Beer is made from water, malt, hops and yeast. It's also made from magnitude, significance, and consequence. Of all alcoholic drinks beer has arguably had the most impact on human culture and history. For thousands of years, beer was a staple of the diet, brewed by women at home for all members of the family including children. It was a safe source of drinking water, supplied valuable nutrition, and the lactobacillus acidophilus it contained strengthened the immune system. Beer drinkers were vigorous and resilient and nature rewards such specimens by making them more attractive to potential sexual partners. Humans had discovered the magical elixir that fed, watered, fortified, gave them a really good social life, and a new phrase in the lexicon - beer goggles.
The earliest evidence of barley beer was discovered as residue on clay pots in what is now Iran dating to circa 3500 BCE. In Iraq archaeologists unearthed even older clay seals depicting people drinking what is assumed to be beer. This region was known as the Fertile Crescent, birthplace of agriculture. There is a theory that the desire to stay in one place to grow cereal for brewing beer changed humans from being nomads to living in settlements with other people. This led to the birth of civilization and the associated rules and organization of society such as a legal system, politics, commerce, taxation.
Beer tastes better when consumed in company. It is the most convivial of all drinks. Images of people gathered round huge jars and using straws to sip the beer adorn clay seals dating back to 3850 BCE. Beer was the reason drinking straws were first employed and they were an essential accessory in life and death. Mesopotamian Queen Pu-Abi was buried (circa 2600 BCE) with her gold and lapis lazuli straw so she could have a drink in the afterlife.
To paraphrase the saying, the devil may have the best tunes, but beer has the best stories. There are countless 'well I never knew that about beer' facts. These are some of the significant or consequential beer related stories related to British history.
• In Scotland the Roman occupiers were unable to vanquish the pugnacious Picts - not least because the natives went into battle intoxicated by heather ale. It made them fearless. Centuries later, heather ale would be distilled into whisky leading to an industry that underpins the Scottish economy.
• After the Normans invaded England in 1066 they were victorious in battle of Hastings. The night before the clash the English forces were carousing on ale as their opponents spent the evening soberly praying. England's hungover army was decimated. How different would the UK and the English language (a big percentage derives from French) have been if King Harold's troops had laid off the beer and beaten the invaders?
• When the Mayflower Pilgrims heading to the New World in 1620 ran out of beer the ship made landfall at Plymouth Rock in search of supplies. There were none. Rather than continue the journey south to their original destination at the mouth of the Hudson river they settled and created Massachusetts colony.
• In 1788 the First Fleet to Australia left England. It consisted of dozens of ships carrying convicts, and their keepers. They had one year's supply of food and two year's supply of porter (dark) beer. Priorities. How significant was the nutrition and safe source of drinking water bestowed by the beer a factor in the survival of the colonists in an inhospitable land?
• Passengers traveling on Eurostar trains from London St Pancras are most likely unaware that the dimensions of the departure lounge were dictated by the size of a beer barrel. The undercroft was designed to the inch to accommodate the millions of barrels of beer that would, over decades, arrive into London by train from the brewing town of Burton-upon-Trent to be stored before being distributed to pubs.
• Even the English language is soaked in beer references. Taken down a peg or two, getting off scot free, gone for a Burton, grist for the mill, mind your Ps & Qs, the words bridal and yuletide are just a few.
Next time you have a beer raise the glass and remember the extraordinary role beer has played in the story of humankind.