Beer’s inventor: Forgotten in history’s blackout

Quick Notes

  • Beer predates recorded history

  • The first beer was more gruel than liquid

  • Hops are a relatively recent addition to beer

If the thick layer of dust on that Old Milwaukee sign your dad keeps in the garage wasn’t a giveaway, beer is old. It’s older than “Wassup?” commercials and older than that damp-smelling bar your hipster friends love going to because it’s “such a dive.” 

In fact, beer is so old that it has become increasingly difficult for historians to attribute its creation to any specific person, or even time period, as many different iterations of the brew have been discovered across cultures spanning much of the globe.

So when was beer invented? There’s no definitive answer, but we’ll do our best.

Bummed about living in the stone age? Try beer!

Until recently, the invention of beer was thought to date back roughly between five and seven thousand years. However, in 2018, researchers for Stanford University discovered a full-fledged brewing operation in an Israeli cave that dates back to approximately the year 11,000 BC.

To help put that in perspective, the first civilizations didn’t arise in the Fertile Crescent until 4,000 BC. So beer was even older to the Mesopotamians than their civilization is to us. 

Li Liu, the lead researcher on this discovery, says that not only does this qualify as the oldest account of man-made alcohol, it also shows that alcohol was not necessarily a byproduct of grain agriculture, as previously thought. Our ancestors were enjoying a nice buzz well before the idea of planting and farming crops even crossed their minds.

Beer became so ubiquitous in ancient Sumeria, that the Epic of Gilgamesh even dedicates a small tale to the subject.

However, the beer these tribes made would be a stark contrast from your favorite microbrew. According to Liu, the process seems to have involved heating a mash of grains and then fermenting it with yeast.

Not only would this have resulted in a much lower alcohol content than we are accustomed to, but the product would also have had the consistency similar to that of a porridge- or oatmeal-type substance. Not exactly the most refreshing beverage to sip on after a hard day of hunting and gathering. 

The bar tab of Gilgamesh

Around the year 7,000 BC, Chinese villagers began brewing alcohol by fermenting various fruits, wines, and honeys, but it would be another three thousand years before we would find beer that closely resembles what we are used to. 

While still a far ways off from carbonating beer and storing it in a pop-top can, the ancient Sumerians used the first method that would be recognizable to us. Researchers discovered ancient pots, dating back six thousand years, that have traces of a grain-based, alcoholic drink still sticking to the sides. 

Besides being able to chemically test the residue to determine the brewing process, we also have available to us a written beer recipe from ancient Sumeria. This recipe lightheartedly details the steps in brewing, from which barley to use, to the fermentation process. 

Beer became so ubiquitous at the time, that the Epic of Gilgamesh even dedicates a small tale to the subject. In this book, a man named Enkidu drinks “seven pitchers of beer” until “his heart grew light, his face glowed and he sang out with joy.” A scene not the least bit foreign to anyone reading this, I’m sure.

 Wikipedia

Any beer connoisseur reading this will have noticed by now that one key ingredient has been missing thus far. That, of course, is hops. While beer technically only requires barley, yeast, and water, it is the hops that give beer its familiar flavor. Without them, the yield would be a drink that is at best too sweet, and at worst dull and flavorless.

In the 9th century, we find our first recorded use of hops in the brewing process. Even then, it was slow to catch on, largely due to hops measurements needing to be much more precise than that of previous flavoring methods. 

In fact, the expanded use of hops wasn’t even a result of the preferred flavor. It was the preservative properties that hops provided, which gave it the edge over other herbs. The result, however, is the tasty beverage that we all know and refer to as beer.  

So who invented beer? It’s hard to say. If you’re fine with a beer that you need a bowl and spoon to consume, then the nomadic tribes of Israel are the inventor. If you demand something nearly identical to what comes out of the taps at your local watering hole, the answer would then be Medieval Europeans

This has to be at least a little heartwarming. The fact that throughout all of written history, and beyond, humans have been unwinding, celebrating and mourning with the help of this unifying drink that so many of us love.

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