Beer and Civilization—Who Knew?

I hope you have had a happy Earth Day. It happened, thanks to beer. (Please, celebrate responsibly)

Fermentation First

Evidence mounts almost daily that beer started humans on the path to civilization even before the invention of agriculture some twelve thousand years ago. A recent paper in Evolutionary Anthropology says that, based on tests of artifacts, cereal grains were collected (sometimes from areas as far as sixty miles away) “for the purposes of brewing beer” to be used in feasts, which then “led to domestication…” That is, brewing led to the collecting of seeds for cultivation. And, feasts in prehistoric times were given for much the same reasons as they are today: to mark religious events or to impress others and also to make social, political, and commercial connections.

Edited copy of Image:The Brewer designed and e...

Edited copy of Image:The Brewer designed and engraved in the Sixteenth. Century by J Amman.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages,” Dr. Pat McGovern says, “Wherever we look…we see that the principal way to communicate with the gods or the ancestors involves an alcoholic beverage…” As examples, he mentions “the wine of the Eucharist” and “the beer presented to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi…”

Fermenting Agriculture

Eventually, people decided planting and tending was easier than going long distances to get the needed grain. Agriculture raised the density of the desired plants in an area and the people as well. Farmers stayed in one place for a while and had an affinity for places that had settlements since they could sell or trade their surplus grain there. In the settlements, people specialized at particular jobs and purchased or traded for goods and services they wanted. (See: “How Ancient Trade Changed the World“)

Grain (and beer) had the advantage of being storable: it would last for relatively long periods, and as a result, could be transported. That meant farmers could bring their grain to market and make a profit, and others could profit from shipping it abroad. In many ways, globalization occurred during the Bronze Age and probably earlier in Neolithic times.

Bar Tabs, Invoices, And The Tax Man

Because people were now living in greater concentrations, the amount of stuff around became more than what one person might be able to remember—it had to be written down. Pictures of goods soon became stylized symbols, which could be made faster and got the point across. Sumerians (in what is present-day Iraq) started making notations for bookkeeping about 5,000 years ago. “The first examples of writing,” Heather Whipps says in an article on, “were pictograms used by temple officials to keep track of the inflows and outflows of the city’s grain and animal stores which, in the bigger Sumerian urban centers such as Ur, were big enough to make counting by memory unreliable.”

Then, just as in today, taxes on alcohol provided revenue to the ruler, so reports had to be submitted. One of our oldest examples of writing is a receipt for beer. In 2050 BCE, a scribe named Ur-Amma accepted about four and a half quarts of the “best beer” from a brewer named Alulu.

The Rest, As They Say, Is History

The advent of farming was both helpful and harmful depending on where you looked. Farming massively disrupts the landscape (often through deforestation) to grow food or fiber. Yet, compared to a nomadic or hunter-gatherer lifestyle, farming used much less land, freeing the rest to revert to a more natural state. “The remarkable thing about farming, when it was invented 10,000 years ago,” says science writer Matt Ridley, “was how much smaller its footprint was.” According to Ridley, the first farmers needed about one percent as much land as the hunter-gatherers needed.

Civilization Is An Enormous Improvement On The Lack Thereof. – P. J. O’Rourke

So, to recap, civilization came about because of agriculture, and agriculture happened because humans chased a beer buzz. As poet John Ciardi said, “Fermentation and civilization are inseparable.”

Civilization, and its improving living standards, means we have time to do something besides just toiling to stay alive. Civilization, and its specialization of labor, allows us the time to set aside a day to remember the world on which we depend: Earth Day.

Cheers! Prost! Salud!


This Week in BrewZasters: Go Yeast Old Man

Yeast Explosion

Yeast will build up some explosive pressure when they are well fed in a sealed container. I am still finding spots of yeast in nooks and tiny crevices around the kitchen.

Microscopic yeast are in the air all around us. They are the reason that we have beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks.

Beer (and therefore yeast) lubricated the rise of civilization:

At some point in prehistory yeast fell into the gruel of one of our ancestors–after all, yeast is in the air around us. The gruel had been made from grain that had started to sprout (when seeds sprout an enzyme is released that breaks the starches stored in the seed into sugars the seedling will need for energy). Or perhaps the gruel tasted bad and our ancestor spit into the bowl (our saliva contains enzymes that break starch into sugars). The yeast started eating the available sugars. As they ate they produced ethanol (C2H5OH) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The next day, our ancestor would have noticed some froth on the top of the gruel, sipped it, and she (yes, she) found it didn’t cause problems. In fact, she felt better after drinking the frothy liquid.

She had discovered what Oscar Wilde discovered generations later:

“I have made an important discovery…that alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, produces all the effects of intoxication.” — Oscar Wilde

Without yeast we would not have beer or civilization.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Ron (who runs Kelsey Creek Brewing) gave me a container of Irish ale yeast–a big container of yeast. So much yeast that I could have used it for 100 gallons of wort (rather than the 5 gallons I planned to make). I put the plastic container in the refrigerator for use in the following day’s brewing. Cold temperatures make yeast less active. But, even with the cold, they were active enough to produce a lot of CO2 gas.

The picture above shows the aftermath of my opening the plastic jar. I’m still finding yeast in places in our kitchen.

Fortunately for me, my wife loves the beer I make.


Here is some yeast (in a Better Bottle fermenter) eating sugars and producing CO2 and alcohol:

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