As we wade through the depths of human history, there has been one bright light guiding us forward. It spread agriculture and spawned permanent civilizations. It kept us safe and fed. It opened our eyes and inspired our minds. The study of it led to some of the most significant scientific and literary improvements in the human condition. What was it that guided us forward through time? A beverage fermented from cereal grains commonly referred to as beer! Why is it only in the last 30 years that we’ve remembered to treat this partner the way it deserves? Follow along and discover how our love affair with beer ushered mankind into the modern world.
Several millennia ago our ancestors were hunters and gatherers who scratched through life, surviving on what they could find. As omnivores, humans were forced to use trial and error to determine which foods were edible. The increase in human brain size was primarily driven by the need to remember which things were good to eat and have the ability to communicate that information to others.
Eventually, ancient man discovered that a certain seed growing on wild barley plants was good to eat if prepared properly. In due course, people noticed that grains soften when soaked in water. However, if left untended, these water-soaked grains would spontaneously ferment, or spoil. Luckily enough, we are trial-and-error creatures so some adventurous soul tasted the “spoiled” water-logged grain… and beer was born. This new discovery was just the partner humans needed to propel their rise to dominance. Since grain can be grown on throughout the world, beer spread rapidly from culture to culture, civilization to civilization. Throughout the ages, people taught each other how to prepare and eventually ferment beer.
The earliest evidence of people fermenting grains is from Jiahu, China, and dates to over 9,000 years ago. Fermentation was tricky and misunderstood, but beer remained a staple of human existence because it was highly nutritious. Almost every early religion had a patron “god” of beer to whom our ancestors prayed in hope of proper fermentation. While we may question the usefulness of these prayers, ancient humans learned some practical lessons as well. To make good beer, the water needed to be boiled – a step that (not so coincidentally) also renders water safe to drink. Between boiling of the water and the resultant alcohol, brewed beer gave our ancestors a safe staple that allowed us to live close together in cities. Beer allowed us to live in cities because as we all know the more people, or animals that gather together in tight spaces the dirtier those spaces become, think college dorm room. Dirty spaces lead to polluted water supplies increasing the need to “process” this water into beer.
Every early agricultural civilization on Earth brewed beer in one form or another. Europe, Africa, and the Americas all had cultures that – with little or no contact to ancient beer loving Middle Eastern civilizations – fermented grains independently. As the fruit- and grape-rich areas of Greece and Rome rose to power, beer became a second-class beverage, relegated to barbarians. However, grape-starved regions of the world did not abandon beer during this period, and many northern Europeans began to view beer as the beverage that kept them from becoming Romans. The Germans, Belgians, and Britons kept the spirit of beer alive. Indeed, the Germans, and their beer, would eventually conquer Rome when it rotted in its own decadence.
Although the period after Roman rule is referred to as the “Dark Ages”, it was a Golden Age for beer. Beer-loving peoples ruled, and beer once again drove creativity and innovation forward. The quest to develop our long-standing partner to its full potential began.
This was a time riddled with sickness and war. All Europeans survived at the bequest of the Catholic Church after Rome fell. As fortune would have it, most monasteries followed a combination of Irish and German traditions – one of which required the production and distribution of beer by monks for the poor. Monasteries in the Normandy region of France were granted hop gardens by Charlemagne around 800 C.E., and beer changed forever. Around 500 years later, German brewers discovered that hopped beer lasted longer. Beer could now be shipped cross-country.
With the rise of hopped beer, its production moved from monastery and home to the commercial brewery. In order to provide enough beer to their ever-multiplying consumers, medieval brewers needed to create a consistent, quality product that could survive transportation. This economic pressure sparked a spectacular age of innovation, as advances in beer technology spilled over into revolutionary scientific and industrial breakthroughs.
A brewer named Otto van Guericke built the first pneumatic pump in 1657 while trying to extract air from his beer kegs, an invention that eventually led to the development of the steam engine. Another brewer, named James Joule, discovered that when pressurized, beer started to heat up – but if the pressure was released, it would cool down. Physics students around the world study this principle today – you may know it as the first law of thermodynamics. He also revealed why heat could be created by friction.
But the scientific progress that can be credited to beer is not limited to physics. Louis Pasteur, while studying the diseases in fermentation of beer, discovered what yeast truly was: not magic, but a microorganism. This discovery led to the practice of pasteurization, and inspired Pasteur to develop the “germ theory”. Pasteur is now the father of modern medical science because he surmised that these same organisms could cause disease in humans.
As with many modern humans the consumption of a beer (or six) can kindle creativity and conversation. During the Enlightenment Period, this inspiration was taking place in coffee houses of London, where free thinkers like John Locke, Ben Franklin, and Joseph Priestly met with their contemporaries to discuss new ideas. These beer-fueled collaborations would lead Franklin to electricity, Priestly to the discovery of oxygen, and Locke to pen his ideas of liberty. Many other British, French, German, and eventually American citizens gathered together around a few beers to produce the ideas that would change the face of the planet.
Only recently have Americans rediscovered that beer is not just a beverage to be mass-consumed in college or at sporting events. It is also a quality product that should be respected. In the story just told, we can see how the production, consumption, and study of beer guided humanity towards the revolutions in industry and science that gave us the modern world. So raise a glass and remember how beer guided us through the long journey to where we are today. Never fail to appreciate how great a partner we have in our beer.