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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Wednesday, 16 March 2011 00:00|
The unrest and conflict seen in the past months from North Africa and the Middle East have made it easy to forget that this was actually the first region in the world where civilization appeared -- where cities, laws, social structures, and economic systems first arose from the nomadic tribes then-roaming the area. It is not a coincidence that this part of the world is also where the first recorded instances of the production and consumption of beer and bread have been found. The fertility of the soil around the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates rivers meant that the people living there were able to cultivate grain -- first simply for subsistence, and then with increasing surpluses. The wealth of grain inevitably led to experimentation; and now, even though the thousands of years have passed, the most wonderful result of these experiments -- beer -- is still with us.
Today, beer is generally produced using highly mechanized and regulated systems, resulting in uniformly-manufactured beverages for mass distribution and consumption. There are some people, however -- both brewers and drinkers -- who still embrace the older, more anarchic and idiosyncratic traditions.
In one of Bill Watterson's old Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, Calvin asks, "Who was the first person to discover milk?" -- in other words, who decided that it would be a good idea to drink whatever came out of a cow's udder. An equally difficult question to answer would be, "Who was the first person to brew beer?"
We have a few leads. First, it was probably a Sumerian, living around 5,000 BC, in the area that is now Iraq. Second, it may very well have been a woman. The beer historian Horst Dornbusch speculates that it may have been "[a] forgetful Sumerian baker -- probably the lady of the house or her maid -- [who] might have left her dough out during one of Sumeria's infrequent rainstorms." The resulting naturally fermented, sludgy mix would have been tasted with much hesitation -- unless it was her ravenous teenage son, prowling for anything resembling breakfast -- tentatively enjoyed, and then experimented with to improve the flavour. However the discovery was made, beer eventually became a key aspect of Sumerian society, both symbolically and practically.
By 3100 BC, the date of our first written record of the Sumerians -- though well over a millennium since they had first built villages, then cities, next to their wheat fields -- they already had eight different kinds of beer. They also had a goddess of beer, named Ninkasi (or Ninkasis), who brewed a batch daily for all the other gods. (When the Sumerian civilization was eventually subsumed by the Greeks, Ninkasi and her beer were replaced by Dionysus and his wine. The Greeks didn't produce enough wheat to make brewing beer a viable proposition -- except in the region of Thrace, where wheat was still prevalent, so there Dionysus also became the god of beer).
There is a hymn in Ninkasi's honour, which also contains the very first recorded beer recipe. Ninkasi also did extra duty as a goddess of love, and this combination led to some pretty extravagant fertility rituals -- parts of which wouldn't have looked too out of place at a university keg party (which, come to think of it, might be the closest thing modern, secular, western society has to a fertility ritual).
This connection between beer and love is telling. For a long time, the process of making beer was, like falling in love, a chance affair, reliant on the whims of luck and nature. This was due to the fact that humanity was not aware of the existence of yeast, and its integral role in the process of fermentation, until the 18th century, after people started messing around with Anton van Leeuwenhoek's invention, the microscope. A large part of a beer's taste -- and alcohol content -- could depend on the particular regional flavour of the hops, the wheat or barley, and the local water -- plus whatever flavouring ingredients, in the form of fruit, herbs, and spices, the brewer might throw in as well. And all of this was subject as well to the spontaneous fermentation process of the wild yeasts that happened to be floating around in the air.
Today, most beer is not made with such carefree abandon and experimentation. First the Bavarian Purity Act of 1516 -- which stipulated that only three ingredients, barley, water, and the then-unknown yeast, could be used in brewing -- and then the technological revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, along with increasing governmental regulation and concern over hygiene has meant that the global beer industry has become increasingly standardized, and concentrated in the hands of only a few major conglomerates. The uniformity in production methods has in turn led to uniformity in taste.
There are, however, two areas where unique flavours of beer are still energetically sought. The region around Brussels, Belgium, has a centuries-long tradition of brewing beer with wild yeasts, which produces a variety of beer known as lembik. (The name probably comes from the nearby town of Lembeek -- literally, lime creek). The yeasts in question are all of the genus Brettanomyces, which predominates in the area. The beers are, like wine, stored in old wooden casks, and tend to have a tart, acidic flavour. True lembik is difficult to find outside the Brussels area, though some related styles of beer -- fruitier krieks and gueuzes, for example -- can more often be found in North America. These, however, are often flavoured with syrups and sugars, masking the distinctive flavour of the natural yeasts.
The other country where a great many new types of beer are being brewed -- and old styles re-discovered -- is the United States. Producers of craft beer -- defined small (under 6 million barrels per year), independently-owned, and traditional in technique -- are taking over an increasing percentage of the American beer market: 9% in the first half of 2010 alone, despite a 2.7% decline in overall beer consumption by volume.
And these craft brewers are generally eager to find new flavours -- or recycle old ones -- to add to their beers. Sam Calagione, the charismatic founder of Dogfish Head Brewery (and the subject of a television show that started on the Discovery Network in the fall of 2010), has taken inspiration from sources as esoteric as medieval Finnish farmers' brewing recipes and Greek mythology to come up with distinctive flavours. (His Finnish experiment involved dropping super-heated rocks into large kettles of barley mash.)
And, although the Sumerians have been gone for thousands of years, the goddess Ninkasi lives on, in the name of the award handed out to the American Homebrewers' Association Brewer of the Year.
It might also be worthwhile for the rest of us to remember, once in a while, the tremendous variety of beers that have been, and continue to be, made around the world -- as well as the imagination and the devotion of those who brew it.