Reli 205: Archaeology and the Bible

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Contents
. introduction . nutrition and the making of beer . fermented beverages and culture .


Beer or Bread:
Was Beer the First Great Cereal Food?

Andrew Webber


Introduction

Nutrition and the Making of Beer

Raw grain is mostly composed of complex carbohydrates, or starch, with a small amount of protien and fats. As a food, the high content of complex carbohydrates in wheat and barley is very attractive, but the available amount of protien limits the value of the grain. Futher, the grains have low amounts of essential amino acids and vitamins. Wheat and barley have low levels of lysine, and barley lacks sulfer-containing amino acids. These grains also have insufficiant quantities of riboflavin, niacin, and th iamin. Grains as well contain phytates, which act to bind minerals in the digestive tract, preventing their absorpsion (Katz and Voigt, 1986: 30).

Beer is in essence a thin fermented gruel made of mashed sprouted grain, or malt. When the grain is allowed to sprout, the growing rootlet produces the enzyme diatase, which acts on the starch and breaks it down to the simple sugar maltose. During ferment ation, yeasts act on the maltose to produce alcohol. These yeasts greatly enhance the nutritional properties of the dish. Yeasts are excellent sources of lysine, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamin, and other amino acids and vitamins. Further, the growing yea sts reduce the phytate concentration in the grain (Katz and Voigt, 1986: 30). The yeasts will ferment sugars to alcohol in acidic, anaerobic conditions. The anaerobic conditions are provided by the yeasts themselves, which produce carbon dioxide as a meta bolic product- in a sealed container, anoxic conditions will arise. The acid conditions of the beer are produced by the fermentation action of lactic acid bacteria, primarily Lactobacillus, Leuconstoc, Streptococcus, and Pediococcus (Hessel tine, 1979: 368-370). These bacteria add more nutritional value, in the form of protien, amino acids, and vitamins, to the food product. Fermented grain foods generally have a protien content of 8-20%, as opposed to 1-2% protien in an unfermented grain di sh. These fermented foods also have enhanced values of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, isoleucine/leucine, histidine, arginine, valine, tryptophan, lysine, tyrosine, cystine, and methionine (Hesseltine, 1979: 367-371).

There are several advantages other than nutrition that come with the production and consumption of fermented food. The acid conditions produced by the lactic acid bacteria, as well as the alcohol produced by the yeasts, are inhibiting to the growth of oth er microorganisms. The fermenting process acts as a means of preserving food so that it will keep for months in place of days: a very important advantage for early peoples, providing a food supply through thin months. When dried, the fermented food will k eep even longer, up to years, as the low water activity and the acid conditions prevent the growth of almost all organisms. Also, the fermentation of beer is a relatively low tech art with little time investment for the production of such an inhanced food source. The production of bread on the other hand requires the grain to be ground much finer, requires kneading and shaping of loaves, and requires a large oven for baking. A food source that does not require fuel for its processing is a particular advan tage in areas like the Ancient Near East and much of Africa, where wood is a valuable and fairly scarce resource (Hesseltine, 1979: 367-370).

Fermented Beverages in Culture

Grains are a good food source but have several problems associated with them. Triticum aegilopoides, T. thaoudar, T. dicoccoides, T. monococcum and T. dicoccum, the wild and early semi-domesticated grains harvested in the Ancient Near East, retain glumes (chaff) on the seed after harvest, making further processing of the grain necessary if it is to be consumed (Braidwood, 1953: 519). Chaff on grain is generally removed in one of three manners: by popping the seed by exposure to heat, burnin g the chaff off, or allowing the seed to germinate and split the chaff itself. Beating the seed removes the chaff primarily on fully domesticated grains, in which selective breeding has reduced the size of the glume and so is not solidly attached to the s eed. Popped seeds are generally eaten without further processing, whereas whole, deglumed grains are not very edible. To prepare an edible grain dish, cultures generally grind grains and add the paste to water, making a gruel, porridge, or mush. As C. Coo n points out (Braidwood, 1953: 522), it was indeed this porridge, not beer or bread, that was the first widely used grain food. There are several lines of reasoning to support this. In food preparation a porridge is produced in both the making of bread an d beer, so it is likely that experimentation with the cultural staple gruel that the discovery of bread and beer arose. Furthermore, porridge produced from various grains has been and is a staple in most parts of the world, even where bread and beer are n ot traditionally made: in all Middle Eastern cultures a porridge is one of the primary family dishes (Braidwood, 1953: 522), in the Americas traditional cultures make gruels and porridges out of maize (a tradition that was passed on to European colonists- hasty pudding, a staple of early colonists, is corn mush), and Europeans have depended on porridge since prehistory.

