You’d be surprised – beer is responsible for scientific discoveries, breakthroughs in modern medicine and perhaps the very start of civilization itself...
The way humans lived their lives began to change quite radically about 12,000 years ago – and some scientists believe that the shift was largely down to beer.
For hundreds of thousands of years, early humans had been hunter-gatherer nomads, living off the lands they passed through. Then, in what is today the Middle East, these nomads stopped wandering, and instead of gathering grains as they found them in the wilderness, started cultivating them and protecting the crops as they grew.
Permanent camps were established near to the crops and this ‘Neolithic revolution’ was the beginning of organized agriculture that eventually led to roads, cities and the rise of states – in other words, civilization. But what made the nomads settle down over time and become farmers? The answer, according to some archaeologists, is beer.
Professor Patrick McGovern, a bio-archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is convinced: “The reason [wild barley] was domesticated in 9,000 BC is they were using it to make beer.”
Why? One factor is ancient beer’s high nutritional value at a time when getting enough food was, literally, a matter of life or death. Along with providing valuable carbohydrates, vitamins and antioxidants, beer’s fermentation process boosted levels of nutrients such as essential amino acids, decreased harmful compounds, and improved storage qualities.
Beer was a prized commodity. And it was a crucial part of ancient economies. One of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform script, had scores of symbols relating to beer such as types of beer, beer vessels, beer production, beer as wages, beer as reward and entitlement to beer. The Egyptian workers who toiled to build the pyramids were paid with large quantities of beer, although it seems likely that the beer had the consistency of soup, rather than being the clear liquid that we enjoy today.
During Europe’s Middle Ages, the standard drink in all but the poorest households was ‘small’ beer, a low-alcohol homebrew that was drunk even by children as an alternative to water, which was often far from clean. Even low levels of alcohol kill off most water-borne pathogens and so beer helped keep our mediaeval ancestors alive.
Beer, and brewing in general, has also provided the catalyst for many scientific advances.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur’s studies into what caused beer and wine to spoil led him to identify bacteria, a previously unknown microscopic life form. His ground-breaking book, Études sur la Bière (Studies in beer), published in 1876 and rapidly translated into English, transformed the beer industry. Pasteur’s work in this area led to the germ theory of modern medicine, and thus beer shares the credit for saving many millions of lives every year.
Other beer-powered scientific discoveries include the pH scale of acidity, devised in 1909 by Danish brewing chemist S. P. L. Sørensen as he researched proteins and enzymes, and the T-test, which allows researchers to compare differences between sets of data, invented in 1908 by chemist William Gosset to speed up his work in assessing the quality of stout.
But the benefits bestowed by beer upon humanity are not limited to science.
How about the revolution in factory productivity that created low-cost, mass-produced goods? We’re not talking about Henry Ford, because his work on assembly lines came a decade later; instead, step forward Michael Owens, the inventor in the USA in 1903 of the Automatic Bottle Machine that revolutionized America’s glass industry with its prodigious production rate of 240 bottles a minute. And what sort of bottles did it turn out? Beer bottles, of course.
So, beer is revealed as a guiding light for medicine, industry, science and perhaps even the birth of civilization. Maybe the wheel should roll aside in favor of a new contender for best invention ever.