We’re sipping on a pint of Civilization Brewing Co. milk stout at a taproom in Bukit Timah as we wait eagerly for Zachary Smith, a history professor, to show up. When he’s not busy teaching at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, he’s busy with his other undertaking in life—running local craft beer label launched this year, Civilization Brewing Co. As an academic and brewer, he’s just the right person to talk to for a lesson on the origins of alcohol.
His beer brand is unabashedly proud of the beverage’s initial purpose as a source of nourishment for ancient civilisations, thus the name. On their social pages are historical references of how beer not only started as a health food, but even was a reason that agricultural civilisations flourished.
“Early farmers ate far less meat than hunter-gatherers,” he begins. “It’s generally a plant-based diet and it’s a challenge to get all the vitamins they needed from that narrow selection of plants they had access to.” They found out that fermenting their harvest into beer gave them a source of nutrition that could last longer, was hydrating, could be used as a disinfectant and produced vitamins the body needed.
Not that they knew exactly what they were doing. These early people didn’t know how or why beer was good for them. They had no idea what fermentation truly was. They simply allowed natural, wild fermentation to take place, consumed the end-product, and through sheer trial and error over an extended period of time, found that those who drank beer were healthier than those who didn’t. It’s correlation at work, observed and acted upon.
“It’s the same way Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) works. In ancient times, if a brewer found a batch to be particularly good, they would collect some of that and use it in their next one,” Smith explains. “There is generational advancement. They have no idea about the chemistry behind it, but over time, they would be able to isolate what’s beneficial. They see that correlation, that people who drink certain batches of brew are healthier, so they reproduce more of that.”
Peering deep into the recorded history of beer, you’ll find none of today’s damning literature of the beverage. Rather, texts reveal how people not only depended on them for survival, but even worshipped it. From writings like Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero, we know that it was the ancient Sumerians who first brewed beer. Where modern day Iran now stands, beer was being made as early as 3500 BCE to 3100 BCE.
The first beers in Sumeria were brewed by female priestesses of Ninkasi, the goddess of beer. It was consumed by the Sumerians as a thick, porridge-like beverage. Enjoyed as a supplement to meals, the drink was consumed by everyone, children included, as it was healthier and safer than water. The making of beer involved a boiling process, killing bacteria, and the naturallyoccurring alcohol from fermentation acted as a sterilizer. In Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilisation by Paul Kriwaczek, it’s evidenced that even as late as the Victorian era, beer was found to be served at every meal, even in hospitals and orphanages.
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