Gruel that has been allowed to ferment is also a traditional food of many cultures. The fermentation process, in addition to adding nutritional value, preservatives, and alchohol to the food, adds flavor to an otherwise monotonous dish. The lactic acid ba cteria that act on the food before the yeast produce a souring acid tang to the gruel, not unlike yogurt or sourdough bread. In the Middle East and Africa, such preparations are well known. Kishk, a fermented wheat porridge with milk, is a traditional Ara b dish that can be stored from winter to summer as a liquid or longer when dried (Hesseltine, 1979: 371). Ogi is an African sour fermented maize food that is consumed daily by adults and is used to wean children. The ogi, which also may be made from sorgh um and millet, is consumed as a liquid with 8-10% solids, as dried cakes, or boiled into a gel or meal (Hesseltine, 1979: 371-372). Popular foods among the Bantu speaking people of Africa are mahewu and keffir beer. Mahewu is an important part of the diet and is a non-alcoholic, sour drink of 8% solid content and pH ~3.5 made from maize porridge and wheat flour (Hesseltine, 1979: 372). Kaffir beer is a widely consumed food beverage as well, and is made of sorghum and wheat. A pink , opaque liquid with ~5% suspended solids, the drink has a meally consistancy and a fruit-like tang, and bubbles as it is consumed in a active state of fermentation (Hesseltine, 1979: 372).

The earliest evidence for domesticated grains dates around 8000 B.C.E., coming from Tell Aswad, Jericho, and Nahal Oren. Excavations at these sites have surrendered a few grains of barley, wheat, and lentils morphologically dif ferent than wild type strains. Earlier Natufian sites have contained sickles, grinding implements, and wild type seeds, but no definite evidence of domestication (Katz and Voigt, 1986: 26). The earliest direct evidence of beer consumption comes from a sta mp seal from Tepe Gawra, dated at 4000 B.C.E., showing two figures drinking beer using traditional straws and container (Katz and Voigt, 1986: 29,31). Beer features prominantly in many later Sumerian and Mesopotamian texts and art, as evidenced by this lapis lazuli seal from the Royal Cemetary at Ur (Early Dynastic period. Mesopotamia, 2600-2350 B.C.E.) (Katz and Voigt, 1986: 29). Some texts of note include a song celebrating the dedication of a Sumerian beerhouse and the oldest recorded recipe, the Hymn to Ninkasi, which happens to be for beer. Beer was a large part of these cultures, and was consumed as a food instead of a side. A daily ration of beer amounted to about 1 liter of liquid of about 2% alcohol (Hesseltine, 1979; Katz and Voigt, 1986: 29-30), which was consumed from a serving vessel through a large straw. Typically these would be clay and reed, but the nobility used silver and gold equipment, typified by the set pictured by the introduction to this paper.

Let the heart of the fermenting vat be our heart!
What makes your heart feel wonderful,
Makes also our heart feel wonderful.
Our liver is happy, our heart is joyful.
You poured a libation over the brick of destiny,
You placed the foundations in peace and prosperity,
May Ninkasi* live together with you!
Let her pour for you beer and wine,
Let the pouring of the sweet liquor resound pleasantly for you!
In the reed buckets there is sweet beer,
I will make cupbearers, boys, and brewers stand by,
While I turn around in the abundance of beer,
While I feel wonderful, I feel wonderful,
Drinking beer, in a blissful mood,
Drinking liquor, feeling exhilarated,
With joy in the heart and a happy liver-
While my heart full of joy,
And my happy liver I am covered with a garment fit for a queen!

-Sumerian song commemerating the building of a beer hall
*goddess of beer
(Katz and Voigt, 1986: 29)

The Hymn to Ninkasi

Translation by Miguel Civil

Borne of the flowing water (...)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water (...)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,

Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake,
Ninkasi, Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough, 
   [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles 
   the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

You are the one who bakes the bappir 
    in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes 
    the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,,

You are the one who waters the malt 
     set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt 
     set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks 
    the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked 
  mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads 
   the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.

You are the one who holds with both hands 
    the great sweet wort, 
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (...)
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes 
    a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of] 
    a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, 
    which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of] 
    a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer 
    of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of 
    Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the
  filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of 
  Tigris and Euphrates.

Sources

Braidwood, R., et al. 1953. "Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone?" American Anthropologist. 55:515-526.

Hesseltine, C. W. 1979. "Some Important Fermented Foods of Mid-Asia, the Middle East, and Africa." Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society. .56:367-374.

Katz, S, and Voigt, M. 1986. "Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet." Expedition. 28, no. 2:23-34.

Oppenheim, A, and Hartman, L. 1950. "On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia." Journal of the American Oriental Society. Supplement 10.


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