“Fermented beverages are at the center of religions around the world.” — Patrick McGovern, University of Pennsylvania
So, it would stand to reason that I learned to like beer at a church event.
A pregame chili dog and beer party for the “Holy Hitters,” the softball team of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens, Ga., on which I played while in graduate school.
Yes, pregame. We were pretty bad, so there was never much reason for a postgame victory celebration. The Baptist, Methodists, Pentecostals, even the Catholics, beat us like a rented mule.
Now, up till then I had never enjoyed beer. Didn’t care for the taste. But on that hot day in 1972, a cold Busch was put in my hand, and to be polite, I took a sip. It was as if Heaven had opened and a voice said, “Like it, don’t you boy?”
And I did.
Before I continue with this, let me say that I am not unfamiliar with the perils of drinking. I have seen what alcoholism can do to a person and a family. I know the dangers of drunk driving, and I am happy that driving buzzed is no longer treated as a social skill. What I am writing here in no way endorses excess or irresponsibility, and if you cannot avoid either when you drink, then you should leave the stuff alone.
That said, it was with considerable interest that I read a recent article in Smithsonian (Abigail Tucker, “Dig, Drink and Be Merry”) that tells of a group of scientists who are close to concluding that “the quest for intoxication” may be “the driving force behind civilization.”
Patrick McGovern, who is a chemist and an archaeologist, is director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania. (Why doesn’t Jacksonville State have one of these?). He has spent his career working in a field that colleagues jokingly call “drinkology” or “dipsology” and even “the study of thirst.”
Put simply, he chemically analyzes “stuff” (seeds, herbs, residue) left behind millennia ago in jars and pots and such, and from this he can determine what those folks were drinking.
So this: From what he found in the bowls discovered in the 700 B.C. tomb of King Midas, he and buddies at Dogfish Head Brewery came up with Midas Touch beer (http://bit.ly/qrrC9).
And jobs were created.
But there is more in this research than brewing a beer. His findings, when combined with that of colleagues in related fields, add a great deal to our understanding of ancient cultures and their habits.
For example, scholars know that workers on the pyramids were given a daily ration of 4 to 5 liters of beer. It was more than a reward for hard work or even an intoxicant to make them forget the toil of the day. McGovern’s research has revealed that Egyptian beer was also a source of nutrition, which gave them the strength to get up the next day and do what needed to be done.
Or, as the professor put it, “the pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.”
Not all discoveries produce a commodity modern beer drinkers would want to consume. Beer brewed in dung-tempered pottery would likely leave an unpleasant after-taste, assuming you got past the smell to take a sip. Yet, even if you don’t want to drink the stuff the ancients brewed up, discovering the ingredients reveals that civilization may have gotten started for reasons we weren’t taught in school.
Among the ideas being kicked around today is the “beer before bread” hypothesis, which holds that the desire for a cold one (or even a warm one) led drinkers to domesticate important crops, which led in turn to permanent settlements where the growers and what they grew, the brewers and what they brewed, the drinkers and what they drank, could all be together.
Of course, you might disagree and decide, as others have, that the evidence is not persuasive enough. But consider this: In the “Cradle of Civilization” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Sumerians had themselves a beer goddess, Ninkasi, and a 4,000-year-old hymn to her has been used by Anchor Steam Brewery in San Francisco to reformulate and brew a modern version of what those ancients drank.
I don’t think the “beer before bread” hypothesis is going to catch on down in Dixie, where so many folks still believe Christ turned that water into grape juice.
But for the others, the ones who like nothing better than having a beer with friends, the idea that civilization and “suds” go hand-in-hand makes perfect sense, especially on a hot August day.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.