Home Brewing in the Stone Age

Beer is an ancient drink. Ever changing, the beers of today differ greatly in variety, yet all have their roots in the infusion of barley into water.

Stone Age Brewing
Source: HomeBrewing.com Archives

Many recipes from ancient times still linger to this day, passed down on chiseled tablet, dusty scroll, and even lab analysis of archaeological finds. The evidence is clear that beer has been made in biblical times, ancient Egypt, and even Sumer. It is quite possible that beer is even more ancient than these finds. The beers of the Ancients were much different that the beers of today, however. To understand the Beers of the Ancients, we must look at how beer technology has changed.

The beers of the ancients were, in the terms of today, "Real Ale". "Real Ales" are beers that are served without pasteurization, without chilling, and with natural carbonation (beer au natural). Such beers are rare indeed in today's world of refrigeration and automation - and in many states, serving such a beer could be considered illegal. Most "beer" you see in the store today is a far cry from a "Real Ale". Almost all commercially produced ales are dead - they have been pasteurized, meaning the yeast that is part of them has been killed through a rapid heating and cooling process. This leaves the beer slightly changed. Proper aging is much more difficult to effect if a beer is pasteurized.

The most ancient of beers also differ in their ingredients. Over the centuries, as agriculture has bred more and more selectively, the life and taste of many plants has changed dramatically. Ancient beers, for one thing, were made with all organic ingredients. More and more beer drinkers and home brewers are finding that the exclusive use of organic barley, hops, wheat, and other admixtures create a beer with a wholesome, fuller body and taste. See article: An Argument for Organic Beer for more information on this topic.

Another one of the most important changes was the addition of hops to beer. That's right - beer was not always made with hops. There is evidence that the some of the oldest ales were made from barley, rye, or wheat based breads! The 3,800 year old clay tablet containing the Hymn to Ninkasi recorded a recipe for beer using such.

Herodotus, the so-called "father of history" (also the "Father of lies", wrote about Egyptian beer around 500 B.C., and it is likely that through his tale-telling the invention of beer spread like wildfire.

The mash, the conversion of starch to sugar, is a secret that has transformed barley tea into beer throughout history. The enzyme conversion is a glorious, beautiful process whereby the new life of the sprouted grain is harvested and that energy is funneled into the process of beer production. This is one process that has stayed with the brewmaster over the centuries, and the timing and temperature control over the proto-beer (or wort) is a skill that has been passed down through many hands.

Beer has not only been found in the histories of western and European culture. The histories of Peru, Chile, and other Latin-American regions have provided evidence of beer production and consumption there as well. Some indigenous people of Chile have, in fact, an age-old tradition of burying their dead with a jug of beer or chicha (a kind of corn based beer), and in Peru, it has been proven that grain fermentation happened even before the arrival of European conquerors.

We can see that beer has a long shadow in history, that beer production has been a crux of human existence from way back in ancient times. Let us celebrate the evolution of beer with respect for the beers of the ancient age. There are many breweries that replicate recipes from the 1500's, or eve earlier - traditional beers that have withstood the test of time. Remember to enjoy these tastes of the past while they are available in this Golden Age of Micro Brews.