BEER: ‘Ale’s’ Well That Ends Well
Brewing is not a modern-day invention. There is some indication that Noah stored beer on the ark, while the Chinese have been brewing it for over 5,000 years. In Israel, 3,000-year-old beer mugs have been unearthed. However, it was the Sumerians who are the first people credited with brewing beer.
In ancient Mesopotamia, women were master brewers. As holy priestesses, they brewed a variety of beers for the royals of the day. The beer was red, pale or dark, with a head or without, and some types were reserved for ceremonial purposes only.
According to one record from Babylonian times, the royals sipped beer through long, golden straws. The straws were necessary because the rudimentary brewing process of the day created a cloudy, unfiltered beer. The Babylonians were probably the first to introduce beer to the Egyptians.
In early Egyptian times, beer played an increasingly important role in society. Because it was a product of the gods, especially Isis, the nature goddess, it was regulated in quantity and quality by a city official. Beer was offered as an appeasement to an angered god in times of strife. It is said that Rameses II offered 30,000 gallons annually to the gods. Beer was the chosen drink of the day for both peasants and royality alike. It was common for people to gather at the end of the day at a “house of beer” to pass the evening. Beer was also used for gift giving and a keg was considered the perfect wedding gift. Surprisingly, beer was also used as an ingredient in many medicines. Some 500 remedies are said to have listed beer as an ingredient. For example, beer mixed with porridge was said to reduce disease and increase one’s longevity. Beer was considered a necessity by the Egyptians and was often among the foods and drinks tucked inside tombs.
According to experts, the Egyptians taught the Greeks the art of brewing and the Greeks taught the Romans. Some historians say the Romans only favored beer if wine was unavailable and considered it a drink for heathens. Nevertheless, the Romans are credited with spreading the brewing technique throughout Europe as Julius Caesar expanded Rome’s territory. In many countries, such as Germany, beer became a valuable item of sacrifice to the gods and was also brewed for personal enjoyment. It became an important export item shipped as far away as India.
The birth of Christianity brought brewing perfection as monasteries became the key breweries offering food, drink and lodging to weary travelers. The Monks called it “ale” and some became highly sought after for their brewing skills. However, in the mid-1300s with the institution of ale-tax, many monastery breweries were closed by nobles due to their exempt status. Naturally, the nobles couldn’t allow the monastic breweries to continue if their profits didn’t benefit their own pockets.
During the medieval era, beer continued to be consumed on a daily basis. Most local water supplies were contaminated and beer drinking was encouraged as a safe beverage. Women, referred to as alewives, were once again responsible for the brewing since beer was considered a “cooked” food/drink product, and according to medieval law, women owned the cooking vessels. Few common folk could read or write, so establishments which served beer put out a checkered flag near their doors, indicating beer was served there.
Ale was so important in society that the word “ale” was often incorporated into many events. Brides traditionally sold ale on their wedding day to help with the expenses, hence “bride-ale,” which became bridal. The Christmas expression “yuletide” comes from “ale-tide.”
During the 15th and 16th centuries, beer continued to be consumed daily by all people regardless of their economic or social status. Queen Elizabeth was very particular about her beer, and when traveling, would send scouts ahead of her party to taste the beer. If the local beer was deemed suitable, the Queen would stop and purchase local brewed beer. If it was not up to her standards, she would order a keg delivered from London. Records show that in King Henry VII’s court, one gallon of beer daily was the ration for ladies-in-waiting.
Simultaneously in America, native peoples were brewing their own beer from maize. Christopher Columbus introduced European beers to America and the Pilgrims brought over the British brewing methods. One reason the Pilgrims stopped at Plymouth Rock was because they had depleted their beer stores.
Clearly, most societies throughout history have considered beer a valuable commodity. both in terms of trading and consumption. The invention of brewing beer has influenced religion, economics, social status and medicine throughout the last 6,000 years. Who would have thought?