BEER: A Brief History of Joe Six-Pack

“Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.”
--Dave Barry

Next time you’re sitting on your couch with a beer, take a moment to consider this– you’re not just having a drink. You’re having the drink. Literally. The word beer comes from the Latin, biber, meaning “to drink.” Beer has been so integral to the history of mankind that it became synonymous with the very act of drinking.

The Lady Who Fills The Mouth

“The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer.”
--Ancient Egyptian wisdom

Civilization began when the ancient Sumerians settled down to cultivate the land. But were they growing grain for food or so they could make more beer? In other words, was beer responsible for the creation of civilization? Some historians say yes, some say no, but either way, it’s a pretty good indication of beer’s importance to early mankind.

Actually, I keep using the word “mankind,” but in reality we owe beer to women. Because a woman’s place was in the kitchen. And the very first beer in the history of the world was……a lump of bread dough left out too long.

Air-borne yeast would have quickly gathered and begun fermentation. So by the time someone bit into that hunk of dough, it was packing enough of a buzz to make the Sumerians give it a closer look. Wine was around at the same time, or perhaps earlier, but wine was just a drink. This new thing, on the other hand, was something entirely different– beer came from bread. Beer was food. And not just to the ancient Sumerians.

Beer’s historical popularity stems largely from the fact that even up until the 19th-century, it was a major source of nutrition (iron and B-vitamins, especially). The Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for food was a loaf of bread and a jug of beer. Plus, it was cheaper and more readily available than wine for the simple reason that fruit rots quickly while grain stores well. Beer became, by its very nature, a drink for the common-folk.

The common-folk were so thankful, they even invented a new god to be thankful to– Ninkasi, “the lady who fills the mouth” (the connection between women and beer is so strong that practically every culture with a beer-creation myth has a female god of beer, see “Lords of the Drink” pg. 167).

Sumerian women advanced from fermenting dough to fermenting the grain itself, which upped the alcohol content and allowed them more room for creativity. By 3,000 B.C., people could choose between black beer, white beer, red beer, mother beer, beer from the nether-world, beer for the sacrifice, beer for the supper, beer with horns, and beer with a head.

With beer well and truly invented, it was time to create its handmaiden, beer-drinking culture, and for that we turn to the Egyptians.

My Liver Wears A Dress
“When I have abundance of beer,
I feel great. I feel wonderful.
By the beer, I am happy
My heart is full of joy, my liver is full of luck.
When I am full of gladness, my liver wears the dress befitting a queen.”
--an actual Egyptian inscription dating from 2,000 B.C. Seriously.