Beer: NOT the oldest drink in the world

Finding factual errors in Wikipedia is, of course, easier than machine-gunning a cask full of cod, and I’ve done it here before. I can’t stand reading Wikipedia’s pages on beer, since I constantly think: “No, that’s wrong … no, that’s not quite right … no, that’s a misinterpretation …”. What particularly gets me shouting at the computer screen is statements that two seconds’ critical thought would show can’t possibly be true: like the assertion in the opening words in Wikipedia’s main article on beer that “Beer is the world’s oldest … alcoholic beverage”, a claim that is repeated in the “alcoholic beverage” article.

The “beer” article justifies this claim by citing in a footnote the book by the German-American author John Arnold with the lengthy title Origin and History of Beer and Brewing: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science and Technology, written in 1911. Arnold wrote one of my favourite beer quotations, about the study of the history of beer, “the people’s beverage”, being the study of the history of the people. My copy of the reprint of his book by the guys at Beerbooks.com is a long way from where I’m writing this, so I can’t currently check exactly what he said. But if Arnold did say beer is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, he was writing (excuse the Britishism) bollocks.

Think. Beer is not a simple drink to make. To get the sugars that the yeast will turn into alcohol, the starches in grain must be converted by enzymic reactions to sugar. If this is done by malting, that is, soaking grains and then letting them begin to grow, the malting process must be controlled and growth halted before the sprouting grains consume all the sugars they are making from their starch. Human intervention and control is effectively essential. Beer – alcohol derived from grains – does not happen in the wild, because the conditions to make beer do not occur in the wild.

However, alcohol is most certainly produced in the wild using other sources of natural sugar: this is what yeast, opportunistic scavengers of sources of energy, evolved to do. Ripe fruit can, and will, ferment spontaneously as yeast arrive to grab the sugar in the fruit and flood the surroundings with alcohol to keep their rivals away. The story of elephants getting drunk on over-ripe and fermenting fruit may be a jungle myth. But if you walk through an untended apple orchard in the autumn, after the apples have fallen from the trees and been lying on the ground, the scent of cider will envelop you, as yeasts attack the rotting fruit. Right now, I’m in a Middle Eastern city where thousands of date palms line every road, and in the evening the strong smell of vinegar is on the warm air: this is because dates that have fallen to the ground have fermented, and then gone on to the next stage, where alcohol is converted by specialist bacteria into acetic acid.

We can thus trump Arnold’s claim about the antiquity of beer with a quotation from a book called Fermented food beverages in nutrition, by Gastineau, Darby and Turner, written in 1979, that “Fruit wines were probably discovered as soon as man tried to collect and store sweet fruits and berries.” Fermentation of the juice that runs free from grapes simply piled on top of each other is the basis of the Hungarian wine Tokay Eszencia. Ripe dates soaked in water were used to make a sweet drink in Arabia, and if left for even a day the sugary date water would ferment to make a drink called fadikh, which an Arabian traveller called Yūsuf ibn Ya’qūb Ibn al Mujāwir found still being made in the 13th century.

I’d suggest humanity, which has been gathering and eating fruit since before it was humanity, and making baskets and preparing gourds and baskets to store things in for, at the least, tens of thousands of years, discovered fruit wine a very long time before it found out how to make beer. The kit needed to make fermented fruit drinks is very simple, and certainly within the capabilities of palaeolithic (that is, pre-agriculture) people. To make jackfruit wine in India, “earthen pots, wooden vessels, bamboo baskets and sieves, stone slabs and flat stones are the only equipment used in traditional procedures” (Handbook of indigenous fermented foods by Keith Steinkraus). Substitute gourds for earthenware pots, and Bob’s your jackfruit.

