There have been many books written to explore the origins of what we call “civilization” in the subtle but dramatic shift from millions of years of homonid hunter-gathering to sedentary farming, in what we call the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago; and how each little step toward domestication led, inexorably, to the next – until the cumulative acceleration became almost blinding since the Industrial Revolution of the last 200 years, and mind-boggling in today’s Cyber Revolution.

But I had encountered no sources, academic or popular, which hit the nail on the head quite so well as How Beer Saved the World, a documentary produced by the Australian Beyond Productions and  broadcast on the Discovery Channel on January 30, 2011.

From that documentary and other sources, I here offer you a glimpse into the real reason for modern civilization, science and virtually everything we know today in our crazy modern world.


How Beer Invented the World

10,000 years ago, in ancient Sumer and Mesopotamia, gatherers discovered, probably quite by accident, that barley left in a container in the rain for a few days would begin to ferment into alcohol – and beer was born. Evidence of ancient beer predates barley bread by 3,000 years.

The desire for more beer led to the domestication of barley and the end of hunter-gathering, for you can imagine that chasing mastodons after a few crocks of grog might become a dangerous occupation. And the craving for ever more brew, after 2 million years of sobriety, required that we give up our nomadic and carefree lifestyle and that we settle in one place and grow as much barley as possible. That shift in mindset then led directly to irrigation, the plow, the wheel, geometry for measuring land, mathematics for accounting, and writing to keep records.

Some of humanity’s earliest known writings refer to the production and distribution of beer: the Code of Hammurabi included laws regulating beer and beer parlors, and “The Hymn to Ninkasi”, a prayer to the Mesopotamian goddess of beer, served as both a prayer and as a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a largely oral culture.

Cuneiform Symbol for Beer

Cuneiform symbol for beer

There were more than 140 different words for beer in ancient times, more than the Eskimos have for snow.

By 3,000 BC, civilization was well established on the foundation of beer. Ancient Egypt was built on beer, which was considered a gift from the Gods. Their greatest god, Ra, was the creator of life, love and beer.

Every Egyptian, from children to the Pharaohs, drank beer, and the Pharaohs would be buried with enough beer to supply them in the afterlife. The wages of Egyptian workers were beer, and those who built the pyramids were paid a gallon per day, which makes it even more miraculous that the great pyramids could be built by mere stumbling mortals. The pyramids of Mesopotamia were derided by the Hebrews as the Tower of Babel, but the ancient Jews might not have realized that the babbling builders were all inebriated.

The Great Pyramid of Giza is estimated to have cost 231,414,717 gallons of beer. Their beer had only 3% alcohol (compared to 4% – 6% today). Egypt’s beer was a staple food and its common currency. It was also used as a remedy for a number of maladies.

The bones of Egyptian mummies have been found to be full of tetracycline, an antibiotic officially “discovered” in 1948. When scientists reproduced the ancient Egyptian beer recipe, they found it contained tetracycline, 3,000 years before it was rediscovered.

In medieval Europe, the chance of living to the age of six was about 50%. War and plagues were compounded by terribly polluted water. But new evidence shows that, using a 1,000-year-old beer brewing recipe, filthy water becomes a safe drink. It’s likely that medieval beer saved millions of lives.

By the 16th century, every man, woman and child drank an average of 300 liters of beer per year, about six times what we drink today. The master brewers were the monks, who made a killing from producing and selling beer. People were enticed to come to church by the promise of an after-mass brew, and thus the “spirit” of Christianity maintained its hold on the common folk.

But other entrepreneurs got into the brewing business, and it became the spearhead of industry, trade, banking, and finance – the mother of modern capitalism.

America might never have been settled if it were not for beer. Water would spoil in the hold of a ship during a long ocean passage, but beer was naturally preserved. Beer was vital to the successful voyage of the Mayflower to Plymouth. In fact, the ship had been destined for Virginia, but when they ran out of beer, they landed at the nearest point, which was Plymouth Rock.

When the settlers went ashore, their experience in Europe prevented them from drinking from the pristine streams of the New World, unless it was made into beer.

But, without barley, the newcomers had to find another way to make beer, and they were led by squirrels to use acorns, which was a little nutty but it worked. With a new source of their elixir of life established, the new Americans developed the first social networking system: taverns. And from taverns came a revolution.

On December 16, 1773, in the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, the struggle for freedom began. The Sons of Liberty gathered to quaff a few pints and, as their spirits rose, they made the bold decision to go to Boston Harbor, board ships, and dump tea in the drink. Taverns continued to be the place where revolutionary strategy was “brewed”. It’s fitting, then, that America’s national anthem was borrowed from an eighteenth century drinking song, which was used as a sobriety test to determine if you were OK for another round of brew.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Sam Adams were all brewers. Together, they fermented a new nation. For Ben Franklin, beer was “proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”.

God Wants Us to be Happy

With the British vanquished, the Americans took on the world’s oldest foe: disease. Most of what we know as scientific medicine today came out of the brewery. In the 1850s, Louis Pasteur tried to find out why beer sometimes spoiled, and discovered bacteria living alongside the yeast. He deduced that, if bacteria would make beer “sick”, perhaps it could also make people sick. From that revelation, he invented Pasteurization and hand-washing.

In the 1840s, lager beer arrived with German immigrants like Frederick Miller and Adolph Coors. Because lagers, unlike the older ales, had to be brewed slowly, it required keeping it cold with ice. But this meant that every spring, the lager breweries shut down for the year. So, in 1881, an ammonia refrigeration machine was invented for the brewing process – the first commercially-viable refrigerator. This, incidentally, solved the age-old problem of storage of perishable food without spoilage.

Another indispensable and iconic part of the American landscape was invented, not by Henry Ford, but by beer manufacturers, who automated the production line at least ten years before Ford. In 1904, Michael Owens invented a machine to automatically fabricate beer bottles. Much child labor was in the glass industry, and this bottle machine wiped out child labor in less than ten years, and it completely transformed the economic landscape, from the automotive assembly line to robotics.

Americans now brew 6.2 billion gallons of beer every year, and drink an average of 20 gallons each. Today, beer is the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage, and the third-most popular drink after water and tea. It is thought by some to be the oldest fermented beverage and the start of life as we know it.

Cheers. Cheers


 by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes


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