From Whence Beer?
In these virtual pages we’ve seen some sterling reviews of various beers, so I thought I’d do some speculation as to the origins of the noble brew itself. Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but involvements of deities notwithstanding, at some point some human had to invent the stuff. Here are my thoughts on that long-ago event.
The History of Beer
Who doesn’t love a cold beer?
Drinking beer is a pastime as inarguably American as baseball, apple pie and arguing politics, but how often do we stop and reflect on the origins of this most American of beverages?
The origins of beer are lost in the mists of time. As long as there have been men, there have been old men, and we can be certain that it was an old man, perhaps one bored with the unrelenting tedium of Paleolithic life, who invented beer.
We do know a few things about old men and about beer, and we may very well indulge ourselves in a little speculation as to the event itself. Let’s start our story a couple hundred thousand years in the past, with a look at one of human history’s first dirty old men.
We’ll call him Sam.
It Went Something Like This…
It was a late Paleolithic afternoon, the sun growing low in a primeval sky, and Sam was seated comfortably on a flat rock just inside the entrance to his cave, staring into the stuttering flames of a smoky, sputtering fire. Over the fire was a hide pot, in which Sam’s mate Edna was heating some water for swamp-rat stew.
Sam was not a sterling specimen of early humanity. Short, squat, and bow-legged, Sam was in his youth strong as a bear, but many years of laziness had taken their toll. Now in his fiftieth summer, Sam was tending towards fat. A fringe of gray hair ringed his balding head, and even the thick single eyebrow on his heavy brow ridge had gone gray.
His mate has seen the passage of as many years as he, and many years of hunting, gathering and child rearing have erased whatever traces of feminine figure her squat form had once possessed. Graying and heavy, her fate of having landed a lazy mate has graced her heavy face with a near-permanent scowl. Sam, watching her bustle about the cave, looked at their bedding piled in the back of the cave. In their youths, he had looked forward to mussing Edna about in those furs, but now? An involuntary shudder went through him.
Edna was a bit cross. She has spent the whole day gathering seeds of wild grass to thicken the stew, while Sam spent the day ‘hunting,’ which was his term for ‘walking half a mile from the cave and snoozing all day under a shady tree.’ Edna even brought in the swamp-rat that’s the centerpiece of the stew. She bragged to Sam that a well-thrown rock did the rodent in, but Sam was certain that she nagged it to death.
In front of Sam, the pot of water and wild barley seeds popped and bubbled. Behind Sam, Edna popped and bubbled. She picked up a flint knife and began skinning the swamp-rat. “That big rock above the cave,” she grunted. “It’s going to fall down if you don’t fix it soon.”
“Yes, dear,” Sam grumbled.
“You said you’d do it four moons ago.”
“I should have listened to my mother,” Edna complained. “She told me not to mate someone from the east side of the glacier. She told me, ‘all the men on the east side of the glacier are a bunch of lazy bums,’ and boy was she right.”
She finished skinning the swamp-rat and set it aside. “Since you’re just going to sit there, I’m going over to the lake to get some water and ask Madge if I can borrow a handful of mammoth fat. I’ll be back.”
“You could take a look at that rock while I’m gone, if you can manage to tear your butt away from that flat rock by the fire.”
Edna stamped away, muttering. Sam went back to staring at the fire.
Above him, the big rock that overhung the mouth of the cave shifted a little. A pattering of pebbles spattered down a few feet away from Sam.
Sam pulled himself up with a grunt and walked outside to stare upward at the big rock.
“I suppose it might fall one day,” he grunted to himself, “but I bet it’s good for years yet.”
Just then, with a long groan, the big rock gave way and fell, shattering into a thousand shards of stone and blocking the mouth of the cave.
“Oh, shit,” Sam mumbled. (Actually, what he said was, “Oh, mammoth droppings,” but that doesn’t translate nearly as well into the modern era.)
Three weeks later, when Sam and Edna finally finished digging out the mouth of the cave, they found the hide pot still hanging over the blackened ashes of the long-dead fire. The barley had been steeping for all that time, turning the water a strange color, and now an entirely new smell filled the cave.
“You know, I should feed you that stew anyway,” Edna snapped. Sleeping beside a fallen log in the forest nearby for three weeks had left her rather more cross than usual.
Sam took a sniff at the odd-looking stuff. He stuck a thick, callused finger in the brew, and licked it off.
“You know,” he grunted, “It’s not bad.”
He picked the hide pot off its stand and convinced a complaining Edna to hold a swamp-rat-skin water bag so he could pour it in.
“It’s going to make you sick, you know,” Edna groused, reversing her statement of only moments before.
Sam watched, fascinated, as the brew foamed up to overflow the top of the water bag as the last of it was poured in. “I bet it won’t.”
Sam took a drink of the foamy brew. “It’s good,” he grinned. He seated himself on his flat rock near the rekindled fire and, over the next couple of hours, drained the entire water bag.
When that was done, he tossed the bag aside and rose unsteadily to his feet. “I think I will call it ‘beer,’” he announced, “and it is good.” (He actually called it “A-Whumpa-Whumpa”, for reasons that are about to become apparent, but that doesn’t translate that well either.)
Narrowing his eyes, he stared hard at his mate.
“Funny,” he thought. “She looks pretty good. I can’t even see her gray hair or the wrinkles around her eyes in this light.”
He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Edna was facing away from him, bent over as she swept rock chips out of their bedding area.
Her backside didn’t look nearly as wide as Sam remembered. In the dim light of the cave, it almost looked like Edna had somehow acquired a waist again, something she’d lost right around the ninth baby, many years before. Sam’s face broke into an expansive leer. “Old woman!” he shouted.
“What do you want now?” Edna turned, placed her fists on her hips, and glared at him.
Sam’s leer widened. Edna’s bosom suddenly looked almost youthful, her frown somehow inviting. With a roar, Sam leaped to his feet and swept Edna into the bedding.
Sam didn’t remember much the next morning. Waking with a pounding head, he looked over at his mate, who has suddenly resumed the squat, gray-haired, wide-bottomed, wrinkled, saddlebag-breasted shape she’d had before Sam had drunk the beer. She rolled over and grunted happily in her sleep; Sam hadn’t paid as much attention to her as he had the night before in years, either in the sleeping furs or out of them.
Sam carefully disengaged himself from his smiling, snoring mate and shuffled to the nearby lake for a desperately needed drink of water.
A familiar voice greeted him as he squatted to drink the clean, cold water. “Morning, Sam.”
He looked up, squinting painfully at the early morning sunlight, to see an old friend, another old man, a near-duplicate of Sam who lived in a cave nearby with his wife, who was a near-duplicate of Edna. “Morning, Ralph.”
“You look awful, Sam. Rough night?”
“Eggh. I wish I knew. I feel like my mouth is full of mammoth hair this morning.” Sam filled Ralph in on the results of the barley brew. “It sure was good, though.”
“Hmm. I wish you’d left me some. Think you could make it again?”
“We could try, I guess.”
They spent the afternoon gathering wild barley and cajoling Edna into allowing the use of her hide pot for the experimental brew. Three weeks later, a king-sized batch of barley brew was ready. Sam and Ralph enlisted the aid of Pete and George, two brothers who lived on the other side of the lake, to help them rope together a wooden container to hold the brew. They placed the makeshift barrel in the lake to keep the brew cold, and seated themselves on the shore, four bone cups in four callused hands, drinking the cold brew and discussing the relative physical merits of the occasional young woman that passed by the lake.
And so, it came to pass that history’s first kegger was held.