Rio History: A Brief History of Beer

By Steve Hathcock

The oldest records of beer brewing date back 6000 years to the time of the Sumerians and the ancient cities of Babylon and Ur. Though they probably discovered the fermentation process by chance, (perhaps a piece of bread or grain became wet and a short time later began to ferment)

they quickly recognized the potential of the inebriating pulp. A four thousand year old Sumerian seal shows baked bread being crumbled into water to form a mash, and then made into a drink that is recorded as having made people feel “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful.” The Sumerians had discovered a “divine drink” which certainly was a gift from the gods.

The Babylonians brewed over 20 varieties of beer and the amber liquid was often supplied in lieu of wages. The golden brew was highly prized for both its nutritional value and its barter value. During the latter part of the Bronze Age, taxes were paid with sheaves of wheat and grain while tribute, a form of payment required by many rulers as a sign of submission, was preferred in a more liquid form. Beer is mentioned in the Old Testament. Noah was instructed to bring along beer in addition to food and water. He stocked the ark with many barrels of his favorite drink. There is no record of whether Noah and his son’s preferred a light or dark beer, but I’m sure they had plenty of time to debate the qualities of their favorite brewski while mucking the elephant stalls.

Oddly enough, in ancient Egypt, brewing was not a sideline, but a major industry; pharaohs rewarded their favorite subjects with tens of thousands of gallons of free beer! Surely they “walked like an Egyptian” while under the influence of that great bounty. Egyptians preferred their beer served in golden goblets. If a man offered a woman a sip of his beer it meant he was asking the maids hand in marriage. A form of that custom is still practiced today on New Year’s Eve and during Oktoberfest. Of course, a “quickie divorce” usually follows in short order. Priests routinely placed the equivalent of a couple of six packs in the king’s sarcophagus to quench the sun god’s thirst while on the last journey. One has to hope that a bottle of aspirin and a pair of dark sunglasses were included in the after-life survival kit.

Caesar toasted his troops after they crossed the Rubicon River at the commencement of the great Roman Civil War. The Romans called their beer “cervesa,” after the Goddess of agriculture Ceres and the word “vis”meaning strength in Latin.As the Empire expanded, Roman legions brought the art of brewing hops to Europe and soon afterward to the shores of England and Ireland. Neither has been the same since.

By the end of the tenth century, beer-making became an industry in itself and each country had their favorite brew. The Germans chilled their lager beers in ice caves located high in the Alpine country along the Swiss border while the English developed a liking for ale, which was

stored in cellars and served warm. Pilsner, a light blondish beer, was brewed by the Bohemians in what is now modern day Slovakia and the Czechoslovakian Republic.

When Columbus landed in America, the natives offered him a drink brewed from corn and black birch sap. A scant hundred and twenty years later, the first commercial brewery opened in New Amsterdam. (New York City). 

All of the first Presidents had their own recipes for beer making. Revolutionary War Hero Samuel Adams operated a commercial brewery that is still in business today. In 1789, James Madison proposed an 8-cent tax per barrel for all malt liquors to, “encourage the manufacture of

beer in every State of the newly formed Union.” His idea was a success. By 1890, there were over 2300 breweries in the U.S. and Pabst became the first brewer to sell over one million barrels a year.

Prohibition was tough on the beer industry with only 160 breweries surviving when the noble experiment ended on April 17, 1933. Today, beer sales in the U.S. alone exceeds $60 billion a year. And now I invite you all to join me in a rousing rendition of “99 bottles of beer on the wall.”

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