Six brew-lliant things you didn’t know about beer

Beer has a very long history, and appears in many ancient cultures across the globe.

But did you know its past is brewing with witches and bear spit? Here are six things you didn't know about the history of beer.

Beer was originally a woman-only drink

While brewing has been a male-dominated industry for 150 years, the first grog (alcoholic beverage) was invented by women. The earliest evidence of brewing comes from pottery dated around 7000 B.C., though beer is suspected to be much older, possibly dating as far back as 10,000 B.C. The pottery shows how women in neolithic settlements would mix honey mead with rice, grapes and hawthorn fruit to create a beer-wine mix - and men were not permitted to drink it, or even set foot in the brewing temples. The fermentation process of this time is still a mystery, though the theory is that the brewmasters chewed the rice to get it started - as some sake brewers still do today.

A close up of the hawthorn flower
As hawthorn is a medicinal flower, these early brewing temples may have been akin to apothecaries.

Egyptians invented the beer trade

Quite literally; it’s thought that alcoholic beverages were used as salary for labour in ancient Egypt. The ruins of Hierakonpolis show evidence of the first brewery, and alcohol was used for offerings to the gods, in funerary rituals and even as medicine. It was drank by all classes for leisure, but was also nutritionally important as it was more drinkable than the water.

It’s the oldest written recipe in the world

An ancient Sumerian tablet from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) depicts the Hymn to Ninaski, the ‘female deity’ that watched over brewing houses. The hymn is also a recipe for Mesopotamian beer, using bippar - a bread made from twice-baked barley which is then fermented. Similar legends are recorded on tablets from ancient Egyptian, Incan, Aztec, Mayan and Tanzanian societies. The process of brewing beer remained mostly unchanged thanks to sources such as the Hymn to Ninaski, though each culture had their own spin on the recipe.

A silhouette of a witch with a pointy hat with a cat by her feet
Hop and bubble, toil and trouble - but which craft is witchcraft?

It was once a witch’s craft

Over the 16th and 17th centuries, women were pushed out of brewing as it became associated with witchery. However, they were still involved with the selling of beer in a profession known as ‘alewives’. Widowers were permitted to brew beer as well as sell it, but alewives in general were depicted as frightening-looking and were accused of cheating their customers by watering down the brew. Alewives in northern England kept ale-houses or public-houses (pubs) and wore distinguished hats so people could identify them as sellers. Cats were kept in alehouses to chase away mice in the maize stores - this might be where the image of a witch with a pointy hat, a broomstick and a feline familiar comes from!

Some people took the recipe to their graves…

Once the use of hops in beer caught on in the rest of the world, its shelf-life was lengthened considerably. Not only was this great for brewers, but it helps us study it today: A Nordic bronze-age girl, whose grave was discovered in Egtved in 1921, was buried with a bucket of perfectly-preserved grog. The grog revealed that the people of this tribe made their beer from cranberries, lingonberries and herbs such as bog myrtle on top of the honey and wheat base. Finnish graves showed us evidence of an old-school beer known as Sahti, made of hops, juniper twigs, barley and rye, which was then malted and smoked in saunas - and legend tells that it used to be fermented using bear saliva.

…but the original still hasn’t been canned

Following the invention of the beer can in post-prohibition America in 1935, cheap beer was more accessible and the commercial brewing industry boomed. You would think this would render the ancient methods a thing of the past, but actually the opposite is true: of the estimated 19,000 breweries in the world, 94% are craft breweries. While the types of beer available have certainly diversified, the Mesopotamian core of water, yeast, barley and hops remains largely unchanged since the beginning of history.

A pint of beer
Cool story, brew.
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