In the last few days there’s been much tutting and hand wringing about the fact that alcohol-related hospital admissions have doubled over the last decade. The reality is, of course, that those people have simply over-done it a bit while raising a glass to “the greatest invention of all time.”
OK, maybe that statement’s not totally true but, according to the boffins on the documentary How Beer Saved The World, the last bit very much is. To quote historian Gregg Smith: “Beer changed the course of human history. Not once, not twice, but over and over again.”
I know what you’re thinking: “He was pissed,” right? Well, actually, no. A conventional reading of history will tell you that mankind stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers when they began to settle in one place and harvest wheat to make bread. Not so, say the egg-heads.
They’ve found evidence that beer predates bread by as much as 3,000 years and that it was the desire to harvest barley that compelled our ancestors to settle in one place. This in turn led to the invention of many things we still rely on today from the plough (to help break ground easily), irrigation (to help water the important crops) and the wheel (to help transport the harvest). In fact Mesopotamia – one of the earliest civilisation - was build around the demand for beer.
If that wasn’t enough, beer, the boffins claimed, was responsible for writing and maths. Again, the initial reaction to this bold statement from most people will probably be along the lines of “OK, pal, I think we’ll make this your last one. You’ve had enough.”
Some early dictionaries had as many as 167 words for beer – that’s more than the Inuits have for snow.
But they were adamant: Maths and writing were needed to record the “production and distribution of commodities like beer”. Ah, “commodities like beer.” This was the programme’s one weakness: at times listening to these guys you could be forgiven for thinking that mankind neither eat nor drank anything other than beer – that we thrived and survived on the amber nectar alone.
Clearly that’s not true but they did make a compelling case for a wholesale reappraisal of its place and importance in our history. For example, some early dictionaries (or word lists as they were called) had as many as 167 words for beer – that’s more than the Inuits have for snow (and just think how many words we still have for getting drunk, bladdered or shit-faced). On a more artistic note, the world’s oldest poem is the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi. Ninkasi being their goddess of beer and the poem, predictably, being a recipe for the drink.
It wasn’t just the Sumerians and Mesopotamians who enjoyed the odd glass of cerveza. The Egyptians were also big boozers. Ra wasn’t just the God of life and love, but beer too – a pretty neat combination.
The labourers who built the pyramid of Giza received seven pints of beer a day in payment, making the total bill for that job, 1,489,199,995 pints. For the Egyptians it was not just a form of currency but a staple food (school boys would drink a bowl for breakfast producing, I guess, a different kind of Ready Brek glow) and beer was also used to treat illnesses.
In the last few years researchers found the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline (which was only ‘discovered’ in 1948) in the bones of Egyptian mummies. After some more research they found the only place this could have come from was the beer drunk at the time. In fact fast forward a few thousand years and beer was the basis of modern medicine too.
Louis Pasteur wasn’t studying milk when he discovered bacteria, he was studying… yup, you guessed it, beer. He was trying to work out why it sometimes spoiled and he figured that if the little buggers could make beer sick, they could maybe make people sick too. This was basis for germ theory and led to doctors doing simple things like washing their hands between the autopsy room and the maternity ward. Infections dropped and not for the first time, beer had saved millions of lives. Sort of.
Before they dumped tea in to Boston harbour, The Sons of Liberty had met at the Green Dragon Tavern for a few pints. Perhaps they should be renamed The Lads on the Lash.
It had already pulled off the same trick in Medieval Europe. Back then water was too dangerous to drink but the brewing process removed the harmful organisms. Again, beer saved millions of lives. (Okay, it was the boiling of the water as part of that process which was the key, but the Medieval brewers didn’t know that and, well, any excuse for a few pints, right?)
By the 16th Century, the average annual consumption of beer in Britain was 530 pints for every man, woman and child – three times the amount we drink today. Monks were the original master brewers and the church became rich on the back of their skill then as entrepreneurs took over, beer spearheaded the creation of trade, commerce, banking and finance (forgetting all the other stuff that used to be traded as well).
By now, it probably goes without saying that beer was responsible for the creation of the United States of America. It sustained The Pilgrims through their journey on the Mayflower and the Boston Tea Party was more of a piss up. Before they dumped tea in to Boston harbour, The Sons of Liberty had met at the Green Dragon Tavern for a few pints. Perhaps they should be renamed The Lads on the Lash.
Beer’s influence on technology continued unabated into the 20th Century. It gave us refrigeration after the brewing industry financed research into the process to keep lager chilled and it revolutionised industry when Michael Owens built the first automated production line to make beer bottles in 1904 – some 10 years before Henry Ford took the credit with his cars (as Ford said: “History is bunk’).
Such is it’s influence, Smith, again, went as far as to suggest we should construct a new timeline for the history of the world, not centred on the birth of Christ but on the creation of beer – BB (Before Beer) and AB (after Beer) if you will.
Beer gets a bad press. It’s regularly blamed for many of society’s ills but the reality is that society as we know it is, in large part at least, only here because of it. So, next time anyone tells you how evil beer is, remind them that some of the best ideas come when you’re rat-arsed.
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