. However, parts of India have a drinking age of 25, the latest in the world. Many Muslim countries outlaw alcohol consumption altogether while a very few countries allow anyone of any age to buy beer. The age at which you are allowed to purchase alcohol is often different from when you can legally drink it. For example, in the UK you must be 18 to purchase alcohol but it is legal for you to drink it in a private home under adult supervision from the age of 5.
The Incas and some Pacific Island cultures used spit to ferment their beer. Beer or Chicha was very important for Incan festivals. They had large breweries devoted to making enough of the stuff. The recipe went something like this: take a large vat of water and let it warm up in the sun. Get a bunch of women to chew corn until it is a pulp in their mouths. The women then spit the pulp into the vat of warm water and let it sit for a few weeks. Then simply strain the lumpy, cloudy mixture and it’s ready to serve- wait, where are you going?