Some archaeologists believe that it was the barley used to make beer that induced early civilizations to start farming.
The exact origins of beer will forever be a mystery.
Our earliest relatives, back in the Paleolithic period, were hunters and gatherers. They foraged for food and scavenged or hunted meat. It wasn't until the Neolithic period, some 10,000 or so years ago, that people began to realize they didn't necessarily have to search for their food or even chase after it but instead could grow it themselves.
Their nomadic tribes became sedentary. They began farming and keeping livestock. They made pottery, built crude houses and organized themselves into more formalized groups in the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East. It was the birthplace of the civilization we know today. And soon there was beer.
For a long time, most historians and archeologists assumed that the catalyst for those early civilizations was the discovery of bread-making. In the 1950s, Jonathan Sauer, a botanist at the University of Wisconsin, began questioning that theory and suggested instead that "it was a thirst for beer that turned early humans from foragers into farmers."
Sauer thought it was simply too difficult to gather wild barley seeds "if the only reward was a bit of bread." If you're going to do all that backbreaking, time-consuming work, he wrote, you're going want the payoff to be something more grand -- like beer. His theory: A bowl of precious wild barley was accidentally left out in the rain, where the combination of moisture and the wild yeasts in the air caused the seeds to ferment, producing a rudimentary beer.
You would expect that whatever method was first used would be relatively simple. Beer fermentation is a low-tech art, with little time investment for production. Bread, on the other hand, requires finely ground grain, much kneading and shaping of loaves, and a large, well-designed oven for baking.
Scientists know that beer was brewed in the Middle East millennia ago because they have found calcium oxalate -- a chemical in beerstone, a scale found in brewery vats -- inside pottery fermentation vessels at Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains, which is part of Iran today. The pottery dates back to the late fourth millennium B.C.
In addition, a stamp seal from Tepe Gawra, a 4000 B.C. site near Mosul, Iraq, shows two figures drinking beer together, using straws and sitting around a tall container. And a site believed to be a commercial brewery was discovered at Hierakonpolis, near Luxor, Egypt. The world's earliest written recipe, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet from 1800 B.C., describes the brewing of beer.
Dozens of beers
By then, there were at least a dozen types of beer available, and possibly as many as 20 -- including beer with a head, beer without a head, dark beer, good dark beer, pale beer, red beer, red-brown beer, three-fold beer and strong beer. In some cases, the difference in the styles had to do with the grains used: barley, emmer (wheat) or a mixture of the two.
By this time, beer had become a vital part of society. So much so, that mankind's oldest existing set of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, set fair prices for beer and specified harsh penalties for bars and brewers. A brewer who diluted his beer could be drowned in his own vat, for example, and a tavern owner who overcharged patrons could be put to death.
By 2100 B.C., images of those drinking straws began appearing on artifacts ranging from a seal found near the Sumerian city of Ur to a fancy gold straw found in the tomb of Puabi, a lady from the city of Ur. The lower classes probably used straws made from reeds.
Straws were used to bypass barley hulls and other debris in the cloudy, unfiltered beer. It also has been suggested that a crust developed on the surface of the "hek" -- the Egyptian word for beer -- and the straws helped penetrate it.
We see signs of ancient brewing in other artifacts as well. Brewing was so important in ancient Egypt, for example, a new hieroglyph was created to designate the new specialty occupation of "brewer."
We see the great strides and innovations our culture has made in brewing -- kegging, bottling, refrigeration, filtering and especially hops have made beer tastier today. But the social aspects of beer as a communal beverage and social lubricant have never been improved upon.
Frankly, I miss the straws. Imagine going to your local bar, finding a tall, thin vat of your favorite beer and taking an open seat nearby. Then you pull out your personal straw, maybe 3 or 4 feet long, and dip it into the beer. You nod to your fellow drinkers and sip deeply. Ahh. Now that's civilized.