50,000 years ago, Standage begins, humans lived in small, nomadic tribes. They hunted to survive, using technology like bows and arrows and fishhooks. They also developed important technology like pottery, the wheel, and writing. At this time, humans drank almost nothing other than water. Water is the basis of all life on Earth: it makes up two thirds of the human body. But when the nomadic tribes began to settle and develop agriculture, they turned from water to other more complicated beverages, such as beer.
Although Standage is writing a nonfiction book, the very basis of the work hinges on symbolism—something small (like a beverage) representing something large or amorphous (like a culture or historical era). The transition from water to beer, Standage implies, is “symbolic” of the transition from nomadic life to agriculture and civilization. We also see from the start just how broad Standage’s descriptions of history are—he’s not trying to be exhaustive or detailed, but simply wants to make points about large trends across time.
Beer was probably discovered between 10,000 BCE and 4,000 BCE. By 4,000 BCE, at least, it was popular throughout Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, more or less). It’s not clear how beer was first discovered, because the oldest writing samples to which we have access are only 5,400 years old. But it’s clear that beer was a side effect of the invention of agriculture. When farmers had access to grains, they experimented with their new food sources—beer was only one of the many inventions that followed.
The popularity of beer in the ancient world is indicative of a broader trend: the new availability of grain, and the prevalence of experimentation with this grain. Standage makes it clear that from the start, the natural curiosity and inventiveness of humans is an essential ingredient in the creation of new drinks.
Standage goes into more detail on the discovery of beer. The Fertile Crescent—the area between Egypt and Turkey—was home to the first practitioners of agriculture. Agriculturalists used techniques like planting and plowing to harvest grains. Grains weren’t an exciting form of food—they were largely flavorless—but they were extremely reliable and nutritious. One advantage of grain was that it could be stored for years as long as it was kept dry.
Civilization—like the earliest crops—wasn’t exactly exciting, but it was much more reliable than a nomadic lifestyle. We might think of civilization as being a trade-off between security and freedom—aptly symbolized by the switch from meat to grain.
As a consequence of having a stable, reliable food source, agriculturalists were no longer nomadic—they built themselves permanent homes. With permanent homes, agriculturalists had more time to themselves, and more time to experiment with grains. These agriculturalists quickly discovered two other properties of grains: 1) grains could be soaked in water (a process called malting), resulting in a sweet, slightly bitter taste, and 2) wet grain would become more bitter and intoxicating. The second discovery—of the process we now know as fermentation—marked the birth of alcohol in civilization.
Standage describes these events in only a few paragraphs, but many thousands of years went into actually discovering and sharing this knowledge. The process of trial and error, which led to the discovery of grain, was slow and tedious, like the process of evolution itself.
After agriculturalists in the Fertile Crescent discovered fermentation, they would have experimented with the process until they’d perfected it. One of the agriculturalists’ most important discoveries would have been the discovery that alcohol becomes stronger when grain is left to ferment for longer. They would have also realized that it’s possible to flavor beer by adding things like berries, fruits, or herbs.
Again Standage condenses huge amounts of time into only a few sentences—but he’s trying to write an entertaining 200-page history of the world, so these kinds of compressions are necessary for his project.
There’s an interesting debate among archaeologists over which came first: beer or bread. It’s quite likely, Standage argues, that the earliest agriculturalists developed bread because they wanted a more elaborate “sweetener” for their beers. However, some archaeologists claim that agriculturists invented bread before they invented beer—it was only a coincidence that bread turned out to be a useful flavoring for alcohol. At any rate, bread and beer were “different sides of the same coin: bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread.”
Standage isn’t too radical in his claims—beer may have been a very important part of early civilization, but he’s not about to claim that it was the first part of civilization. Sometimes, there’s no rational explanation for an invention or discovery—it’s no more than a lucky coincidence.
Standage moves on to discuss the social applications of beer. For many early agricultural societies—the Sumerians, the Egyptians, etc.—drinking beer was an important ritual. Drinking is different from eating, in the sense that a drink can genuinely be shared (when cutting up a piece of meat, for example, some of the pieces are inevitably better then others). In this way, drinking beer became an important act of bonding and friendship. Beer was also a religious drink, since the state of intoxication it brought on was believed to bring man closer to the realm of the gods. In Egypt, for example, it was believed that beer was invented by the god Osiris. Beer was used as a religious offering throughout the ancient world, from China to the Americas.
One of Standage’s most important claims is that drinking is a social behavior, one that unites unlike people. In this way, the invention of different beverages parallels the creation of different social groups. At first, beer was both an egalitarian, social drink, and also a profound, religious one. The religious connotations of beer have disappeared from our culture, but the friendly, egalitarian connotations remain.
It has been suggested that agriculture became the dominant survival mode for human beings precisely because agriculture ensured a steady supply of beer. While such a theory is interesting and tempting to believe, it’s more likely that the invention of beer was a mere side-effect of the rise of agriculture. One advantage of beer, however, was that it was highly nutritious. In the ancient world, beer often contained whole grains, along with particles of yeast, meaning that beer contained large amounts of protein and vitamins. Beer was also safer to drink than water, since it had to be boiled.
Again, Standage makes bold claims, but isn’t too bold. He’s ready to say that beer was an important part of social bonding, and thus civilization-building, in the ancient world, but he’s not prepared to argue that beer was the reason that civilizations began or endured over the centuries. Standage balances his claims, making himself seem more thoughtful and persuasive.
The role of beer in early civilization is still hotly debated. Some believe that beer was a crucial part of the success of agricultural societies—beer provided a nutritious, safe drink that gave agricultural societies an advantage over nomadic tribes. Others go so far as to say that agriculture was adopted by other societies largely because farming could make a large supply of beer. In any case, the prevalence of beer among ancient societies, and its place in ancient rituals and religious ceremonies, proves that beer was an important part of life thousands of years ago.
Standage ends his first chapter with a quick reiteration of his thesis. His writing is well-organized and easy to digest, reflecting Standage’s training as a journalist for The Guardian and The Economist. While there’s much debate over how important beer was in the ancient world, it’s clear that it had some importance, and Standage gives weight to several contrasting arguments.