Be</ins>ar and honey

‘This watery hunny is making me *hic* feel funny’

Fruit is not the only source of natural sugar that will turn into alcohol without any help from anything except wild yeasts. Honey will ferment naturally, under the right conditions, particularly when diluted. Don and Patricia Brothwell, who wrote Food in Antiquity in 1969, said rather censoriously: “It is sobering to consider that the neglected jar of fruit juice or pulp, or the half-empty honey-pot left out in the rain, set man along the road to alcoholism and the illicit still.” (Lighten up, guys – it didn’t happen to Winnie-the-Pooh …)

Palm sap contains 12 to 15 per cent sucrose, is very easily tapped by cutting off the palm flower and putting a container such as a gourd underneath the resultant stump, and will ferment in 24 hours to give an alcohol content of around five per cent or more. This is the drink known as palm wine or toddy, and it is consumed wherever palm trees grow, from South America through Africa and the Indian sub-continent to Indonesia. Again, the technology for making palm wine was available to palaeolithic peoples. Similar sorts of drink are pulque, from Mexico, made from sugary cactus juice, and spruce beer, made from the sap of spruce trees.

Milk – horse’s milk, camel milk, yak milk, even cow’s and sheep milk – will also ferment under the right conditions, resulting in drinks such as koumiss and shabat in Central Asia and khoormog in Mongolia. However, these drinks (which don’t get much above around two per cent alcohol) must have had to wait until after the domestication of animals to be discovered, and thus are going to be younger than beer, since it is generally agreed that agriculture came before animal husbandry. I tried some koumiss at a party a couple of weeks ago, which one of the IT guys at the place where I am working had brought back from Kyrgyzstan (they’re like that, IT guys), where it is sold in plastic bottles in supermarkets, apparently. The mare’s koumiss was white and fizzy, the camel’s brown as chocolate milk shake, if I remember correctly (I’d had several beers by the time it was revealed that there was koumiss in the fridge, and I wasn’t taking notes), and both were tart and sour: an interesting experience, but one I won’t be catching the next flight to Kyrgyzstan to repeat.

There is also a method of making alcohol from starchy foods without malting, available to every human being, and which is the basis of drinks such as chicha in the Andes regions of South America. Human saliva contains amylases that will hydrolyse starch into sugar, something we evolved early in our history to help us eat starchy foods. You can test this yourself by chewing some bread, or a cracker: do it long enough, and as the starch is broken down, you can taste what is in your mouth getting sweeter. Traditionally, chicha is made by grinding dried maize kernels, then slightly moistening the flour and making it into balls which are popped into the mouth and thoroughly mixed with saliva, using the tongue. The ball of salivated maize flour, called muko, is then flattened against the roof of the mouth, popped out, and left in the sun to dry. According to Keith Steinkraus, “Muko production is generally carried out as a social event by groups of older women, sometimes with the help of young girls, who all sit in a circle.”

The wonder of enzymes means that when you’re ready to make chicha, the muko can be added to more ground corn mixed with water, and the saliva amylases will now work on the new starches. Heat this mixture for 20 minutes to give the enzymes the maximum chance to convert starches to sugars, strain it, boil it to kill any unwanted bugs, let it cool and then either let wild yeasts in the air ferment it, or add a source of yeast: berries will do, since these will almost certainly have yeasts on their skins. Eventually the vessel you use to ferment the chicha in will build up its own colony of yeasts that will do the job every time. Similar drinks can be made from other sources of starch, such as cassava, and even (in Mozambique) yucca plants. (Don’t try that one at home …)

One important point about chicha: I’ve never seen the possibility discussed that something like it was one of the roads that led to barley beer brewing in the ancient Middle East, but it seems to me entirely plausible that before they discovered malting, Neolithic brewers in the “Fertile Crescent” first made beer by utilising the power of saliva amylase, chewing barley flour to make barley muko. Mothers would have chewed starchy food to give to their babies as they weaned them, food which would have become sweet and more palateable to the baby as the enzymes in the mother’s saliva worked on the barley starches. Doubtless the busy mothers would have prepared some pre-chewed food in advance, which they would have dried to store, and then soaked before giving it to their young child. Yeasts falling on soaking sweet muko would have fermented the sugars quickly in the Middle Eastern heat, and beer is born …

But if beer was born that way, then it came when humanity already knew about alcohol. Beer isn’t the oldest alcoholic drink in the world, not even the second or third oldest. Instead, I’d suggest*, in order of age, the first fermented drinks were fruit-based, followed by honey-based drinks – mead and its variants – next fermented sweet tree-sap drinks such as palm wine, and only fourth, beer.

