The term ‘beer‘ in English is derived from the Latin ‘bibere’ (via German bier) meaning ‘to drink.’ Similarly, the Spanish word for beer, ‘cerveza ‘ has its roots in the Latin ‘cerevisia’ signifying ‘of beer.’ This linguistic connection offers a glimpse into the extensive timeline of human enjoyment of this intoxicating beverage.
Despite the association with the Romans, beer brewing predates their era by thousands of years. The Chinese had their version but credit for the most popular beer goes to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, likely starting over 10,000 years ago. The archaeological site of Godin Tepe in modern-day Iran, provides evidence of beer brewing around 3500 BCE. However, findings in Sumer suggest an even earlier date, with some scholars placing it around 4000 BCE.
Moving to Egypt, the craft of beer brewing arrived through trade and the Egyptians enhanced the original process by creating a lighter and widely popular product. Despite awareness of beer in Greek and Roman cultures, it never gained the same traction, as wine remained their preference, viewing beer as a “barbarian” drink. The Germans, labeled as “barbarians” perfected brewing and shaped the beer we recognize today.
The First Beer in the World
The ancient Chinese pioneered beer around 7000 BCE, while Mesopotamia, specifically the Godin Tepe settlement, witnessed beer brewing between 3500 – 3100 BCE. Some evidence even suggests a much earlier date, around 10,000 BCE, coinciding with the development of agriculture in the region.
Beer in Mesopotamia was not just a beverage but a daily dietary staple. The Sumerians had various words for beer, including sikaru, dida, and ebir with the belief that it was a gift from the gods for human happiness and well-being. Initially brewed by women priestesses of Ninkasi, beer later became a commercialized product as seen in the Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur in 2050 BCE.
Under Babylonian rule, beer production expanded, became more commercialized, and was regulated by laws, as evident in paragraphs 108-110 of the Code of Hammurabi. Beer became a regular commodity in foreign trade especially with Egypt.
Beer in Ancient Egypt
In Egypt, the goddess of beer was Tenenit closely associated with Meskhenet, the goddess of childbirth. The most popular beer, Heqet was honey-flavored and beer was used as compensation for labor provided three times a day to workers at the Giza plateau. The Egyptians believed brewing was a gift from the god Osiris.
Beer played a vital role in the myth of the birth of the goddess Hathor. The association between gratitude, Hathor, and beer is emphasized in inscriptions from 2200 BCE found at Dendera. Beer was so integral to Egyptian life that even Queen Cleopatra implemented a beer tax losing popularity for it.
Beer in Ancient Greece and Rome
Beer brewing traveled from Egypt to Greece but it did not find the same acceptance. The Greeks and Romans favored strong wine, considering beer a low-class drink of barbarians. Despite this, the Romans were brewing beer early as seen in the tomb of a beer brewer and merchant in ancient Treveris.
Beer in Northern Europe
In northern Europe, particularly Germany, beer brewing began around 800 BCE. Initially a craft of women brewing became integral to Monastic life and the German Reinheitsgebot (purity law) in 1516 regulated beer ingredients. Beer was considered a necessary staple, and daily beer rations were instituted.
From Celtic lands, beer brewing spread across Europe, following the principles set by the Sumerians. Even in the Finnish Saga of Kalewala, beer’s creation is highlighted, emphasizing its magical qualities.
Throughout history, from Mesopotamia to the present day beer has been more than just a beverage. It has been a cultural, social and even magical brew connecting people across civilizations and ages.”