Beer and early civilization

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Why hello, fellow Papa Louie lovers! I’d like to introduce myself as Jay, the humble assistant janitor at Green Room Brews; making sporadic appearances to clean the mash tun, kettle, fermenters, firkins, hoses, pumps, and chillers back in the brew room. When I have a free minute in between cleaning, I also help Mike brew beer. I blog over at Aber and Out with my wife, mostly about random uninteresting things like quitting our jobs to live like vagabond hippies; taking the last year to wander the world. But as it turns out, sometimes you have to pull in a paycheck to live, unless you find a commune to live in (we were propositioned in a excellent Durango Brew Pub to go live out in Humbolt County last spring, though, so its not as if we didn’t have our chance…). So back we are in Kansas City, working for the man, bloggin’ and brewin’. On this occasion though, I thought this venue might better suit my random rantings about beer, and Mike has graciously provided a place for me to climb up on my soap box on this very internet street corner.

So, now that all the civilities of introduction have been taken care of, let’s get down to business. The business that I allude to is why beer is so damned important. The history of beer has been related time and time and again. There are always new articles relating to discoveries made with forensic archaeology and mass spectrography. But seriously, who has time to read all that? This is the Internet! I know that your facebooking time at work is valuable, and you’re probably going browse back over there in about a minute. So here it goes: a brief and inaccurate history of brewing to relate why it was so important for the creation of our civilization.

Somewhere around eight or nine millennia ago, the proverbial hunter-gathers got tired of doing so much walking and, by great coincidence, they stumbled upon fermentation while sitting down for a break. As a matter of fact, evidence of fermented drinks and cheese started appearing at about the same time in history. I’m sure these weary travelers were all just sitting around their mobile yurts thinking, “Holy mother earth, beer pairs perfectly with cheese! Best day ever!” At that point, they no doubt built permanent foundations for their yurts and never left.
In all seriousness though, the neolithic agricultural revolution was driven by humans new found ability to produce calorie-dense foods like cheese, bread, beer, and wine (yes, they were considered foodstuffs until very recently). These foods required permanent settlements, and the shelf stable, calorie dense foods allowed cultures to have free time that they didn’t once when they had to “follow goats from place to place.” This allowed these cultures to employ people in things that didn’t involve hunting or well…gathering. Professions like philosophy, engineering, science, architecture, and art were born. It also gave rise to the modern politician, and who doesn’t just need a beer after listening to a politician?

However, in order for technology and society to really take off, these thinkers all had to live nearby. The would not have been a critical mass of these thinkers if they were all spread out in small villages across a large area. They would have spent all their time on horses trying to find one another, rather than sitting around having grapes fed to them and exchanging ideas. Unless of course they had Google Fiber, then it would have been no big deal. But seeing how slow Google Fiber seems to be getting rolled out, they couldn’t wait that long. They needed to be concentrated in cities. This is where beer made its biggest impact on human culture. Cities grew as a result of the wealth of brewing and of the need for more support for the breweries. The modern day bean counter was born.

Ancient cities would have also been impossible without beer. Until modern times, water borne disease has been a major cause of death. It still is in many parts of the world. If you put enough people together in one place, the waste created by them invariably will pollute the water. Without a source of clean drinking water, a city will never grow for obvious reasons. The problem was, until about two hundred years ago, there was no reliable way to sanitize water, and then keep it clean until drunk. The solution: drink beer instead. Beer is known to be free from any disease causing pathogens. If brewed by an ethical brewer (i.e. no harmful chemical additives), then it will always be safe to drink, no matter the age, handling, flavor, or any other factor. Wine is similar in this regard (although for different reasons) but making wine in large quantities in an urban area is impractical, and transporting wine in from the country was cost prohibitive. Wine was a drink for the rich. Therefore, beer became the vehicle that allowed cities to grow, and our science, technology, and philosophy to blossom.

Thus, here we are, Internet and Facebook, all made possible by beer. I know, this are the musings of a nerdy engineer, and all seems so scientific and logical. But how often have you thought about beer in those terms? So please, if you don’t believe me, go read this great piece in the NY Times for a more eloquent and romantic hypothesis of why beer spawned civilization.

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