*Although I’d probably be wrong, it appears, about the order of the first two – see the comment below from Dr Garth Cambray of the Makana Meadery.

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28 thoughts on “Beer: NOT the oldest drink in the world

  1. Very interesting, and very logic, actually.

    Can it be that the first “beer” resulted out of a cereal porridge laced with ripe fruit that, either by accident or design, was left to ferment?

    If that is the case, then the theory that beer predates bread makes a lot of sense.

    It would also be interesting to know when malting got started.

    • PF, considering the number of “bread beers” there are still, such as sahti in Finland and kvass in Russia and the surrounding states, it’s my belief bread came first, with one of the routss to beer (and roots of beer) being “bread soup”. The yeast in undercooked bread would have survived the cooking, and if tere was any malted grain in the mix, the heat of the oven as the dough warmed up during baking could have encouraged enzymic activity to convert starch to sugar. Crumble the bread into water and …

      • The problem, maybe, is that we are speaking as if beer as “invented” by someone, somewhere (like the radio or the light bulb) and then spread from there, which I don’t think is the case.

        Bread is in a way more difficult to make than a porridge of broken grain, and not as nutritious, as I say above, they could have been laced with ripe fruit, or fermenting fruit squash.

      • I could find no button to leave a reply, perhaps because I’m not registered. Thanks for your informative site. I and my cousin play with beer and I gave him a copy of Michael Jackson’s New World Guide to Beer. Along with his book on distllled beer.

        The latest wiki entry on beer does not say, “Beer is the world’s oldest … alcoholic beverage…” as you said. It states “some” believe it is, and wiki gives sources. But I know that the earliest ancestors of man ate fermented marula fruit along with a bunch of “other” monkeys and elephants etc. I’m sure honey was in the mix as well. All this well over two million years ago. But beer could occur only with cultivation. So beer MAY be the oldest “cultivated” alcoholic beverage, coming before viniculture.

        • Well, you COULD make beer without cultivation, if you were gathering wild grin in the hills. So to that extent, beer is no different from any fruit wine, in that it doesn’t demand cultivation.

    • Knut – Yūsuf ibn Ya’qūb is literally the Arab version of Joseph Jacobson … a surprising number of Jewish names have Arab equivalents.

      • “a surprising number of Jewish names have Arab equivalents” Well, it helps when the two peoples are related geographically, linguisticaly, theologically and geneticaly.

        • “…and geneticaly.” Yeah, ya right. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael. Ishmael was the first born son of Abraham. Mohamad knew this.

  2. Pingback: Wine was world's first fermented drink - Zythophile - Indian Wine News and Messages

  3. Mead is actually the oldest as it happened before man.

    reply by Garth Cambray – Makana Meadery

    This is an excellent article, although I would have to disagree with the ranking of fermented fruits as the oldest alcoholic beverage.

    During research for my PhD we uncovered records of baobab trees in central African woodlands having swarms in them. This region has its honeyflow prior to the torrential spring rains, and hence, wild hives fill up holes in baobabs and anything else they can find. Then, the spring rains come and these are submerged, and ferment naturally into mead. San bushmen climb up these trees and drink this gift from the ancestors, as they view it. With up to 500 hives per square kilometer in certain areas, there is a high likelihood of finding such submerged hives each year.

    80 or so percent of all yeasts known on the planet have been isolated from flowers – not fruits. Bees collect nectar from flowers, and turn that into honey. Honey therefore contains the inactivated spores of more yeast varieties than any other sugar source on the planet – it is therefore not a surprise that the sugar tolerant yeast genus Saccharomyces are commonly found in beehives, where they can tolerate the high sugar concentrations.

