Why study the worldwide history of beer, the technical evolution of the brewery, the role of beer in the history of civilisations?

Some would say that these studies are amateur leisure, a taste for a drink or for minor and superficial aspects of human history. A fancy topic to make people smile or shrug their shoulders. Let's dig a little deeper.


Why is the history of beer so relevant?

Our starting point explains all the contents presented by Beer-Studies: beer is a starch-based fermented beverage. This technical definition distinguishes it from wines based on sweet juice or honey mead. Starch is generated by plants and serves as an energy storage medium to maintain their metabolism. The plant world saves starch in the seeds, tubers, roots and marrow of trees. This is where humans find the starch to brew beer. They started a very long time ago, about 13,000 years, all over the world. Archaeological research is steadily providing new data (archaïc beers). Beer is a privileged object of study for understanding the protohistory of human societies: what are the causes of its "invention": economic, socio-political, religious?

Beer is an excellent time machine for tracing the history of human cultures. It has a very long history and as many births as there are continents or cultural centres on the surface of the globe. Whenever human groups have learned to convert plant starch into fermentable sugars, they have been able to brew beer. There are therefore a priori as many histories of beer as there are protohistoric cultural centres.

Beer opens a window on a human history that is both global and multifaceted: as many sources of starch as there are primitive types of beer. As many faces of the brewery as there are of societies that are becoming increasingly complex. Beer is, by its composition and technique, intrinsically linked to the human economy of vegetal sources of starch.

The transition of human societies to agriculture and horticulture is a key moment in the history of beer that took place 10,000 years ago in southwest Asia, i.e. after the oldest traces of fermented beverages made from grains. The same developments took place a little later in China, India, Nilotic Africa, Europe and finally America and the whole of Africa.

The horticulture-based societies seem to have followed a different path with more horizontal social organisations and much lower population densities. The brewing of tubers (cassava, taro, yam, sweet potato, potato, etc.) calls for studies not focused on the great cereal plains of the planet. The same applies to human societies that have used tropical plants such as the sago palm or the fruits of the carob tree to brew beer.

With the gradual complexification of sedentary human societies, the social role of beer is evolving: a beverage marking social hierarchies in antiquity, an emblematic beverage of the warrior castes (India, Asia, Europe, Africa), a fermented beverage duly managed by the first empires (Han, Maurya, Carolingian, Incas), a commercial beverage (Middle Ages), then an industrial beverage, a colonial beverage, and our modern beer with the revival of craft beers.

The global history of beer is a sub-domain of human history in its technical, economic and cultural relationship with starch.


The history of beer and social complexity

Beer is a complex fermented beverage because it embodies three significant aspects of the social fabric throughout the history of mankind: technology, economy and the spiritual quest.

Beer is from the outset a "perfect beverage". There are no pseudo "primitive ales" as opposed to modern "real beers". No sooner born, beer perfectly meets the three following conditons:

  1.   its technical processes fit the local sources of starch.
  2.   beer meets the social rules for sharing the wealth-grain of agro-pastoralists or the wealth-tubers of horticulturists.
  3.   beer allows the search for altered mental states consistent with the collective behaviors and the religious universes.

Brewing beer, an advanced technology

Brewing beer involves advanced technology to convert various sources of starch into beer. From its origin, beer is a technological beverage. Unlike wine, which ferments spontaneously, beer requires work, a technique and an intelligence. Starch must undergo several transformations: hulling, milling, cooking, saccharification, and finally fermentation. The central operation, the saccharification of starch (conversion of a macromolecule into simple sugars, mainly glucose), is the root of the 6 brewing methods developed in the world since the outset of beer. They all six bear witness to human ingenuity and are based on the extraordinary closeness of humans beings to the plant world. These original 6 brewing methods have been refined over the millennia. The fact remains that beer is a mastered technical object whose various protohistoric beginnings owe nothing to chance.

This technical invention fulfils the daily physiological needs (thirst, nutrition, "liquid bread") with its specific manufacturing processes, adapted to local starch resources and variable according to each geographical area or historical period. Beer is a human creation, not a natural spontaneous beverage.


The economics of starch sources

Beer is, by its composition and technique, intrinsically linked to the economy of starch resources.

Beer equals liquefied, saccharified and fermented starch.

The management of starch resources became of paramount importance for Neolithic societies that chose agriculture and horticulture. Cultivating cereals or tubers, opting for a sedentary lifestyle, grouping together around the collective starch reserves, granaries or silos, gave beer a central place in social life. The production of beer involves the vital food reserves of a society and conforms to the rules of the social game. Grain or tubers collection, management of stocks and surpluses, allocation of grain or tubers to brewing, grain/beer ratio as a measure of the social status of drinkers, social map of beer types, recycling of spent grains (dregs) as animal feed, trade in leaven or beer ferment, etc. These are all actions/decisions that give beer a special economic status in both ancient and modern societies.

Since the first village communities studied by archaeologists in Asia, Europe and America, human societies have become increasingly complex. Beer has played a role in the assertion of nascent social hierarchies, in the functioning of increasingly complex political entities. Over the millennia, the use and allocation of collective starch resources has remained a central political question: making bread or brewing beer? Who decides? Which social class, which political clan can monopolise part of these reserves for its own account? By force, by negotiation, by the exchange of labour or services?

