Current Issue #488



Beer and civilisation

This time last year we sowed a barley ‘crop’ – about 420 square metres – in Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

The previous year we sowed a wheat crop on the same site. Four-hundred and twenty square metres of wheat on the Adelaide Plains will keep a family in bread for a year – such a translation is both more challenging and interesting for barley. Nick Steerenberg, the operations manager at Coopers, reckons 175 kg of barley (based on a yield of four tonnes per hectare for the Gardens’ ‘crop’) will return around 145 kg of malt – and if each kilo of malt makes around four litres of beer, the resulting yearly ration from our crop is around one-and-a-half litres of beer per day for a family. Likely you’ll see this as excess you can share or barter. However, in ancient civilizations you might have had a different perspective. If beer was the best alternative to contaminated drinking water, and brewing beer was the key to your family’s nutrition, your perspective on a one-and-a-half litre ration of beer might change substantially – you’d be likely to see this as meagre.

The origin of modern agriculture and western civilisation are likely the result of a hunger and thirst for beer – although a rather different beer – soupy thick and low alcohol – substantially less palatable than Dr Tim Cooper’s – but beer nevertheless.

The 20th century Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe famously labelled two periods of momentous change within the last 10,000 years in the history of western culture as the Neolithic Revolution (the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture) and the Urban Revolution (the switch from villagebased societies to societies with towns and cities). The assumption that agriculture – the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals – was more efficient than hunting and gathering, in terms of return for energy expended in seeking food, or was better able to counter the impacts of poor seasons, is now viewed as largely unconvincing. Indeed, there is strong evidence to suggest that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a more energy-efficient choice than early agriculture. Alternative theories abound for the alternative catalysts that might have driven the adoption of agriculture.

A few examples include: the adoption of slavery and a culture= seeking the accumulation of material wealth; the establishment of significant cadres of specialist skills beyond food production; the perception and selection of plants and animals for domestication; and even the demand for fibres for cord, clothing and sails. The most compelling argument might well be the harnessing of yeasts for brewing beer and baking bread, and the resulting improved nutritional outcomes.

Early cereals were quite different from today’s cereals. Indeed, there’s an argument that most cereals would have been toxic to some degree before humans adapted to them and adapted them to us – in part, adverse reactions to gluten today might be the result of a missing evolutionary adaption in gluten sensitive individuals together with changes in our gut’s microbial flora (perhaps the downside of hygiene). Malting and fermentation might then have been a method to reduce the toxicity of cereals by denaturing gluten proteins, converting starches to sugars and synthesising B-vitamins – early cereals, for botanical and biochemical reasons, were likely better suited to making gruel (porridge) or beer than bread.

Brewing is, as with food harvesting and preparation in any culture, a sophisticated technology. The process of brewing changes nutritional values and provides a range of other advantages – malting renders the grain friable and easier to grind. When mashed, the malted grain provides sweet ‘cakes’ or a sweet barley mash and a malt liquid – all rich in B-vitamins. The sweet liquid (wort) is washed (sparged) out of the barley mash and boiled up with herbs (such as hops) as flavourings and preservatives then fermented to make beer. Narrow-necked pottery vessels keeping air and oxygen out and carbon dioxide in during brewing characterise early western civilisations in Mesopotamia and Egypt – the design keeps the pH low, reducing the chance of toxic brews and making beer less perishable than other cereal products.

This is all a lot of work – archaeologists have differing perspectives on why we went to all this trouble. Food historian Rachel Laudan suggests the right question to ask is about what problems a food technology solves. As we’ve seen, the solution early beers provide to poor water quality and improved nutritional outcomes from problematic gluten protein is likely much more important than the production of alcohol per se. Perhaps beer does hold a strong claim for preceding bread in Western civilisation. Bread solves other problems, especially of taste and convenience. Perhaps the path to gluten tolerance was paved by bread. Awkwardly for those without the adaptation to tolerate gluten, cereals for leavened bread-making have been selected for higher levels of gluten proteins to improve elasticity and strength in leavened dough.

While beer might underpin the founding of western civilisation, the Romans were disparaging – Emperor Julian considered wine a nectar and derided beer (and its adherents) as smelling like a goat.

Who and from where are you Dionysus?
Since by the true Bacchus,
I do not recognize you;
I know only the son of Zeus.
While he smells like nectar,
you smell like a goat.
Can it be then that the Celts because
of lack of grapes
Made you from cereals? Therefore one
should call you
Demetrius, not Dionysus, rather wheat
born and Bromus,
Not Bromius.

For more on the Gardens’ barley crop visit our blog
Stephen Forbes, Director, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide

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