Beer Before Bread
by Carla Helfferich
This article is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Carla Helfferich is a science writer at the Institute.
Some knotty scientific problems delight me. One turned up recently in Archaeology magazine: Did people first domesticate grain for bread or for beer?
In the 1950s, a University of Chicago researcher suggested a cause-effect relation between making bread and domesticating grain. He based his argument on evidence from archaeological excavations in what is now Iraq. A countersuggestion quickly came from a University of Wisconsin botanist. Beer, he said, was the more likely reason. A symposium was quickly organized, given the arresting title "Did man once live by beer alone?" and the debate about why people became farmers began.
The symposium settled nothing, but most of the participants voted for bread before beer. There the matter rested until last year, when a corporate sponsor learned of the debate and decided to help solve it by reconstructing an ancient beer.
Not that they were wholly disinterested sponsors: the corporation was Anchor Brewing of San Francisco, and they thought brewing a beer to an ancient recipe---and perhaps defending beer's historical importance---would make a fine way to celebrate their anniversary.
Their researchers turned to Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, grain domestication, and beer. Clay tablets thousands of years old indicate that the earliest beer was Sumerian. The beverage apparently played an important role in Sumer; the word for beer turns up in texts relating to medicine, ritual, myth---and law. Hammurabi's code, assembled in the eighteenth century B.C., made special mention of beer parlors. Owners who overcharged customers were to be drowned; high priestesses caught in a beer parlor were to be executed by fire.
One of the earliest beer-making recipes now known dates from about the same time. The researchers found it coded within the Hymn to Ninkasi, a poem of praise to the goddess of brewing. (That makes short work of a long process that involved a team with diverse expertise---translating cuneiform writing, understanding Sumerian literature, and knowing a great deal about brewing Beer.)
Cereal grains were domesticated thousands of years earlier, so the Sumerian text only offers what the researchers called a "time platform" from which to look back, making inferences about earlier procedures. Superficially, a first inference would favor bread: the beer described in the Hymn to Ninkasi was made from bread.
But the specific bread was prepared not so much for edibility as for long shelf life---it kept a long while without spoiling. It was eaten only during food shortages. "In essence," the team reported, "making bread was a convenient way to store the raw materials for making beer."
They hypothesize that nature made the first beer. If hunter-gatherers stored wild barley seeds in a container, eventually moisture would get in and the barley would sprout. Sprouted barley is more tender and sweeter than the hard grains; in sprouting, barley produces an enzyme that converts its starch to sugar. Sprouted barley would have become the preferred kind. Doubtless someone dried the sprouts for eating later. Wild yeasts are everywhere, and they would have found enough sugar in the sprouted barley to grow as soon as more water appeared. And sometime, people were hungry enough to try ingesting the "spoiled" fermenting barley. They would have received a fairly nutritious meal, since yeast reduces some indigestible and unpleasant substances in barley and increases B vitamins and amino acids. They probably gained a mellow buzz as well. No grinding or baking necessary.
That, at least, is how the beer researchers see it. Their only proof---and very circumstantial it is---is their successful batch of Ninkasi Beer, a reportedly tasty brew bearing the first cuneiform label in several thousand years. They probably will not convince the bread-first believers. As one put it in the original symposium, "Are we to believe that the foundations of western civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?"