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The Beer of the Pharaohs

The first beer brewing purity requirements in the world were enforced in Babylon: "He who adulterates beer will be drowned!"

Blonds at the beer bar
T. Micke

"Eat this bread and drink that beer, as is the custom of the land, said the prostitute to Enkidu, who lived with the animals in the steppes. Enkidu ate until he was full and drank seven tankards full of beer. Then his insides relaxed and he became cheerful. He washed his villous body, rubbed himself with oil – and became human."

It is up to the individual to decide for himself what the real trigger for Enkidu's transformation into a human at the time of Gilgamesh around 2500 B.C. was (either the copious amounts of beer or the prostitute). However, what is important for all "beerologists", whether farmer, brewer or drinker, is that, except for a few even older brewery recipes in cuneiform writing, the first evidence of the existence of the eternal, golden yellow drink was found in this work.

Since man stopped roaming about, settled down and began to cultivate the land around 15,000 years ago, the conditions for the "invention" of beer were created. Barley was at that time one of the most important staple foods. At some point a curious farmer must have sampled the juice, which formed through fermentation in "gone-off" bread dough – a light, milky liquid with an unusual, quite pleasant taste and alcoholic side effects...

Whoever invented beer, wherever and whenever that was, is not known exactly. Its discovery was, however, of seemingly similar importance and unavoidable for the discovery of mankind as the invention of the wheel, because both ideas surfaced at the same time in completely different cultures independently from one another. – So it was really an historical necessity that the world simply appeared to have been waiting for.

The Babylonian king Hamurabi enforced the first "purity law" of the world in his vast kingdom, making use of really very convincing methods: "He who adulterates, dilutes or sells beer at inflated prices shall be punished by drowning", recorded a contemporary script.

The Egyptians chose beer as their national drink. It was a permanent part of every workers diet – like it is today on many construction sites – whilst wine was reserved for the rich. Beer was in first place on the list of offerings for the Gods, who, just like humans, held drinking bouts. Archaeologists even found residue from drinks in the pyramids. We cannot reproduce how it would have tasted; we can however be sure that it would have been very different to the beer we drink today. To the horror of central Europeans, it would have been drunk like the English love their "ale" – lightly carbonated and "well-tempered" to lukewarm. Egyptian beer was probably not carbonated, since beer was filled ready to drink in clay flasks und simply closed with a clay stopper.

Tacitus, a Latin historian, had already noted in his time the notorious drinking capacity of the Germanic tribes and was astonished at "the vast quantities of beer they were capable of consuming".

Incidentally, beer made from both barley and wheat was rather frowned upon by Romans and Greeks and was accredited to "primitive provincial people"(Emperor Julian: "This Gallic drink reeks of horse!"). The Gauls on the other hand loved their wheat beer (cervesia), which was made more flavoursome by mixing honey with it.

Instead of barley or wheat, different cultures also used other types of grain, cereal and fruit to brew beer.

Experts have disagreed for years as to whether Chinese "rice wine" (Japanese: Sake) counts as beer or not. It is a question here of an historical error: the Chinese vocabulary does not differentiate between wine and beer. They simply have a word for alcohol. And whilst in Europe of the Middle-Ages beer was carbonated, to the monks travelling through China, rice wine was more like wine because it was not "sparkling".

Marco Polo wrote: "They drink a liquid that they brew out of rice and superb spices, and moreover in a way in which a better drink is made than any other sort of wine. It is not only good, pure and pleasing, but also inebriates more than any other wine."

This "wine" is actually a type of beer. The difference lies in that wine begins to ferment by itself, whereas beer (and "rice wine") only ferments when "fungi" are added.

A leap in time to Vienna in the 15th Century: Since Duke Rudolph IV founded the Vienna University in the year 1365, education, along with the students, has in a certain way settled in to the beautiful city – and in other ways not, since the students particularly liked to indulge in beer – probably too, because it was cheap – and they did so, as is the case with many aspects of student life, without holding back.

An historian reported in the year 1450 that the Viennese students "were simply in the pursuit of pleasure" and next to other vices, preferred to amuse themselves through unrestrained "boozing". This openly got out of hand in such a way that an emergency decree had to be passed: taverns were only allowed to serve beer until "St. Stephan chimed the Pyrgl÷ckerl (the beer bell)".

Although it may have been a nuisance for Vienna's population, and at times caused violent conflicts, it (supposedly) had its good sides too. When the students pursued their favourite hobby, drinking, in cheerful bouts, many intelligent ideas were generated in general conversation. According to unconfirmed rumours, a few hundred years later the initial idea for his legendary combustion engine is said to have occurred to Nikolaus Otto whilst the young travelling salesman was on a student bender in Cologne. The fuel he originally planned to use: alcohol...

< Read part 2 of this series: Explosives in Beer

© A report by Tobias Micke (29-09-96) – Contact