Accidents in ancient bakeries produced 8,000 years of brew

Jun 29, 2012 by Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

When next you reach for a cold one in the buzzing heat of a summer day, you will probably give no thought to the glorious history, complicated chemistry, and abundant myths associated with what you are drinking.

That's OK. Just know you are participating on one of humanities oldest and most popular activities. After water and tea, is the third most favored drink in the world. It is one of the first by-products of human agriculture. Beer may, in fact, be a reason for civilization.

The United States is a splendid place to drink beer, said British-born expert Charles Bamforth of the University of California, Davis. The market is huge and diverse, with an enormous variety of the stuff available from breweries large and small. Beer is made of fermented . Usually, the grain is barley, but wheat beer is common, sometimes rye, rice, corn, or even sorghum.

The drink was discovered about 8,000 years ago, historians believe, likely the result of accidents in bakeries.

"The story goes that in what is now Iraq they used to eat barley," said Bamforth. "Someone got some wet, and it started to sprout. It got softer and easier to digest and chew, and it tasted better."

They made bread out of it and liked it.

"That bread was somehow crumbled in jars and mixed with water. Wild yeast came along and converted it to a delicious drink and when they drank it, they fell over. They were kind of happy about that," Bamforth said.

That still required someone to look at the mess in the jar and think, "hey, what if I drank some?" The brave soul, like the first person to eat an oyster, is lost to history.

Historians think the discovery made people happy enough to consider ending life as hunter gatherers and settling down to agriculture and brewing, the beginnings of civilization. Beer even became a leading source of nutrition and was tied up with religious observances and feasts. Egyptian Pharaohs drank it. Sophocles urged Greeks to enjoy beer responsibly in the fifth century B.C.

The beer of ancient Mesopotamia and modern beer taste and look nothing alike. Ancient beer was unfiltered and included various herbs and spices, uncommon today. By around the ninth century, brewers -- mostly European monks -- began adding hops in their beers, Bamforth said.

Hops, a flower, adds bitterness to the taste, a complexity to the aroma and acts as a preservative. It is the taste and smell we now most associate with beer.

That accidental brewing now is duplicated in modern breweries.

The process begins with malted grain. Malting means the grain is soaked in water so it begins to germinate but then is heated before the process is completed. The malting produces enzymes that convert starch in the grain to sugar. Yeast then turns most of the sugar into alcohol.

Beers come with several urban legends.

One common misconception is that European beers have a higher alcohol content than American beers. Not so, says Bamforth.

"The reality is the beers tend to be stronger in America. If you compare Guinness, they have less alcohol in it than Budweiser. In the U.K., beer tends to be lower in alcohol because it is taxed according to its strength," Bamforth said.

American beers usually contain 4-6 percent alcohol.

The difference is that Americans generally like a milder beer and European beer has a more intense flavor, but it has nothing to do with alcohol content. In the last 30 years, small craft brewers have sprung up making a more European-style beer that is now the fastest growing segment of the business.

Another myth is that beer in a bottle is better than beer in a can and that also is not true, Bamforth said.

The enemies of beer are light and air, he said. No matter how tight the bottle, air and light eventually get in and the longer the beer is in the bottle the more likely it is to get a "skunky" taste, the result of light altering the chemistry of the hops. That's why Heineken in New York is not the same as Heineken in Amsterdam. It has travelled across an ocean, which takes time.

Cans do not let in air or light.

Brown bottles are better than green bottles, which are better than clear bottles, because they let in less light. Brewers who sell beer in clear bottles, like the makers of Mexico's Corona, use genetically-modified hops to counter the effects of light, Bamforth said.

Huge , like Anheuser-Busch, produce gigantic quantities around the world, all exactly the same, a feat of industrial chemistry almost unmatched in the world.

But, the process fascinates many and there is a booming business in supplying home brewers who run mini-Coors in their basements, either because they love beer or are fascinated by the chemistry.

Rabbi Charles Arian of Norwalk, Conn., brews beer at home, just a couple of gallons at a time from kits. His equipment costs about $120.

He does it because of the process.

"I'm an urban person," Arian said. "As a non-scientist and liberal arts guy, it's the interaction of nature and learning how something works. It really works. If you put the right combination of stuff together and the temperature is right, you get predictable results."

