The Barbarian’s Beverage

More sophisticated beer enthusiasts may already know their favourite beverage was being made in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia as far back as 5,000 years ago. They may also incorrectly assume it was eventually brought from there to Europe as civilizations spread out and evolved, according to University of Windsor professor Max Nelson.

“There’s no evidence that ancient Europeans got their beer from Egyptians,” says Dr. Nelson, a professor in the university’s department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, and a resident beer expert. “In fact, there was an independent European brewing tradition which few people know about which already existed in ancient times. They were already experimenting in prehistoric times with all sorts of ingredients, and some of the most important innovations in beer-making come from Europe.”

The author of a 2005 book called The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe, Nelson has recently written a new chapter in a book called The Geography of Beer: Regions, Environment, and Societies.

His latest work – which focuses on the period between 1000 BC and 1000 AD – challenges the notion that beer was made exclusively in northern regions of Europe like Britain and Germany, and that such countries as France, Italy, and Spain shunned beer, focusing instead on wine. Citing both written and archeological evidence, he says a more likely scenario is that beer was made throughout most of Europe, and that rather than a north-south split, the continent can be divided on an east-west axis based on the types of cereals and additives that were used as ingredients.

His chapter focuses on beer made with barley, wheat and millet, as well as such additives as hops, sweet gale and honey, and includes two maps indicating which ingredients were used in various regions of ancient Europe. Barley, he says, was used by beer makers throughout the continent, while wheat was used as a secondary cereal in the west, and millet was used in the east.

As for additives, he says sweet gale – a flowering shrub native to northern and western Europe – was first used in the Rhine estuary region around the first century BC, while hops were popularized in the Ile de France area in the ninth century AD. Honey, he says, was used throughout western Europe, except for the Iberian peninsula and Ireland.

Nelson said his research is important because knowing about the history of beer and how it developed provides both consumers and the people who make it with a richer sense of the time-tested customs that have gone into developing their beverage of choice.

“Beer is one of the most drunk beverages in the world today, and may be the most popular after water and tea,” he said. “Many people don’t understand the ancient tradition behind these things.”

Nelson will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.

Note: This article is republished with permission from the University of Windsor website. Also note, Stephen Field’s podcast, “Research Matters” is a product of the University of Windsor, and a separate project from the pan-Ontario Research Matters campaign.

Tagged: Community, Culture, Economy, Stories

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

Uncomfortable sleeping position

Beware the chair

Jenny Hall | August 26, 2014

Study after study has highlighted the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle that includes extended periods of sitting, and the catchphrase “sitting is the new smoking” has gained traction read more »
Menthol cigarettes

Minty but deadly

August 25, 2014

Teens who use menthol cigarettes smoke more cigarettes - an average of 43 per week - than youth who use non-menthols, a new Waterloo study has found. read more »
Whole wheat pasta

Whole wheat makeover

Katarina Smolkova, Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK) | August 22, 2014

Whole wheat pasta is a high-fibre, healthy alternative to traditional white flour pasta, but its texture may be too soft for some people. Now, a University of Guelph researcher is trying to change that read more »
Maple Leaf meats logo

Meat with no mystery

Trent University Staff | August 21, 2014

With recent scandals in the meat industry prompting consumers to call for greater accountability from suppliers, companies such as Maple Leaf, are looking for new ways to ensure that their products are exactly what they claim to be. read more »
More Blogs »

Featured Events

Royal Ontario Museum

May 9, 2013 | Toronto

Royal Ontario Museum, Bronfman Hall Toronto, Ontario Thursday May 9, 2013 6:30pm to 9:00pm This free event is part of a province-wide discussion series featuring researchers from Ontario’s universities. Moderated by Globe and Mail science correspondent Ivan Semeniuk

View More Events »