Which Came First ... the Bread or the Beer?

by: HorstDornbusch on 06-23-2004
Beer is as old as civilization itself. It all started some ten thousand years ago in Sumeria, the fertile flood plains between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is now Iraq. It was there that the first humans abandoned their hunting and gathering ways and settled down to plant fields, raise cattle, and do all the things we now associate with society. We also know that much of the grain the Sumerians harvested went into their beverage: beer! Yes, the Sumerians were the world's first brewers.

From this fact, some beer historians have maintained, somewhat glibly, that man settled and started agriculture because he wanted to turn grain into beer. In other words, these authors argue that beer came before bread. That argument, however, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, because the ancient brews were made from bread! In those distant times, you needed bread before you could make beer.

The very first Sumerian brew was probably made by sheer accident and must have been a rather primitive beverage by today's standards. A forgetful Sumerian baker - probably the lady of the house or her maid - might have left her dough out during one of Sumeria's infrequent rainstorms. When the rays of the returning sun warmed the earthenware mixing bowl, in which the dough was now immersed in water, it became a combination of mash tun and open fermenter (as we would say today). Or, perhaps, a Sumerian family sat down for a bowl of bread dunked in water, perhaps flavored with honey, dates, or date syrup. For some reason, however, the meal was not finished. When the household re-assembled, perhaps a few days later, the bowls of gruel were still on the table.

In either scenario, the grain's enzymes converted the starches into sugars and airborne yeasts converted the sugars into alcohol. Perhaps out of innate curiosity, the careless baker or the returning family might have tasted the ale that was so inadvertently concocted and appreciated the sour, refreshing taste - and, perhaps, the heady after-effect as well. This is all speculation but, because of the records we have found and because of the biochemistry involved in beer making, which we now understand, these scenarios are quite plausible.

The Sumerians called bread "bappir." Bappir was perhaps similar to a mariner's hardtack during the age of sail. Sumerian bread could be stored for long periods without spoiling. Thus it was also a way to keep a reserve of food for hard times...and an ideal intermediate product for maintaining a reservoir of grain as a raw material for making beer throughout the year.

There must have been deliberate attempts to replicate the probably inadvertent dough brew from bappir, because eventually all Sumerian brewers would coarsely grind wheat or barley, or both, then moisten the grain and shape it into flat loaves. After gently baking these loaves in mud-brick ovens into bappir, they would crumble it into crocks of water. Left to their own devices, the containers of thin bread gruel would eventually be visited by yeast spores swept into the crocks on a breeze and the content would ferment into beer.

Our Sumerian Stone Age forbears would then take a straw or a ladle and imbibe. We know so, because the Sumerians left us with the oldest graphic depiction of beer drinking. It comes from a seal found at the Sumerian city of Ur and dates from around 3100 BC. It shows two gentlemen using straws to drink beer out of a common crock. The upper-class Sumerian straws used to be made of gold and lapis-lazuli. One such straw was found in the third millennium BC tomb of Pu-abi, a dignified lady of Ur.

So there you have it: At the beginning was bread, and then there was beer ... and wine came much later!

[ Todd: For more, read our article on Ninkasi, the Sumerian Goddess of Beer. ]
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