Bud Light for Breakfast? A Brief History of Beer

Whatever your thoughts on Anheuser Busch’s marketing strategies, one thing is clear. Screwing up at the art of selling beer is an accomplishment of biblical proportions because people have been drinking beer since the beginning of time. While I can’t prove this in a court of law, I remain convinced brewing happy hops is the world’s third-oldest profession, right after that first one and personal injury law.

Beer is way old…

Archeologist Patrick McGovern studies remnants of old fermented joy juice by analyzing leftover traces in old pottery and such. In a nutshell, the oldest “barley beer” he’s found dates back to about 3,400 BC from Iran’s Zagros Mountains. Wine is older at perhaps 5,400 BC from the same area. The oldest fermented beverage he knows of is a grog from China, dating to about 7,000 BC. We’re talking proof here, but many historians believe fermented beverages came on the scene about 12,000 years ago, concurrent with the development of grain agriculture.

Beer has changed a bit, and thankfully so, because the ancients found all sorts of ways to mess up perfectly good ale by adding random ingredients like olive oil, cheese, oregano, carrots, other veggies of all types and, for really wild after-parties, hemp and poppy.

Liquid lunch (or breakfast)

Years ago, I received as a birthday gift a subscription to a beer of the month club. Like clockwork, a six-pack each of two different microbrews would arrive via the Brown Truck of Happiness. One fateful and tragic day, a “pumpkin ale” arrived, and no, it’s apparently not illegal to insult, debase and torture perfectly good beer. I digress.

The point of the story is that for a long, long time, beer wasn’t a party drink, and often not very strong. Think of historical beer more as a convenient way to consume at least some healthy vitamins sourced from veggies and such. So, weird stuff (as judged by modern-day standards) like pumpkin was an integral part of beer. Wow, I coulda had a V-8 (beer)!

Poor folks, like Tom Builder, star character of the truly fabulous book series Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, usually crammed down a hunk of bread and some “beer” to start his day. Beer was also a popular foodstuff for sailors, who constantly fought nutritional deficiencies on long voyages away from fresh foods.

Average Joe’s drink of choice

Some things never change. Hoity-toity cultures like the Greek and Roman civilizations preferred wine, so beer was considered the “barbarian” beverage. I guess that explains the drink of choice in modern sports stadiums, doesn’t it? Anyway, back then, the Germans were considered the “barbarians,” so much of the advanced development of what we’d consider good beer originated there.

While the Germans refined beer, the “make you tipsy” version was astonishingly popular in ancient Mesopotamia. You can find lots of references to deities getting tanked on beer and spilling all manner of secrets to lowly humans.

During the Babylonian empire, beer was so important it was rationed to citizens at the rate of two liters per day for laborers but five for priests and government officials, according to the Code of Hammurabi. Some things never change. Oh, and they invented straws, too, as a way to avoid drinking the sour sludge that inevitably settled in the bottom. Word has it there was nasty stuff floating on the surface too.

The Golden Age of beer

People got serious about making what we now consider good beer in the Middle Ages, but things really took off when the monks got involved. In fact, the Kulmbacher Monchshof Kloster monastery, founded in 1349, is still making its beer. It was during this era that hops became an integral part of beer making. Thank you, monks!

Not only were monasteries centers of learning and knowledge, leading to experimenting with ingredients and brewing techniques, but they were the travel centers of their day. Travelers of all societal strata would stop over at a monastery, have a beer or three, and continue on their way. So spreadeth the joys of beer to the modern world.

We can thank the Duke of Bavaria for clamping down on adding all those nasty ingredients (like pumpkin) to beer. His beer purity decree in 1516 limited ingredients to water, hops and barley.

Beer’s place in the world

It depends on you who ask, but beer seems to occupy 4th place in most polls of the most consumed beverages worldwide, right after water, tea and coffee.

I’m betting it was in a solid second place until some idiot decided to put pumpkin in it.

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