The Greatest Invention Ever

15 Aug 12

The Greatest Invention EverA brief history of beer

As inventions go, sliced bread is for sarmies. However, the beer you’re holding in your hand or the one you enjoyed over the weekend may constitute one of the most important inventions known to mankind. Civilisation chose beer as its chariot on the road of progress.

Worshipped over centuries, beer is both divine and (according to historians and anthropologists) essential to the scientific and cultural development of the human race. Here’s why:

The first beer drinker

Around 7, 000 to 10, 000 odd years ago, our primitive ancestors in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq and Iran) were also “regular guys”. A bit feral and outdoorsy, like a real Bear Grylls in a loincloth, this guy was a hunter-gatherer. He enjoyed spending his days fishing and running down animals for meat, while the women of his tribe would gather food. One of those edible pickings was wild barley (which conveniently doubled as a god to ancient peoples).

Studying the man in the noble pursuit of reconstructing the first pint ever enjoyed, as far as anthropologists, archaeologists and historians can tell, someone simply left a pot of barley out in the rain. It germinated, thus producing sugars.

Then it rained again, got a convenient light dusting of wild yeast and as the barley sugar began to ferment - it created CO2 and alcohol. Someone came past, probably lost a primitive bet, and took a chance on drinking it. He enjoyed the heady, nourishing fermented beverage so much it became a hit. Lo and behold, beer was born!


As people realised they liked the feel good factor of beer, post-hunt after-parties were never the same again and celebrations, occasions and everyday life over the ages were blessed with the delicious, frothy presence of beer.

But what that single fortuitous mistake gave rise to, was so much more than a post-hunt grog. The invention of beer led to people settling land, because they needed more barley to make more beer. In conjunction with bread, beer was the catalyst responsible for kick-starting agriculture too. Then, from agriculture, came the beginning of maths and accounting as farmers learnt how to count their fields, their ears of barley and other crops… and of course, their beers.

It’s possible that that’s where the first rendition of “ten green bottles sitting on the wall” came from. Next came writing, as people having learnt how to count, now had to record their new commodities, and beer was a principal player. Cuneiform, the world’s oldest language, features the symbol for beer prominently and showcases over 160 different words for beer.

Beer in Ancient Cultures

Beer and ancient cultures are in fact old friends.

    • In ancient times Mesopotamians worshipped barley because it gave them beer.
    • The Sumerians worshipped the goddess Ninkasi, the provider of beer. The hymn to Ninkasi is both a prayer and a written reminder at a time when few people were literate (after-all man had only just invented writing).
    • Over in ancient Egypt, the Pharoahs had their pyramids built by a workforce powered on a nourishing diet of beer (low in alcohol, high in nutrients). As living god-kings they were sent off into the afterworld with beer for the party on the other side.
    • The Vikings believed in a mythical god-goat that spouted life-giving lager from its udders (a dream that the top brass at SAB has had too).
    • In medieval times the Church ran the brewing industry. That kind of demand meant beer was liquid gold and the Church got rich.
    • Monks acted as brew masters (think Friar Tuck and his wagon of beer) and it was understood that after attending church, beer would be divvied up among the congregation. Now while this sounds like one hell of a deal for the faithful, there was more going on - Beer was in fact more important than water.

Much of the water in medieval communities was contaminated with everything from fetid duck pond scum to e-coli. Scientifically, people had not yet worked out how to keep water clean so understanding that it made them sick, they had little choice but to drink beer over water. And ‘they’ refers to everyone – man, woman and children alike. Though made with less-than-desirable water, the fermentation process of beer and its alcohol content was enough to nullify the contaminants and to boot, it was nutritious.

The development of transport is also attributed to beer, as guys wondered how on earth they were going to get their beers over to their friends’ cribs for sundowners. Consider that you’re drinking human progress next time you take a sip of your favourite beer.