Each type of political organisation (village community, chieftaincy, princedom, kingdom, federation, empire, no-state society) answers these questions according to specific formulas. Studying the history of beer makes it possible to compare them, whenever the documents allow it.


Beer, a ritual beverage

Beer is a fermented beverage. The inebriation and the search for altered states of consciousness are related to religions and spiritual quests. All the major religions have ruled on the role of beer, in order to integrate it into their rituals (Dao), exclude it (Buddhism), forbid it to be drunk (Islam) or accept it as a simple food drink devoid of any sacred character (Judaism, Christianity).

The animist societies, on the contrary, reserved a central place for beer in their religious customs (offerings, initiation rites, funeral practices, apotropaic rituals, etc.). Brewed with life-bearing grains for farmers or starchy tubers (manioc, yams, taro) for horticulturists, beer has a very strong symbolic value for these human communities. It forges a concrete link with the spiritual world (drunkenness, mysteries of fermentation, collective festivals, agrarian rituals, gender roles, ways of drinking, taboos, religious prohibitions).

In the social imaginary, this psychotropic beverage has a special and primordial relationship to the nourishing grains or tubers that other fermented beverages do not have. Here is its religious side (in the broadest sense), far away from its modern usages and the beer festivals.


Beer throughout human history

Beer-Studies has chosen to present the history of beer by following the great evolutions of human societies: from the first villages to the first city-states (5th - 3th millennia BC), from first kingdoms to first empires of antiquity (2nd - 1st millennium BC), then the Middle Ages and modern history on all continents, not forgetting the no-state societies[1]. This approach makes it possible to compare the evolution of the brewery in various historical contexts. It avoids the distortion of a beer history centred on Europe. Asian rice or millet beers, Native American maize or cassava beers, African millet or sorghum beers have the same status and historical importance as European barley or wheat beers.

This historical rethink is the main contribution of Beer-Studies.It reveals parallel developments in the early empires, be they Chinese, Indian, European or Inca: control of the beer trade, beer supplied to the imperial messengers who travelled throughout the empire, special beer for the aristocracy, ritual beer for offerings, etc.

This re-examination leads to a comparison of the place and status of beer in the development of the five universal religions: buddhism, taoism, judaism, christianity, islam. And to show that these 5 religions all face the same problem: how to define what is or is not fermented, what is forbidden or authorised, knowing that spontaneous fermentation threatens any starch-based food or beverage?

The lack of a unifying conceptual framework adapted to the historical object called "beer" is problematic. The world history of beer gleans its material from the research of historians, ethnologists, archaeologists, the accounts of traveller-conquerors, geographers, the scientific work of technologists and agronomists, archaeochemists and archaeobotanists, etc. In short, heterogeneous sources from different intellectual horizons. New concepts have to be introduced or modified: Brewing pathways (6 brewing methods), Brewing diagram, Primitive core of the fermented beverages, Brewery basin or Brewery world region, Brewing centre, Bread-beer cycle, Brewery and Beer taken in a generic sense (Glossary).

The history of beer reveals complex combinations of brewing processes, drinking manners and cultural worlds. These fruitful interactions can be traced back over several millennia, when long-standing brewing traditions remained unbroken (China, Japan, Korea, Europe, Black Africa, Andean America).

Other brewing traditions were transformed after the expansion of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam (Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa). The modern colonial conquests overturned very old brewing traditions (Africa, the Americas, India, South-East Asia). However, none of them have disappeared completely. It is up to the historian to reveal their buried existence, or simply ignored when these native beers and these venerable brewing traditions have not yet found their place in the great History of the world.


Beer: one or several parallel histories?

In the end, the quest for the origins of the brewery and its history seeks an answer to a fundamental question that long plagues the Western thought.

Can human history be explained with universal conceptual models? More or less refined schemes to explain as many known facts as possible. Mechanisms applicable to all societies on the planet known since the protohistory.

Or do the phenomena that seem to us to obey underlying unified mechanisms manifest a probabilistic reality, a kind of social and historical stochastic that only appears to function regularly?

Beer-Studies clearly favors the first solution.


[1] These theoretical social structures serve as a framework for presenting the evolution of the Brewery in each historical and social context in which it develops. This classification (chieftainships, kingdoms, empires, etc.) is borrowed from the models of European or Anglo-American schools of thought. This pedagogical borrowing is not an adherence to the theoretical models. These typical patterns of human organisation serve to show two essential phenomena:

  1. The Brewery is not only a "technique" that would have produced different kinds of beer throughout human history. It is also an economic activity that is sensitive to the social structures within which it develops. For each epoch and cultural region of the world, the Brewery must be placed in its context, hence the importance of setting the main types of social structures as benchmarks.
  2. At the same time, the Brewery plays a role in the construction of the same human societies. Since Neolithic times, all forms of social organisation have given an important place to the production of fermented beverages. The Brewery has undergone constant transformation. It is one of the many driving forces in human history.
This reciprocal relationship (the Brewery is a result as much as a motor of social change) is based on the dependence of human societies on food sources from starch. Whether this reciprocity is abolished, the Brewery will disappear from the social horizon and the future of human societies.


31/12/2019  Christian Berger