Guest Post: Tom Standage on Bread and Beer

This post is part of The Historical Cooking Project's special series Booze, Brews, and Drinks, which speaks to the confluence and the divergence of the histories of booze and food. Articles on the topic are posted on the fourth Thursday of every month.

Which came first: bread or beer? It is a puzzle that has long preoccupied archaeologists. Today bread and beer are very different things. But in the Neolithic period when they first emerged, the distinction was much less clear. Bread and beer are ancient siblings: to our ancestors, bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread.

The first beer probably arose by accident, when a gruel or porridge made from malted grain was left sitting around for a couple of days at a Neolithic campsite. It became slightly fizzy and pleasantly intoxicating, as the action of wild yeasts from the air fermented the sugar in the gruel into alcohol. The gruel, in short, turned into beer. Once this discovery had been made, the quality of beer was improved through trial and error. The more malted grain there is in the original gruel, for example, and the longer it is left to ferment, the stronger the beer. More malt means more sugar, and a longer fermentation means more of the sugar is turned into alcohol. Thoroughly cooking the gruel also contributes to the beer’s strength.

This first beer would have been made in an animal’s intestines, hung over a fire, which was the traditional way to make soup or gruel before the advent of pottery. By the Bronze Age, brewers had noticed that using the same container repeatedly for brewing produced more reliable results: records from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia show that brewers always carried their own “mash tubs” around with them, and one Mesopotamian myth refers to “containers which make the beer good.” Repeated use of the same mash tub promoted successful fermentation because yeast cultures took up residence in the container’s cracks and crevices, so that there was no need to rely on the more capricious wild yeast. Finally, adding berries, honey, spices, herbs and other flavourings to the gruel altered the taste of the resulting beer in various ways. Over several thousand years, people discovered how to make a variety of beers of different strengths and flavours for different occasions.

Egyptian records mention at least 17 kinds of beer, some of them referred to in poetic terms that sound, to modern ears, almost like advertising slogans: different beers were known as “the beautiful and good,” “the heavenly,” “the joy-bringer,” “the addition to the meal,” “the plentiful,” and “the fermented.” Beers used in religious ceremonies also had special names. Similarly, early written references to beer from Mesopotamia, in the 3rd millennium BC, list over 20 different kinds, including fresh beer, dark beer, fresh-dark beer, strong beer, red-brown beer, light beer and pressed beer. Red-brown beer was a dark beer made using extra malt, while pressed beer was a weaker, more watery brew that contained less grain.

Mesopotamian brewers also controlled the taste and colour of their beer by adding different amounts of bappir, or-bread. To make bappir, sprouted barley was made into lumps, like small loaves, which were baked twice to produce a dark-brown, crunchy, unleavened bread that could be stored for years before being crumbled into the brewer's vat. Records indicate that bappir was kept in government storehouses and was only eaten during food shortages; it was not so much a foodstuff as a convenient way to store the raw material for making beer. This has led some archaeologists to suggest that bread must therefore be an offshoot of beer-making, while others have argued that bread came first, and was subsequently used as an ingredient in beer. It seems most likely, however, that both bread and beer were derived from gruel. A thick gruel could be baked in the sun or on a hot stone to make flatbread; a thin gruel could be left to ferment into beer. The two were different sides of the same coin. Indeed, both were used as forms of money.

In Egypt and Mesopotamia barley and wheat, and their processed solid and liquid forms, bread and beer, were more than just staple foodstuffs: they were convenient and widespread forms of payment and currency. In Mesopotamia, 5,000-year-old cuneiform records indicate that the lowest-ranking members of the Sumerian temple workforce were issued a sila of beer a day — roughly equivalent to a litre, or two American pints — as part of their ration. Junior officials were given two sila, higher officials and ladies of the court three sila and the highest officials five sila. Large numbers of identically-sized bevel-rimmed bowls found at Sumerian sites seem to have been used as standard units of measurement. Senior officials were given more beer not because they drank more: having drunk their fill, they would then have some left over to tip messengers and scribes and pay other workers. Liquids, being easily divisible, make ideal currencies.

Later documents from the reign of Sargon, one of a series of kings from the neighbouring region of Akkad who united and ruled Sumer's rival city-states from around 2,350 BCE, refer to beer as part of the “bride price” (a wedding payment made by the groom's family to the bride’s family). Other records indicate that beer was given as payment to women and children for doing a few days’ work at the temple: women received two sila and children one sila. Soldiers, policemen and scribes also received special payments of beer on particular occasions, as did messengers as a form of bonus payment. The most spectacular example of the use of bread and beer as forms of payment can be seen on Egypt’s Giza plateau: the pyramids. According to records found at a nearby town where the construction workers ate and slept, the standard ration for a labourer was three or four loaves of bread and two jugs containing about four litres (eight American pints) of beer. Managers and officials received larger quantities of both. No wonder that according to some ancient graffiti, one team of workers on the third Giza pyramid, built for King Menkaure, styled themselves the “Drunkards of Menkaure.”

The use of bread and beer as wages or currency meant that they became synonymous with prosperity and well-being. “Bread and beer” was used by Mesopotamians to mean “food and drink,” and one Sumerian word for banquet literally means “the place of beer and bread.” Similarly, the ancient Egyptians identified them so closely with the necessities of life that the phrase “bread and beer” meant sustenance in general: their combined hieroglyphs formed the symbol for food. One Egyptian inscription urges women to supply their schoolboy sons with two jars of beer and three small loaves of bread daily in order to ensure their healthy development. The phrase “bread and beer” was also used as an everyday greeting, much like wishing someone good luck or good health. Next time you pour yourself a cold beer, remember that you are continuing a tradition that is thousands of years old. So raise your glass to an ancient toast: bread and beer!

Tom Standage is deputy editor of The Economist. He is also the author of six history books, including the New York Times bestseller, “A History of the World in Six Glasses” ( Bloomsbury, 2005), “Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years," and “The Victorian Internet,” (1998) a history of the telegraph.