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17 November 2010
Beer may have helped the rise of civilization, study suggests

May beer have helped lead to the rise of civilization? It's a possibility, some archaeologists say. Signs that people went to great lengths to obtain grains despite the hard work needed to make them edible, plus the knowledge that feasts were important community-building gatherings, support the idea that cereal grains were being turned into beer, said archaeologist Brian Hayden at Simon Fraser University in Canada. "Beer is sacred stuff in most traditional societies," said Hayden.
     The Neolithic peoples living in the large area of Southwest Asia called the Levant developed from the Natufian culture, pioneers in the use of wild cereals, which would evolve into true farming and more settled behavior. The most obvious explanation for such cultivation is that it was done in order to eat. Archaeological evidence suggests that until the Neolithic, cereals constituted only a minor element of diets, most likely because they require so much labor to get anything edible from them. However, sites in Syria suggest that people nevertheless went to unusual lengths at times just to procure cereal grains - up to 40 to 60 miles (60 to 100 km).
     One might speculate, Hayden said, that the labor associated with grains could have made them attractive in feasts in which guests would be offered foods that were difficult or expensive to prepare, and beer could have been a key reason to procure the grains used to make them. "It's not that drinking and brewing by itself helped start cultivation, it's this context of feasts that links beer and the emergence of complex societies," Hayden said.
     "In traditional feasts throughout the world, there are three ingredients that are almost universally present," he said. "One is meat. The second is some kind of cereal grain, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The third is alcohol, and because you need surplus grain to put into it, as well as time and effort, it's produced almost only in traditional societies for special occasions to impress guests, make them happy, and alter their attitudes favorably toward hosts."
     The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. So, what would the brewing process have involved in prehistoric times? Malting (germination) could be achieved in watertight vessels with frequent water changes or by placing the grain in a tied bag in a running stream so the water remained fresh and didn't require changing. Soaked grain would then be laid on a flat floor away from the outside elements and regularly raked and watered. Once the grain reached an early stage of germination, the grain would be dried with a kiln to preserve the sugars.
     Mashing (when starch is converted to sugar) involved grinding the grain with quernstones. This would help release natural enzymes and speed the conversion of the remaining starch to sugar. The gentle heat needed could have been provided by hot stones or by using the ash from the fire. Sparging is washing through the mash with hot water to produce sweet wort that can then be fermented. People in ancient times would have probably used their woven baskets for this job, and let the watery soup filter into an earthenware vessel. The spent grain provided quality fodder for the livestock.
     Fermentation needs yeast, and there are a number of possible methods to explain how this yeast was introduced. Airborne yeast could be enough but, in the Western Isles of Scotland, a hazel 'wand' was traditionally used to stir the brew during fermentation. Each time the wand would stir a new batch, the dried yeast on the wand would reactivate the process. A couple weeks later, a perfect prehistoric beer was a reality.

Edited from Caledonian Mercury (2 November 2010), Live Science (5 November 2010)

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