The Ancient History of Beer

It is no secret to most, that our beloved beer has quite a colorful and long history. Have you ever wondered exactly how long though? Maybe you have never asked yourself “where did beer come from?” or maybe you have, either way, you can count on the fact that if you are reading this. I am going to tell you! Pull up a comfortable chair, pour an ice-cold mug of homebrew and come along with me for a journey through the history of my favorite beverage, BEER!

Most of us are aware that beer has lots of history within Europe and most savvy beer aficionados can make it at least as far back as the 15th century with their brew history. What about before all of that? You may find yourself surprised to learn that the first confirmed and documented “beer” was brewed in Ancient China around 7000 BCE! That is a long time, though this beer was not what we would really recognize as beer, here in the western world. The process that inspired the concept of modern-day brewing came about in Mesopotamia at the Godin Tepe settlement, the region that we now know as Iran, around 3,500-3,100 BCE. Even though the oldest confirmed knowledge of beer brewing comes from China, there is evidence to show that Southern Mesopotamia (Modern day Iraq) beer brewing could have been in practice much earlier, possibly as far back as 10,000 BCE.

The people of ancient Mesopotamia viewed beer as a staple of their daily diets and even as an important part of their culture. The brewing and consumption of beer were depicted in many different forms of art, from songs and great myths to paintings of individuals sipping their “beer” from a straw to filter out possible particulates (filtration wasn’t really a “thing” yet). It is believed that the straw was an invention of early peoples, (possibly the Sumerians or the Babylonians) specifically for the purpose of drinking beer! There is even a famous poem written about two drunk Gods, Inanna and Enki, the God of Wisdom (that is ironic). In the poem, Enki gets SO drunk that he accidentally gives away the sacred “Meh”, otherwise known as “The Laws of Civilization” to Inanna. This poem is thought to symbolize a transfer of power from the City of Iridu, to the city of Uruk.

The Sumerian poem, Hymn to Ninkasi, is both a song of praise to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, and a recipe for beer, first written down around 1800 BCE. Beer is even a major player in The Epic of Gilgamesh! The Sumerians relied on beer so much that it was regarded as a gift from the gods to help promote the health and happiness of humankind. The original Sumerian brewers were women, both priestesses of Ninkasi and average women, running their households domestically. These women would use a twice-baked barley bread as their grain base and beer brewing and bread-making were closely related in the minds of these ancient peoples, alike.

Under the Babylonian rule, Mesopotamian beer production increased dramatically, became more commercialized. Even Hammurabi wrote harsh laws regarding the commercial distribution of beer. One such law, number 108 states: “If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept grain according to gross weight in payment of drink but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the grain, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.” Yikes! Because women were the primary purveyors of beer at the time, the laws were female-gender specific, and breeching any of them usually ended in unfortunate death. The Babylonian people were clearly, very serious about their beer, so serious that they had a rigorous, 20 category system for cataloging the different types. Babylonian Beer became a major trading Commodity with other civilizations, especially the Egyptians.

Egypt was really no different when it came to associating beer with a female deity.  The Egyptian goddess of beer was Tenenit, and she is closely associated with Meskhenet, goddess of childbirth, and protector of the birthing house. The most popular beer in Egypt was Heqet (or Hecht) which was a honey-flavored brew and their word for beer, in general, was zytum. Beer in Egypt was widely considered acceptable as payment for labor. Laborers were often given daily allotments of beer, as well. The Egyptians believed that the knowledge of brewing was given by the god Osiris and that he personally taught humans how to do it. Just like in the previously mentioned civilizations, beer production in Egypt was originally managed by women and represented one of the primary responsibilities associated with the women within the household. Later, as the production of beer in Egypt began to become more “commercialized”, men took over most of the production. Beer was such a popular beverage in Egypt that Cleopatra attracted a lot of unwanted hate for implementing a tax on its sales.

From Egypt, beer began to travel into ancient Greece and Rome, naturally. The Greek word for beer, zythos from the Egyptian zytum. Unfortunately, beer did not catch on as swiftly in these regions. Both Greeks and Romans were preferential toward wines and regarded beer as somewhat of an “uncivilized” Beverage. Sophocles even had some “not so nice” things to say about beer. Nevertheless, the Romans were brewing beer (cerevisia) quite early as evidenced by the tomb of a beer brewer and merchant (a Cerveserius) in ancient Treveris (modern-day Trier). Excavations of the Roman military encampment on the Danube, Castra Regina (modern-day Regensburg) have revealed evidence of beer brewing on a significant scale shortly after the community was built in 179 CE by Marcus Aurelius.

As time went on, beer began to move into Northern Europe, this is where most of us start when discussing the history of beer because it represents the beginnings of the beer, we would recognize even today. Germans began brewing beer as early as 800BCE, as indicated by jugs found containing beer remnants within ancient tombs. The earliest brewers in Europe were also women. The “Hausfrau” would brew the beer as part of her dominion over the cooking. As time went on, brewing in Germany was taken over by monastic monks. In 1516 CE the German Reinheitsgebot (purity order) was instituted which regulated the ingredients which could legally be used in brewing beer (only water, barley, hops, and later, yeast) in so doing, continued the practice of legislation concerning beer which the Babylonians under Hammurabi had done some three thousand years earlier. The Germans, like those who preceded them, also considered beer to be a daily staple of their diets.

From the Celtic lands, beer spread further across Europe always following the same basic principles first instituted by the Sumerians: female brewers making beer in the home, use of hot water, and fermented grains. In one Finnish saga, the female brewer, Osmata, attempting to make a great beer for a wedding, discovers the use of hops in brewing with the help of a bee she sends to gather the plant. This story is expressed as a poem. From the Sumerians to the Finnish, beer was regarded as a magical gift from the heavens and its inhabitants. See, that old saying “beer is proof that god loves us”, might have a longer history than you think!

Clearly, we have come a long way in how to make, enjoy, and even what we call, “beer”. Through all the changes, one thing always remains the same, human history and beer history run right alongside each other. Coincidence? Well, I will let you be the judge of that, but there is no doubt beer plays a significant role in just about every major ancient Civilization that we know about. Next time you gaze down into that ice-cold brew, remember that you are looking at an ancient thread, uniting the history of mankind, forever. LONG LIVE BEER!