The chapter begins with the Urban Revolution: the rise of cities throughout the Fertile Crescent, and later Europe, Asia, and Africa. It’s still not entirely clear why people chose to live in cities instead of small villages. There were probably a few reasons, but one of the most important was that cities provided a defense against invading armies. In cities in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere, agricultural surpluses paved the way for advanced civilizations. This occurred because with a surplus of grain, bread, and beer, some people could afford not to work full-time, meaning that they could focus on administrative, political, or artistic tasks. The surplus of grain also made it possible for civilizations to invest in large public works, such as canals and pyramids.
The creation of leisure time is a fixture of the earliest civilizations. When not everyone had to work all day, some people could afford to think long-term, and develop architectural plans, poetry, art, or philosophy. But the existence of leisure time was already implicit in Standage’s argument. Without at least some leisure time, after all, the earliest agriculturalists couldn’t have discovered beer, with its increasingly intricate brewing processes. Also, leisure is an essential part of drinking as a community activity—everyone is taking a break from work when they are drinking together, no matter the beverage.
The earliest records of people drinking beer have been found in Mesopotamian poetry. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first great works of literature, Gilgamesh confronts a “wild man” named Enkidu. Enkidu’s wildness is immediately demonstrated when he’s served bread and beer, and doesn’t know how to consume them. As soon as Enkidu drinks a glass of beer, he “turns into a human.” In spite of the fact that beer leads to drunkenness, beer was also a symbol of civility and culture in the ancient world.
Strangely, beer’s intoxicating properties made it a symbol of civilization, not wildness. This appears strange to us because we take the process of making beer for granted—to ancient peoples, however, the intricacies of beer-making outweighed the wild drunkenness beer could produce. In other words, the process of making beer was more civilized than the beer-drinker was uncivilized.
In ancient Egypt, beer was believed to have divine origins, and to be able to cure diseases. In one Egyptian story, beer saves the human race: when the goddess Hathor plots to kill off all humans, the god Ra gives her beer, making her fall asleep and forget her mission.
Mythology is one of Standage’s most important tools for studying the importance of beer in early civilization. There aren’t many historical records from Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, so Standage has to study the stories Egyptians and Mesopotamians told one another.
Following the golden age of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the dominant civilization of the Middle East was Sumer. Sumerians were the first to use writing, and also made use of elaborate canal systems to ensure regular irrigation for their crops. Sumerian rulers provided their people with regularized rations, and scientists have found that these rations included meat, fish, chickpeas, lentils, beans, and beer. In all, the rations provided about 4,000 calories per day—more or less the same amount recommended for adults today.
Standage finds similarities between ancient and modern civilization, always with at least a tenuous connection to his beverage of choice. While we might think of the diet of an ancient man as being very different from that of a modern man, Standage suggests that they’re not so different after all—the number of calories people eat per day has barely changed at all in the last few thousand years.
The Sumerians’ language was called cuneiform. The cuneiform symbol for beer looks like a jar. The oldest written recipe in the world is a recipe for beer, scrawled on a tablet.
This is one of Standage’s strongest pieces of evidence: the creation of beer was clearly an important event in Mesopotamian civilization, as it was important enough to be carved in stone.
In Sumer, as well as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, people were required to pay taxes in the form of grain. This wealth was then used by the people’s rulers to build public works. In other words, grain—and beer—was a form of payment. To build the pyramids at Giza in Egypt, workers were paid in beer. In general, bread and beer were regarded as the bases of all life—so much so that in Egypt, “bread and beer” was an expression of good luck and prosperity. The Egyptians also used beer as a sedative during surgeries. Finally, Egyptians were buried with bread and beer, so that they would have riches to take with them in the afterlife. Even common Egyptians, who didn’t have the wealth to be buried in elaborate tombs, were buried with bread and beer.
In this section, Standage branches out to show the dozens of uses of beer in the ancient world. This section can be a little hard to follow, but Standage likewise wants to convey the growing complexity of civilization. As societies divided up into classes, professions, and hierarchies of power, beer became more varied in its forms and its uses. This provides one final example of Standage’s big point, that beer mirrors human history.
Although the world no longer sees beer as a universal currency, beer remains a staple of working-class life, just as it was for the workers at Giza thousands of years ago. Toasting a friend’s health with a glass of beer is a vestige of the ancient world’s belief in the restorative powers of beer. Finally, beer remains a symbol of friendship, unpretentiousness, and equality, hence the saying, “Get a beer.”
In the end, beer in the ancient world reflected the same basic virtues that it still reflects today: friendship, equality, etc. While at first beer may have been available only to a lucky few, even in ancient times it soon became a drink for (almost) everyone to enjoy. With the close of this first section we get a better sense of Standage’s style and goals—he isn’t trying to be exhaustive or overly provocative, but rather to provide a unique and entertaining lens for looking at history.