A Popular History of the Drinks of Antiquity: part 1

The Mother of All Drinks.

Mesopotamia, mother of all civilizations, created the first form of writing, the first wheel, the first library, the first epic poem, the first flood, the first penal code, the first employment contract, the first prison, the first production-line work, the first tavern … but certainly not the first fermented drink known to humanity. Indeed, the practices of sipping wine and quaffing pitchers of beer have been around ever since the canny biped with its wise monkey routine entered the ring of the great circus of creation.

The Irresistible Urge to Put Our Hand to the Plough.

Not far from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, archaeologists found eight earthenware jars dating back 10,000 years and containing remains of tartaric acid, a telltale sign of the presence of wine, suggesting that the first cellar of plonk came before the first organised human social system. An American archaeologist goes still further: Patrick McGovern thinks the accidental meeting of man and alcohol and the resulting unquenchable thirst, spurred our ancestors to discovering and actively engaging in agriculture, and to initiating, 11,000 years ago, the great Neolithic revolution.

The accidental meeting of man and alcohol and the resulting unquenchable thirst, spurred our ancestors to discovering and actively engaging in agriculture.

PATRICK MCCOVERN

If, from this, we extrapolate that man invented writing so as to keep a proper record of his amphorae, that would make his propensity to drunkenness the only true source of his inspiration on earth. However, before even dreaming of building empires and setting out to conquer the wonders of the world, our very distant ancestors had to learn to sober up.

Drinking and Eating.

On the scorching banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, wine and beer were engaged in subtle competition.  Indeed, these two fermented drinks have long jostled for position at the great festive excesses of our humanity and, at the same time, borne witness to its deepest depressions. Yet, while they still flow freely now, wine and beer in these ancient times were not seen in the same way in those early city states, which would, for centuries, enjoy significant creative and cultural influence.

In Ur, land of Abraham, as in the rest of the Sumerian state archipelago, beer was drunk through a straw…

In Mesopotamia, wine, an imported product, was very much present, but mainly reserved for the governing elite, priests, special events, such as weddings, important religious ceremonies, and banquets. Beer, on the other hand, was considered a dietary staple. In Ur, land of Abraham, the founder of monotheism, as in the rest of the Sumerian state archipelago, beer was drunk through a straw – this wasn’t an affectation, but simply due to the fact no more practical way of getting nourishment from the drink could be found. Beer at that time was in the very early stages of its production. It was still a kind of cake of spelt or barley bread that was steeped and had to be absorbed, once it had fermented, by way of a straw with a filtered end that would prevent disagreeable debris passing through.

Women: Brewers of All Work.

In these ancient times, living in a city was the defining characteristic of any civilized being; brewing beer was a skill considered a divine gift, allowing humanity to rid itself of the animal condition it existed in when it drank water from springs and ate wild berries. Sikaru, or liquid bread, was made solely by women, who were the only ones able to sell it in the first tavern-breweries, often places of ill-repute and early dens of urban iniquity that needed to be quashed. The “Sabîtu-publican” had to denounce, on pain of being burned alive, any inebriated brigand who may have, while in his cups, loudly declared his criminal exploits with a straw in his hand.

Managing a tavern was, therefore, risky; serving a customer a short measure was punished by drowning. The gift of the gods of ancient Sumer was not to be trifled with

Managing a tavern was, therefore, risky; serving a customer a short measure was punished by drowning. The gift of the gods of ancient Sumer was not to be trifled with. However, the brewery-tavern might also serve as a respectable brothel. “Advertising” tablets, encouraged honest customers to buy a serving of sikaru for their favourite prostitute; the foremost drink of the dawn of civilization was used, above all, as currency. There were countless contracts on clay tablets indicating the payment of a jar of sikaru.

The Smell of a Wet Goat.

It can be seen then that the beer of that time was much more than a simple celebratory drink; it provided  humanity with the vital necessities of life, even those that were most inadmissible. This ubiquity is what would give the beverage  its popular as well as its sacred character. The Egyptians, who shamelessly copied Mesopotamian knowledge, would also entrust beer brewing to women, under the auspices of Hathor, goddess of love. Above and beyond its sacredness, beer was above all a cheap and convivial drink which, even if the methods of making it have changed radically these days, is certainly still the human race’s preferred alcoholic drink, as it tops the rankings of the most consumed intoxicating drinks in the world. A podium and honours that another civilization, enamoured of freedom and proclaiming the power of the people, would, nevertheless, hasten to reject, calling beer a “barbarian” drink that gave off “the smell of a wet goat.”

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