I’ve been writing about it for twenty years and drinking it for forty. But after a mind-bending dive into beer history, I’m not even sure what it is any more.
Last weekend I was in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, at the Ales Through the Ages Conference. I was honoured to be giving the keynote speech, which was titled “The Highs and Lows of Researching Beer History.” (You can see the full speech and slides if you sign up for my Patreon.)
In the speech, I questioned some of our assumptions about history. I basically took 45 minutes to say what Hilary Mantel said far more elegantly than I ever could in a couple of sentences: “History is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.”
And that record changes. As new technologies evolve and new discoveries emerge, the picture we have of the past changes: history changes. The past doesn’t change – obviously – but our understanding and knowledge of it does.
In a stroke of great fortune, these thoughts dovetailed perfectly with the opening speech of the conference proper. Travis Rupp, “The Beer Archaeologist,” spoke on the subject of “Defining Beer in the Ancient World.”
When I first started writing about beer, the consensus was that brewing began around 3000BC in Sumeria, because that’s how far the oldest evidence dated back. Within a couple of years, new carbon dating technology had pushed this back to around 7000BC. Then, in 2018, the whole ancient history of beer was rewritten once more.
Archeo-botanical evidence shows that the Natufian people of the Levant were fermenting grains 13,000 years ago, most likely to produce a drink for honouring the dead.
Does this make beer the oldest drink in the world?
Going into the conference, I’d followed the belief that mead must be older, because honey just got made in hives that hung around in forests. But Rupp completely disagrees. “It was very difficult, and very expensive, to gather enough honey to brew mead,” he says.
What about wine? Well, if we’re talking about something made from 100% grape juice, that’s pretty recent too. Wine was given a great press (so to speak) by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but before then, beer seems to have been dominant. New discoveries suggest the ancient Egyptians had commercial breweries capable of 5,000-gallon brews – way bigger than most craft breweries today.
But when we get back as far as the Natufians, we have to ask whether what they were making could technically be called beer. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’re ignoring the obsolete Middle Ages distinction between “beer” and “ale.” Hops were a very recent addition to beer across the total sweep of its history.)
I’ve always had a very simple distinction. All fermented drinks are based on sugars that yeast converts to alcohol. If those sugars come from fruit, the drink is wine (real cider is, effectively, apple wine.) If those sugars come from grains the drink is beer (which is why Japanese sake is technically rice beer rather than rice wine.) The domestication of grasses such as barley and Emmer wheat is pretty much the earliest marker for stable, permanent communities as opposed to nomadic wandering.
Ah. Says Rupp. But of the starches in the Natufian beer, only 34.2% came from grasses. The rest were a mix of starches from a wide variety of plants including lentils, tubers, leaves, even flowers. Fruit was likely added not primarily for flavour, but because the yeast on the skins would have started the fermentation.
So is this still beer?
For Rupp, it is. The key difference between the fermentable sugars in fruit and those in other plants is that the sugars in grains and tubers are stored as starch. Sugars in fruit will start fermenting as soon as yeasts can get to them. Starch needs to be modified in some way before yeasts can start to ferment. That’s why we malt grain in the brewing process, and why the evidence of Natufian brewing involves the grinding of both grains and tubers.
So for Rupp, “beer” is a drink that has been through a process we can loosely call brewing: it’s probably grain-based, but it has been mashed and heated in its production, before fermentation.
As the present changes the past, so the past changes the present. Just when you thought craft brewers had added everything imaginable to beer, let’s look forward to lentil, potato, rose and wheat beer…
Enjoyed reading this? Then please have a look at my Patreon and consider subscribing, from as little as £1 a month. It features exclusive and preview content and many other benefits such as free books, depending on your subscription level.