A Natural History of Beer (review)


EXCERPT (George Scialabba): Curiously [...] as Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall point out in A Natural History of Beer, the main components of beer—ethanol and water—are found in the vast clouds swirling around the center of the Milky Way in sufficient quantity to produce 100 octillion liters of the stuff, though only at a very disappointing 0.001 proof. On earth, beer-like substances have long existed whenever grains, nectar, or fruits have spontaneously fermented. Chimps and other mammals in the wild have been observed getting sloshed on naturally occurring alcohol, which strongly suggests that very early humans did so too.

[...] Being portable as well as potable—often more potable than water, since it was boiled at one stage of brewing—beer was one of the earliest currencies, used by temple bureaucracies to pay craftsmen, workmen, and suppliers. We even know how much the laborers who built the Giza pyramids were paid: three allotments of beer per day, totaling four liters. Because Egyptian beer was thicker, sweeter, and more nutritious than most later versions—it was made from crumbled barley bread and sprouted grains and flavored with dates and honey—and because it was often drunk before it was completely fermented, and therefore probably contained appreciable quantities of brewer’s yeast, one of the most nutritious substances known, DeSalle and Tattersall conjecture that “beer was the lubricant that made the astonishing feat of pyramid-building possible.” Not all Egyptians considered beer an unmitigated blessing, though...

[...] Beer remained a provincial drink during the Roman Empire. Aristocrats and officials drank wine, which suggests that the Greeks, whom the Roman upper classes copied in most things, did not drink beer either. There was, however, a long and unbroken northern European tradition of brewing, dating from around 2,500 BCE. The church disapproved at first, but there was no separating the northerners from their beer. Soon monasteries, which received tithes from peasant harvests, were using their surplus grain to brew beer. In fact, as DeSalle and Tattersall note, the world’s oldest continuously operating brewing site is in a former monastery, the Weihenstephan Abbey in Bavaria.

Another possible sign of divine favor in this period was the discovery of hops around the ninth century. Beer had long been flavored with herbs and fruit, but no combination had produced universal satisfaction. The seed cones of the hops plant, Humulus lupulus, had various uses in medieval medicine but proved an ideal addition to beer, imparting a bracing bitterness and also acting as a preservative. The latter was important: it allowed beer to travel, making a wider market possible and spurring competition and innovation.

A beer’s bitterness can be measured, it turns out, by a formidably difficult-sounding process [...] The next milestone DeSalle and Tattersall chronicle is “the most momentous schism in the history of brewing”: lagering. Until the fifteenth century, all European beers were ales: that is, they were fermented by yeast at room temperature. Then some Saxon brewers surprised themselves by producing a new brew, “clear and bright, with a crisp finish,” apparently the result of storing and aging the beer in deep, cool caves. The process of cold storage was known as lagering, and the new variety as lager beer. From the fifteenth century until the present, ales and lagers have more or less divided the world between them.

The Saxons had stumbled on a new species of yeast. [...] At this point A Natural History of Beer gets into the hard stuff—not spirits but biology and chemistry. DeSalle is a molecular biologist and Tattersall a physical anthropologist... (MORE - details)

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