As always when writing about a specific topic, I have used a combination of different sources when doing research for this essay, but the single most important source of information was A History of Beer and Brewing by I. Hornsey. His book is perhaps a little bit too much focused on Britain but is overall very comprehensive and well worth reading. It traces the history of brewing from prehistoric times until the turn of the twenty-first century. Another work I found valuable was Richard W. Unger’s book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Unger’s text contains a little information on brewing-practices in the ancient world and even less of the scientific-industrial brewing that we know after the Industrial Revolution. However, his coverage of the Middle Ages and the early modern period is quite good, and I will quote his work extensively when writing about this period.- - - - - - - - -
Exactly when humans first began making alcoholic beverages is not known with certainty. A major turning point in human history was the transition from an extractive economy (foraging and collecting) to a productive, agrarian economy with domesticated plants and animals, the so-called Neolithic Revolution, a term coined in the 1920s by the Australian scholar Gordon Childe (1892-1957). This gradual transition from the life of nomadic hunter-gatherers to more settled communities of food producers happened independently in several parts of the world, but very early (ca. 9000-7000 BC) in the Near East and the Fertile Crescent, where many useful plants and animals were naturally available. It is theoretically possible that alcoholic beverages could have been made prior to this. Some raw materials of fermentation (i.e. sources of sugar) were naturally available to pre-Neolithic peoples, primarily wild berries and fruits, tree sap and honey. These raw materials and end-products were unstable and not available for consumption at all times of the year. However, it is unlikely that reproducible beers could be brewed until after the invention of some sort of pottery vessels. The earliest pottery containers we currently know of were produced before 10,000 BC in China and Japan, somewhat later in other regions.
In temperate zones there were relatively few abundant sources of sugar. According to Hornsey, “Thus, for much of Europe, at least, honey is the logical candidate for being the basis of the original fermented beverage, some sort of mead. According to Vencl (1991), mead was known in Europe long before wine, although archaeological evidence for it is rather ambiguous. This is principally because the confirmed presence of beeswax, or certain types of pollen (such as lime, Tilia spp., and meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria), is only indicative of the presence of honey (which could have been used for sweetening some other drink) — not necessarily of the production of mead. For more southerly parts of Europe, and for the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, the fermentation of the sap and fruits of tree crops, such as the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.), offers the most likely means by which alcoholic drinks were first produced with any degree of regularity. The date palm was one of the first fruit trees to be taken into cultivation in the Old World (ca. mid-4th millennium BC), and its sap and fruits contain one of the most concentrated sources of sugar (60-70%) known on the planet.”
Moreover, as Hornsey states, “In more temperate zones, mature specimens of trees such as birch (Betula spp.) and maple (Acer spp.) were bored early in the year (January or February) and sap was collected until the trees set bud. In early spring it has been reported that a mature birch can yield some 20-30 litres of sap daily (with a sugar content of 2-8%, plus some vitamins and minerals), some of which can be stored until summer. Such activities are historically attested for in North America, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe, and in many instances it would appear that the sap was consumed ‘neat’….It is thought that sap was more important than fruit juices in prehistoric times, especially in northern Europe, something that can be gleaned from the fact that the Finnish word for sap is mahla, and that this gave its name to the month of March in both the old Finnish and Estonian languages. The sugar levels of tree sap can be concentrated by boiling, and it is of note that maple sugar was manufactured in Europe until the early 19th century (and still is in North America in the 21st century).”
Archaeologist Merryn Dineley claims that ritual brewing in Neolithic ceremonies in Scotland dates back at least to 3000 BC. Meadowsweet, the addition of which can extend the shelf-life of such early beer by several weeks, was one component of a number of possible prehistoric brews discovered in Scotland. This ale would have been flavored with meadowsweet in the manner of a kvass made by various northern European tribes, including the Celts and the Picts. We know of several ancient, simply prepared fermented drinks that might have been precursors of what we today know as beer. One of these is braga (or bosa), which has been made until recent times over a huge area of Europe, from Poland to the Balkans and eastwards into Siberia. Kvass or kvas is a fermented beverage, typically with an alcoholic content as low as 1%, which has been produced and consumed in Russia, the Ukraine and many Eastern and Central European countries for a very long time, often flavored with fruits or herbs. It may constitute a “fossil beer,” and there are those who believe that the beers consumed in early Mesopotamian literate civilizations may have been a form of kvass.
Recorded human history begins with the rise of urban literate civilization in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, starting with the Sumerians and the cities of Uruk, Ur, Lagash and Kish in the fourth millennium BC. These civilizations had access to barley and wheat, which by consensus would be regarded as the preferred grains by most brewers. The origin of wheat and barley is believed to lie in the Fertile Crescent. Wild barley grew in Israel and Syria, the Jordan Valley with the extremely ancient Neolithic town of Jericho via eastern Anatolia to northern Mesopotamia and western Iran. Apart from barley, all of the major cereal crops such as wheat, oats, rye, millets, maize, sorghum and rice can and have been used to make beer. Some of the oldest written texts in the world contain lists of grains and ingredients for making beer. Sumerian Mesopotamia produced a great variety of beers, most of which were probably weaker than the European beers of medieval times. Wine was made in the Zagros Mountains in Iran and imported to the main urban sites. Beer was a popular drink in Mesopotamia during all eras and was consumed by all social groups, interlinked with mythology, religion and medicine, synonymous with happiness and a civilized life. Both filtered and unfiltered beers were brewed in the region.
Read the rest at the Brussels Journal.