Beer Brewing Paralleled the Rise of Civilization

Kurt Stoppkotte
for National Geographic News
April 24, 2001
Malting, mashing, boiling, and fermenting … the basic process of
brewing beer has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of

Using his own gravity-fed brewing system, fabricated of
Styrofoam coolers, plastic tubes, sliced kegs, and a propane stove, home
brewer Steve Marler of Arlington, Virginia, pursues an activity that has
been associated with the beginnings of civilization.

"I'm just converting starches into sugars, boiling it with hops and adding yeast," Marler said. "Basically, it's very simple, and in a few weeks I will be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor."

The brewing methods that Steve Marler employs in the backyard of his suburban home are undoubtedly much like those that were used 6,000 years ago by the Sumarians, whose beer brewing was the first recorded knowledge of the practice.

Hailed by Caesar

Michael Jackson, author of the World Guide to Beer, says the relatively simple process of converting grain into a palatable substance—or "liquid bread"—is at least as old as civilization. "There is a perfectly respectable academic theory that civilization began with beer," he noted.

Some people contend that beer may have been the staple of mankind's diet even before bread was invented.

During the Neolithic Revolution, bands of hunters and gatherers began forming organized communities to cultivate the land—the beginning of civilization. "We know that in farming the land, they grew things, and the first thing grown was cereal grains in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East," said Jackson.

"The first thing they did with that grain," he added, "was make it into beer. We don't know whether they were trying to make beer, or just trying to find a way to make grain edible."

The idea behind the theories about the early emergence of beer is that grains could be grown in poorer soils and required less water to grow than other crops, such as grapes. Unlike grapes, however, grains had no juice to extract. Therefore, they had to be soaked in water, which led to a natural fermentation process that produced what Julius Caesar described as "a high and mighty liquor."

So which came first, beer or civilization?

Dave Alexander, owner and operator of the Brickskeller in downtown Washington, D.C., argues that "beer is probably the reason for civilization."

"There is pretty strong evidence that after the first sampling of fermented beverages, man realized he had to end his nomadic life and settle down to grow grains and to continue to produce the beer," Alexander surmised.

Simple Process, Varied Results

Although the brewing process has remained basically the same, the results now vary considerably. The Brickskeller, a clearinghouse for beers from around the world, opened in 1957 with 51 beers on its menu. Today, it has 971 varieties in stock.

The vast selection is what attracts Mike Bengston, who has frequented the Brickskeller for 20 years. "There is always a beer that will fit every mood you are in," he said.

The large increase in the range of beers available over the past 15 years stems mainly from the growth of microbreweries and their challenge to large-scale industrial beer production.

At the Old Dominion microbrewery in Ashburn, Virginia, 50 kegs of beer are brewed every four hours. "In a big brewery, it looks very complicated, with all the different pipes and pumps and all kinds of things, but really, all they are doing is moving stuff around," said Scott Zetterstom, Old Dominion's master brewer. "You're just making sugar water, and it's really not that complicated."

Although the brewing process itself has remained fairly consistent for more than 10,000 years, a beer gets its distinctive flavor from how the grain-derived sugar water is fermented and other ingredients that may be added.

Alexander is proud to be able to offer his customers 971 different varieties. Yet he is quick to defend the major breweries from attacks by beer drinkers who tend to treat the products of microbreweries as inherently superior.

"The fact of the matter is that it was those [traditional] beers that actually got you to drink in the first place, and they will always be the beers that still get people to like beer," said Alexander. "They have an important place in the world of malted beverages for that reason, and they will always be popular."


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