Europeans first to get beers in

October 8, 2004

The modern pint of beer was an ancient European invention and not a product of the cradle of civilisation.

A leading scholar this week rejected the widely accepted theory that the world's most popular alcoholic drink developed from ideas spread by innovative Mesopotamian brewers soon after the domestication of barley 10,000 years ago.

Max Nelson, a classicist at the University of Windsor in Canada, told the inaugural International Congress on Beer in Prehistory and Antiquity, held in Barcelona, that today's beverage was more likely the product of independent innovation in Europe.

"Beer as we drink it and conceive of it today does not come from an unbroken link with the Middle East," he said.

He argued that brewing had been developed independently across the world by many different people in ancient times.

Studies that reveal a great variety of different grains had been used to brew beer, including barley, wheat, sorghum, corn and rice, were presented at the meeting.

Central American cultures may have first cultivated the cacoa tree to brew an alcoholic beverage or chocolate beer, according to US researchers who studied remains from Honduras and Mayan and Aztec texts.

Archaeologists also unearthed evidence that acorns were once used to make beer in Majorca.

Evidence unearthed in recent years at five sites across Scotland suggests that beer was brewed there 5,000 years ago.

Preliminary results presented by other researchers at the conference revealed archaeological evidence for the brewing of a rice beer in China 9,000 years ago and barley beer in Spain 7,000 years ago.

Dr Nelson said the next decade was likely to see an explosion of such evidence that will begin to reveal the full story of beer.

A large amount of data is now emerging from the scientific analysis of potsherds containing traces of beerstone, a hard substance produced during brewing. Other information has been gleaned from literary sources and ancient pictures and carvings.

Dr Nelson further noted that the stigma that is still attached to drinking beer - that it is inferior to wine and spirits and largely the preserve of the uneducated - was also a European creation.

He put this down to "bad science" on the part of the classical civilisations, who labelled beer a "cold" and therefore effeminate drink.

Patrick McGovern, senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, said that soon-to-be published results from the site of a Neolithic village at Jiahu in China indicate that beer was brewed there from rice 9,000 years ago.

Grapes or hawthorn fruit were included, possibly as a source of yeast, and the brew was then flavoured with resins and herbs.

Dr McGovern said the Neolithic was a time of worldwide experimentation with brewing. "It shows how both East and West can be involved in the whole experimentation of beer-making," he said.

Nevertheless, Dr McGovern felt it was probable that the basics of brewing spread to Europe from the Near East.

Dr Nelson argued that the European tradition of brewing by adding malt to hot water contrasted with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian tradition of making beer from loaves. He also noted that Europeans were the first to add hops to beer and to store the drink in barrels.

Max Nelson's book The Barbarian's Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe will be published by Routledge later this month.

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