    Wild fruits on the other hand are not ideal for alcohol making – they tend to have low sugar concentrations, and turn to vinegar – for example the marula, or the native north American grapes. Manking most probably learnt, with time, to add grains or fruits to honey solutions to extend the amount of mead which could be made – with time, we learnt to breed sweeter and sweeter grapes for example, so that, by Greek times only a little honey needed to be added to grape juice, and by the middle ages, none was needed.

    So, as with so many beliefs originating from Africa, the Ancestors, the Bees, may have invented alcohol for us.

    • Thank you for your kind words, and also (and even more so) for your fascinating facts: I had assumed that Saccharomyces-type yeasts had developed soon after fruits, to take advantage of fruit sugar, but from what you’re saying, they developed soon after flowers started using nectar to attract insects to help spread their pollen, with the yeasts stealing the sugary nectar for their own uses …

  4. Fascinating stuff! I hope the elephant thing isn’t a myth; it’s part of the elaborate chain of rationalizations for this hobby of mine.

    I recall fondly my friends’ and my ill-fated attempt to brew chicha. Definitely a bonding experience!

  5. I think it is most likely that honey wine was the first alcoholic drink. It is still made today by many African hunter gatherer societies for whom honey is a staple, and for whom honey wine holds a special religious status. Honey is collected from either wild or man made hives and collected into a pouch or calabash from where water may be added, and it will spontaneously ferment within a matter of hours, due to yeast present in the pouch or calabash.

    I think that is the key to the origins of alcohol – when humans began collecting foods and drink in natural containers such as animal skins or stomachs or gourds carved from fruit which naturally hold yeast and if left will start to ferment whatever they carry inside.

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      • I disagree. You don’t have to correct everything in the article, even a little helps. And it would have take a fraction of the time it took you to write this blog post. Regardless, I do appreciate what you’ve said here.

    • An interesting question, but chances of finding any sort of archaeological evidence is less even than finding archaeolocical evidence of the origins of beer and wine. The origins of tea and coffee, after all, are both encrusted with myth.

  7. I love this article. Although my English is not as good, but I’d say this is written in a very comprehensible way. I really enjoy reading this.
    After reading this article, I went into Wikipedia. Interestingly, I didn’t see the statement claiming beer to be the oldest alcoholic beverages anymore. Likely the article in Wikipedia about beer has been refined or revised. Maybe . . . that was either diretly or indirectly inspired by this article. Haha . . . just a guess! After all, this was posted on October 15, 2009. I won’t be surprised if somebody sent a feedback to Wikipedia after reading this.
    Anyway, I also got into “History of alcoholic beverages” in Wikipedia, neither did I find the claim there. The only statement I discovered was that beer “is thought by some to be the oldest fermented beverage.” Source reference was also made there. This is good. Isn’t it? Thanks for your informative writing, Martyn.

    • The earliest use of alcoholic beverages by man will probably never be determined. Though I go with the possibility that it could well have been involved with honey, I hold open that it may first have been the fruit of the Marula tree considering it always ferments when laying on the ground and would require nothing more than picking it up and eating it. Wheee, party time! Far easier to get at than honey that had been diluted by chance with water. So are we talking about earliest use or earliest intentional making of fermented beverages by man? As a brewer of beer and fermenter of honey I’m just trying to put 2 and 2 together here. Magickster, can you provide your sources?

      Thanks,

      Kit Cox

  8. Thanks for a very informative article that has spawned a heap of even more informative responses. Since you, like me and most of the readers, seem to be all about facts and having them straight, I’ll offer my help with one more.

    Pulque, that you mention in the article, is not made from cactus juice and has nothing to do with cacti what so ever. In fact, it is made from the hearts of the maguey, or more formally, agave plants. The same that are used for the production of Tequila or Mezcal.

    Though a common misconception, the agave is not, in any shape or form, related to the cacti. It is, however, quite closely related to, for example, lilies.

    One scientific paper, that has the facts right, can be found here: http://www.plu.edu/~raganhc/home.html

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