It doesn't matter to Bamforth what you drink.

"I don't think anyone has the right to decree what is a good and bad beer," Bamforth said.

Just enjoy.

Explore further: Education Dept awards $75M in innovation grants

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Research reveals link between beer and bone health

Feb 08, 2010

A new study suggests that beer is a significant source of dietary silicon, a key ingredient for increasing bone mineral density. Researchers from the Department of Food Science & Technology at the University of California, ...

Keeping beer fresh longer

Apr 13, 2011

Researchers are reporting discovery of a scientific basis for extending the shelf life of beer so that it stays fresh and tastes good longer. For the first time, they identified the main substances that cause the bitter, ...

Scientists to study one of world's oldest beers

Feb 08, 2011

In the summer of 2010 in the Aland archipelago, divers retrieved well-preserved bottles of champagne and five bottles of beer from the wreck of a ship that likely sank during the first half of 1800s. VTT Technical ...

Recommended for you

Research band at Karolinska tuck Dylan gems into papers

Sep 29, 2014

(Phys.org) —A 17-year old bet among scientists at the Karolinska Institute has been a wager that whoever wrote the most articles with Dylan quotes before they retired would get a free lunch. Results included ...

A simulation game to help people prep for court

Sep 25, 2014

Preparing for court and appearing before a judge can be a daunting experience, particularly for people who are representing themselves because they can't afford a lawyer or simply don't know all the ropes ...

When finding 'nothing' means something

Sep 25, 2014

Scientists usually communicate their latest findings by publishing results as scientific papers in journals that are almost always accessible online (albeit often at a price), ensuring fast sharing of latest ...

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Husky
5 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2012
if you want good beer, just ask a polish guy
dschlink
not rated yet Jun 29, 2012
Beer in clear bottles, and most light American lagers, use a chemically modified form of the hop bittering compounds, not genetically-modified hops. Converting the alpha and iso-alpha acids to tetra-isomerized versions prevents skunking.
baudrunner
3 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2012
The United States is a splendid place to drink beer, said British-born expert Charles Bamforth of the University of California, Davis
And Americans think that Canada is the best place in the world to drink beer.
The German purity laws of 1565 dictate that only malted barley, hops, and pure water are allowed in their beer. That makes German beer in 500ml cans preferred by this reader. Beer should ideally be consumed when it is at a temperature of a few degrees below room temperature for maximum enjoyment, contrary to the perceptions of armchair football fans and the like, who like their beer icy cold, which steals the flavor. The reason for the Germany purity law is that additives like beef blood adulterated the beer, which changed the color and taste. Blood corpuscles bind to the residual yeast particles, and this clarified the beer when it was filtered out. Some brewers, especially in Belgium, use wild yeast, right out of the air, and others add brewers' yeast to the brew
dschlink
not rated yet Jun 29, 2012
I think you would not like beer that lacked yeast, which was not part of that law. By the way, it only applied to one city. It excludes hundreds of beer styles, including Belgians, Wheats, Ryes, oatmeal stouts, fruit beers ...

And the water back then wasn't very pure.
PhotonX
2 / 5 (4) Jun 29, 2012
@baudrunner: The comment about Americans and Canada is over my head, but...
...if you had to drink the piss that passes for American pale lager, you'd chill it as much as possible too, just to get the stuff down. I have a feeling that our tastes probably run pretty much alike, except that beer is a surefire migraine trigger for me, sadly.
.
Oh, let me save kevintrs the trouble of posting: How do so-called 'historians' know that beer started 8000 years ago? Was there anyone there to see it? What record did they write that down from? Why are they making up wild guesses and representing them as FACTS?
italba
1 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2012
@PhotonX: Couldn't you just look at Wikipedia (history of beer) before annoying us with your stupid posts?
DaveMart
not rated yet Jul 01, 2012
I'm betting brewing started long before agriculture.
Fermented berries, naturally occurring, would have provided a high, and hunters would have noted that and encouraged the process.
Since they would have already been doing it with wild crops, when they started growing barley they would have done exactly the same.
Getting drunk is certainly as old as man, monkeys do it, and assisting natural fermentation would have grown along with tool use and so on.