Of all the differences humanity can’t quite overcome, there are many things every culture has in common. And perhaps the largest and most over-arching love of the people is found in alcohol. For centuries human beings have been shedding their cares one drink at a time and coming together in ways mysterious and unsought-for.
But what most do not realize is just how closely our society’s evolution is linked with that of the development and distribution of beer. Archaeologists have always marveled at how long we have been a civilization of drinkers, but only in recent years have scientists truly attempted to unravel the threads of history, and they have made some shocking discoveries.
The ideas are fully expressed in a documentary that recently premiered on the Discovery Channel titled “How Beer Saved the World.” Collecting research and opinions of numerous schooled thinkers, the film sheds light on a number of landmark marvels in human technology such as agriculture, mathematics and language, and reveals exactly how they came to be.
According to the film, scientists believe ancient cultures discovered alcohol by accident, when rainwater-soaked collected barley fermented naturally and one brave soul attempted to drink the concoction.
Discovering residue of the plant on ancient pottery, as well as the symbol for beer appearing over 160 times in the “Word Lists”—the oldest known recovered ancient texts of cuneiform—the academic consensus is that beer has been around for a long time, and it was the curiosity and ingenuity to better the brewing tradition that spawned massive changes for society.
The agricultural revolution was a major event for the hunter-gatherer human being, and it actually may have come about because of a boom in beer development. Mathematics came about as farmers chart and border their fields. Even language evolved as a means to pass on brewing traditions.
Springfield itself is home to a number of craft breweries that have maintained success in a city that loves to drink. Nathan Traw is a Missouri State graduate and the quality lead in the labs at Mother’s Brewery at 215 S. Grant Ave.
The little operation has been up and running just over eight months and has already experienced enormous support from the local community. Traw said “How Beer Saved the World” is something anyone with a curiosity for beer should experience.
“It serves as a good overview because a lot of people forget that water was unsafe to drink whenever we were forming civilizations and coming together,” Traw said. “What’s interesting is that the documentary talks about how beer sprang up on every continent way before the wheel, or any real grasp of civilization.”
In the documentary, Charlie Bumforth, professor of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and his team address a very interesting idea: that rancid water polluted by sewage in medieval Europe was used to make beer—with intent of water purification, turning undrinkable water (in a time when water itself was hard to come by) into delicious, hydrating beer.
The film also brings to light Louie Pasteur’s pioneering of pasteurization, and how his simple theories on bacteria spoiling his beer spurned the germ theory, and the beginnings of modern medicine.
“What’s interesting is, as archaeologists find out more about past civilizations, they think that beer came before language, and language came about in order to pass along the knowledge of making beer,” Traw said. “It’s not because everyone was a big alcoholic or big partier; it was more about making water safe to drink.”
According to Traw, beer is traditionally made with four main ingredients: water, barley, malt and hops. He said Mother’s has been very interested in beer research and the development of new and interesting brews.
Johnathon Hoskins is a junior at Missouri State studying chemistry. He recently inquired with Mother’s about an internship opportunity and was instead handed a project: careful recreation of ancient Egyptian beer recipes to determine just how it compared nutritionally to brews of today.
“One of the main goals behind the project is to really dig into the ancient Egyptian diet—which beer was a huge part of—by testing the different metal contents of their beer with atomic absorption spectroscopy,” Hoskins said. “If we can figure out how beer influenced their diet, and maybe even figure out if there were greater health benefits with the kinds of beer they consumed than what we do now.
“As far as inspiration goes, I really just wanted to get into the brewing industry,” Hoskins continued. “It was a matter of luck and convenience that Mother’s had come to Springfield in the past few years, and that they are expanding their research interests. They don’t have a chemistry major working there right now, so I believe I have a lot I could bring to the table.”
Traw said it is a healthy mixture of curiosity and genuine health concern that fuels this research, but if they can bottle a healthier beer they will jump at the opportunity.
“Beer is actually very healthy for you. First, it’s the only alcoholic beverage that actually hydrates you because it’s 95 percent water,” Traw said. “We’re starting with Egyptian beer. They didn’t create the first beer, but they may have developed the first malting techniques, which made the sugars in the barley more susceptible to yeast. It allowed beer to ferment more faster and thoroughly. They could also achieve a higher alcohol by volume (ABV) content. The average beer that the average person would have drank would be between 2 and 3 percent.
“Alcohol in low amounts is very good for you,” Traw continued. “There’s obviously some mental effects—decrease in stress and anxiety, a happy, euphoric feeling, but it also thins your blood and allows blood to flow easier through your vessels. The perfect serving is a half pint a day. For men you want two or three of those servings, women will only need one. “
But Traw said the health benefits don’t stop at blood thinning. He said the misconception about the nutrition of beer is one of the biggest mistakes society has made.
“Beer has lots of B vitamins and lots of antioxidants,” Traw said. “In a perfect world, the more beer you drink the younger you’d get because oxidants are one of the leading factors in aging. There’s also a lot of silicon in beer. Silicon has actually been caused to reverse osteoporosis and increase bone density, so it’s recommended that older women drink more beer. Beer also has a high amount of calcium and magnesium. It actually has more potassium and a lot less sodium than a sports drink.
“I think we’ve had it beat in our heads since prohibition that alcohol is unhealthy for you, but I think that we forget that we’ve been drinking beer for around 10,000 years, so we’ve adapted to tolerate high amounts of alcohol—to a degree. If you can stick to the recommended serving of alcohol per day, beer is by far the healthiest drink out there.”
Ultimately, Traw joins the list of minds who truly believe we would live in a much different world without this beloved beverage.
“I don’t think we would be where we are today without beer,” he said. “I think eventually we would have formed cities, and farming communities and things like that but I think it would have delayed us. I think we would have been a hunter-gatherer society for a lot longer.”
Traw said one of the most important things to keep in mind with alcohol has always been moderation and knowing when you’ve had too much to drink.
“Moderation is a double-edged sword,” he said. “Everybody loves to get drunk. If you’re going to go over moderation I recommend it in a group setting. Open, pour, drink, smile. Have a good love of beer and you’ll have a good love of people.”