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.

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