Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

May 10, 2010

Beer Diary:

How The Hell Old Is Beer, Anyway?

You hear a lot of numbers getting thrown around about beer’s year of origin, but which one’s correct?
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
My dad, Slick, likes to needle me. Don’t know why. He should be thrilled to have his adult (very adult) son living/lurking in his basement 24/7, shouldn’t he? Although he’s been a beer drinker his entire life—rarely drinking wine, and only for quasi-religious reasons—he likes to talk up wine to me while denigrating beer, knowing full well about my beer obsession. The latest was a declaration that he “heard over the radio” that wine was 8,000 years old and beer was only 5,000 years old. Of course he couldn’t tell me in what context he heard this or even what friggin’ station it was on, but he chuckled and gave me that look like I’m some kind of idiot for putting so much of my faith in beer. That the supposed fact that wine, because it’s been around longer, is therefore “better” than beer.

I’d agree that an alcoholic beverage’s age might be an indicator about its enduring cultural significance, but once you get past the two-thousand-year point the argument is pretty much academic. So I did what I usually do and told Slick to shove it monkey-style and went down into the basement to brew some beer. But the incident did get me thinking about how old beer is. I’ve seen all kinds of numbers bounced around in news articles, beer books, and—where I get most of my general knowledge—the back of t-shirts at brew fests. I thought about looking it up on the interwebs because, you know, Wikipedia and its ilk have an absolutely stunning track record when it comes to accuracy, but decided to first look through my library of beer books and see if I could dig up anything definitive.

The first book I slid off the shelf was The Complete Joy Of Home Brewing. The introduction has a brief history of beer, and the author, Charlie Papazian, pegs it at 6,000 years old. I admit Charlie Papazian is much smarter than I am (he’s a former nuclear physicist, after all) but I wasn’t ready to take his assertion as the final word. Mainly because he didn’t include any footnotes attributing a source for his figure. I wanted to trust him—his book has very rarely steered me wrong in my home brewing adventures—but I decided to dig deeper.

I grabbed a tome by another luminary in the beer world—Michael Jackson. The first few pages of his classic Beer Companion states that beer is somewhere between 13,000 and 8,000 years old. Quite a wide range, and, again, no citation of a source of these figures. The search continued.

Next up was Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher. He’s got a fictional story in there about the birth of beer, saying it took place around 10,000 BC, making beer 12,000 years old, give or take a couple decades. But, not only is his story offered tongue-in-cheek, it doesn’t come with any attributions or footnotes.

I kept rifling through the books. The Secret Life of Beer!: only anecdotal references to beer’s age (a 5,000-year-old Sumerian poem extolling the pleasures of beer) but nothing concrete, and no citations anyway. Garrett Oliver’s stupendously great The Brewmaster’s Table posits that beer was discovered in Africa more than 10,000 years ago. I loved the sound of that and for a moment thought I’d found my answer, but, like my other books, this one lacked any notes or citations. D’oh!

The number of books I had thrown in frustration into a pile on the floor far outnumbered the books on my shelf. I cracked open a book that wasn’t devoted entirely to beer, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Ian Gately. Not only was this extremely interesting book littered with footnotes, but it contained a 28-page addendum of annotations. Incredibly frustratingly, even though Gately throws out a bunch of numbers concerning what years alcoholic beverages were invented/discovered by ancient societies, he doesn’t talk specifically about beer any of those times. He does discuss why it is difficult to pin down even ballpark ages for alcoholic beverages, though: despite lots of anecdotal suggestions about alcohol manufacture and consumption in the ancient world—like the poem I mentioned earlier—there isn’t a lot of hard archeological evidence that would allow researchers to give a definitive date range. For the first time I began to suspect my search would end up fruitless.

Then I flipped open page 11 of Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, a fascinating book about how not only beer, but tea, wine, spirits, coffee, and cola helped shape virtually every facet of history. On that page he writes:
“Beer was not invented but discovered. Its discovery was inevitable once the gathering of wild grain became widespread after the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 BCE, in a region known as the Fertile Crescent.”
That sounded definitive to me. Better yet: citations in the Notes section at the back of the book backing up the figure. Multiple ones. So I am going to say, with confidence, that beer is 12,000 years old. Give or take a few decades. Now excuse me while I reshelve all these fucking books. Then I’m going to go shove my newfound information in Slick’s face. Monkey-style.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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