BEERology: How Beer Changed The World (sort of)

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Serious beer drinkers might complain about the rice and corn fillers in mass-market domestic products like Budweiser and PBR. But what if the problem isn’t the grains themselves but, rather, some missing ingredients like spit and mold?

From now through next summer, the San Diego Museum of Man is hosting a special exhibit titled BEERology, which traces the impact of beer on human civilization, from beer’s introduction more than 10,000 years ago, to today. Throughout that span, beer has prompted the cultivation of crops, served as payment for hard labor, and literally nourished entire cultures.

And while craft beer lovers today may dismiss common fillers like corn, the earliest known beers were made from other crops like corn, rice, millet or cassava. The exhibit’s lead sponsor, in fact, Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, makes a rice beer called Chateau Jiahu based on residue found on 9,000-year-old pottery shards from northern China.

Archaeologists believe the ancient Chinese used mold to accomplish in rice what happens naturally when wheat and barley sprout: Enzymes break down the starches into sugars, or malts, that can then be fermented by yeast.

“That’s how sake is made,” says the museum’s associate director, Rex Garniewicz, a homebrewer and anthropologist who curated the exhibit. “We call it a ‘rice wine,’ but sake is actually a beer. Its grains are converted to sugars then fermented by yeast.”

In South America, the Incas malted their corn kernels by chewing them and spitting them into water. The malty liquid, before fermentation, is called wort.

“The same enzyme that’s in sprouting barley, amylase, is also in saliva,” Garniewicz says. “Corn doesn’t produce a lot of enzymes when it sprouts. In mass-market beers, it’s used as a cheaper alternative to wheat and barley, and it doesn’t have a lot of flavor. These Inca beers probably had a lot of flavor.”

Garniewicz thinks modern brewers can learn something from these ancient techniques. Hop snobs might dominate the craft-beer conversation, but Garniewicz says brewers have to keep outdoing one another with more and more bitter flavors because IPA drinkers have become desensitized so that only the strongest hops will get their attention.

“It’s a developed taste, so when you’re exposed to it, you like hoppier and hoppier beers,” he says. “The hop flavor tends to overpower a lot of the other more subtle flavors in beers.

Ninth-century monks introduced hops into the brewing process as a preservative, because they needed to brew and store a lot of beer, not only for their own nutrition but also as a sanitary source of drinking water for thirsty travelers. Beer has never been the same since, but the BEERology exhibit shows how good beer doesn’t have to be highly hopped. Before the monastic innovation, our ancestors used mixes of herbs called gruit to flavor their beers. The shard residue mimicked by Dogfish Head had traces of what archaeologists think was honey and hawthorn berries.

“These ancient beers are delicious,” Garniewicz says. “Some of them are unlike anything that we would consider a beer today.”

The earliest known cooking recipe for any food or drink is a set of beer-brewing instructions found on a 3,000-year-old Sumerian cuneiform tablet.

“You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort, brewing it with honey and wine,” it reads. “You bring the sweet wort to the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound. When you pour the filtered beer from the collector vat, it is like the onrush of the Tigris and Euphrates.”

Garniewicz himself has brewed a Sumerian barley-based beer. “It actually comes out to be a really earthy and sweet beer, and so it doesn’t have any of that sharp and bitter hop flavor.”

One thing that might be disappointing to the modern craft-beer drinker: Ancient beers only had 3- to 4-percent alcohol content.

“People were consuming large quantities of them instead of drinking water,” Garniewicz explains. Even today, the headhunting Shuar in the Amazon basin consume most of their calories from beer made from the cassava root, which is where tapioca pudding comes from. Adult men drink three to four gallons a day.

“In the Amazon, cassava is the savior that protects against starvation,” according to exhibit materials. “Containing 10 times as much starch by weight as corn, it is the richest source of starch in any plant on earth. The bad news is the entire plant is poisonous if consumed raw. It contains a compound that turns into cyanide when consumed — even a small amount is fatal. Once the cyanide precursor is carefully leached out with water, or destroyed by boiling, cassava provides nourishment for over half a billion people. It is actually the third-largest source of carbohydrates in the world.”

“It really is a source of nutrition and hydration,” Garniewicz says. “A lot of people think the Pyramids were built by slaves, but they were actually built by paid workers, and they were paid in beer.”

Garniewicz says many ancient beers weren’t filtered like today’s drinks, so much of the solid grain remained, forming something like a watery, fermented oatmeal. Beer helped ancient people live, not only through nutrition but also through natural antibiotics. Mummified bones show evidence of tetracycline, a bacteria commonly used in modern medicine and also found in Egypt’s early beers.

“Ancient Egyptians consumed the same amount of tetracycline as you’d get in a prescription now,” says Garniewicz. “They didn’t know what to call it, but they knew to drink beer.”

The Beerology exhibit runs through summer 2014. Special tasting events are scheduled for Jan. 16, March 20 and July 19. For more information, visit Museum of Man.

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