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Beer, bread and wine - A historical look at our beverages

Beer, bread and wine - A historical look at our beverages

They say you are what you eat, but what you eat – or drink – depends on when you lived and where you lived. If you were a cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer you probably spread your waistline with raw meat and the occasional root or bulb.

And if you were lucky enough to have been born after the introduction of fire as a cooking tool, you probably enjoyed the odd hot meal. And for food on the go, you had wind-dried biltong (salt had not yet been ‘invented’) and a loincloth full of nuts. This culinary state of affairs persisted unchanged for millennia, and nobody really complained except for the odd budding Master Chef hopeful who got gored by a sabre-tooth tiger or trampled by a woolly mammoth whilst collecting ingredients for the evening meal.

Unfortunately all this took place before mankind had figured out the written word or the art of making documentaries – in fact much of this history played out even before Sir David Attenborough had been born. So there is no evidence whether mankind was aware that something was missing in the diet – namely some alternative to river water, something that could enhance the taste of the food and wash away the day’s fatigue. But that was soon to change.

Anthropologists are still hotly debating all the possible reasons for our gradual change from hunter-gatherer to agriculturist. Climate changes (gradual warming), population increases and many other factors led to mankind’s settling down with domesticated animals and cultivated crops. One of the tamed (and eventually selectively modified) crops was grain. Someone, somewhere, pound the grain into a paste and someone took it further by putting the paste on the fire. Unleavened bread was born. But man is an inquisitive soul, and it was a matter of time before someone left breadcrumbs to soak in water for a while before drinking the sodden pulp. I assume repeated trials were undertaken, but eventually everyone agreed that ‘the drink of gods’ had indeed been discovered. Beer making was on the map. Some believe that the resulting beer making was more of a factor in forcing communities to remain sedentary, near their supply of grain, than simple bread production. Beer, they maintain, is one of the cornerstones of civilization. Well, a rather pleasing theory, but I’m afraid not substantiated as far as I can tell. At any rate, it appears that beer brewing has been around for at least 10,000 years or more.

Ancient Sumerians (to whom we owe the first written records of beer-making) took their tipple seriously. By law of the king, any beer maker who overcharged customers was to be put to death by drowning (presumably water). The bread that was made for beer production could only be eaten during proclaimed food shortages!  Grain was the basis of beer in most of what we now know as the ‘cradle of civilization’ – in other words between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers, but other cultures stumbled on their own forms of beer, using wheat, millet,, maize or cassava. The Japanese, predictably, used rice. There is even a form of beer known as kumis that is made of fermented camel milk. Hops as an additive to beer was only introduced about a thousand years ago – which, in the history of mankind’s principal drink, is relatively recent stuff.

Where does this leave wine, historically speaking? Well, we don’t really know. Some think wine, in selected areas, could be as old as beer. Wine making is a natural process, it does not need much help from man – just leave grapes, especially squashed grapes, long enough and you’ll end up with wine. So in areas where vines occurred in the wild (such as modern day Georgia and Armenia), someone must have discovered this rather pleasant fact thousands of years ago.  The oldest known winery was recently discovered in an Armenian cave. Dating back to 4100 BCE, it contains a wine press, fermentation vats, jars and cups – as well as, not surprisingly, many grape seeds. If wine making had reached such a level 6000 years ago, it is a safe bet that the drinking of wine (in Armenia, at any rate) was not far behind beer in history’s timeline. However it took many millennia before vines were introduced in any significant numbers to the rest of the world. Because of its relative scarcity it remained the rich man’s drink for centuries. And here’s a little known viticulture fact: the biggest exporter of wine to Europe in the 18th century was – yep, the Cape of Good Hope!

But whatever the final outcome of the wine.beer anthropological research, beer has definitely always been the drink of the masses.

The word ‘beer’, incidentally, is derived from the Latin ‘bibere’ – “to drink”. I don’t think we can comprehend how important beer was to everyday life. It was found on the table for every meal of the day and for virtually every family member. It was part of one’s daily food intake. Even monasteries made the stuff.  In some cases workers were even paid in beer. As a measure of its significance, one only has to look at the epic Finnish poetic saga Kalewala, in which 400 verses are devoted to beer compared to the creation of the earth, which only notched up 200 verses!

The Romans, however, loved their wine and as their empire expanded, so did wine’s popularity. The French (who, until the Romans arrived, had never even given wine a thought) played their part by inventing the wine barrel and the Syrians threw in their lot by inventing glass bottles – all of which meant that wine could now be transported further and even be stored. The old terracotta amphoras were phased out. The English, not to be outdone, were the first to seal wine bottles using cork imported from Spain and Portugal – who, no doubt, were totally mystified by the sudden demand for the bark of their cork trees. Unfortunately it took a while before a corkscrew was patented. (This apparent stupidity is not unprecedented in history – tinned food was invented in 1811, but it took another four decades before someone came up with a can opener!) Corkscrew historian (yes! Corkscrew historian!) Ron McLean says that it is unknown exactly when the first corkscrew was marketed, but that wine drinkers probably used a form of gun worme – a corkscrew-shaped device made by blacksmiths to clean musket barrels! If you’re desperate for a glass of wine, you’ll use anything in fact.

I was still going to write about salt, potato crisps, ketchup (did you know that tomato sauce is a non-Newtonian fluid? Which is why you have to tap the bottle to get the sauce flowing!) but I’ve run out of space, so I’ll save all that for next time.

A final thought: why did no one ever mention corkscrew historian in vocational guidance at school? There was a lot of talk about banking, medicine, law, the church, South African Railways and even journalism – not a single word about the obvious attractions of being a corkscrew historian. Life is probably full of other such interesting sounding occupations. Oh, well, perhaps they don’t pay as much as journalism.


 By Pete Reinders

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