What Came First: Bread or Brew?

Edythe Preet, Columnist
October / November 2005

Bread is called The Staff of Life. Many scholars believe our distant ancestors gave up hunting and gathering for an agricultural lifestyle once they learned how to bake it. There is evidence that barley was first methodically planted and harvested 10,000 years ago, but a key question remains unanswered. What prompted the sowing of the first seed?

In the 1950s, University of Chicago archaeologist Robert Braidwood suggested it was the discovery of bread-making methods that led to the domestication of cereal grains. Responding to the theory, University of Wisconsin botanist Jonathan Sauer claimed it was a thirst for beer that turned early humans from foragers into farmers.

Sauer contended the work involved in collecting wild barley seeds was too much trouble if the only reward was a bit of bread. He proposed that somewhere along the line someone carelessly left a bowl of precious barley out in the rain. The combined action of air-borne yeast and moisture would have caused the seeds to ferment, producing beer.

We’ll never know who first sipped the barley brew, but odds are that whoever it was called for another round. Texts preserved on clay tablets dating back to 4000 B.C. indicate beer was the preferred drink of Sumerian men and women regardless of class or station. Two thousand years later, Babylonian bars offered customers a selection of more than a dozen beers. Beer was so much a part of antiquity’s daily life that the world’s earliest code of laws, compiled by King Hammurabi in 1800 B.C., stipulated stiff penalties for offenses at beer taverns. Brewers who diluted their products or overcharged patrons were drowned in their own vats.

By no means did the ancient Middle East have an exclusive on beer. Barley is a friendly crop that will grow just about anywhere. Vikings imbibed great quantities of the heady stuff. As fortification against the cold, they ate as many as six meals a day, and beer-bread soup was a favorite menu item. Spirits of slain warriors were whisked to Valhalla to spend eternity feasting and carousing where buxom Valkyries made sure the fellows’ drinking horns never ran dry.

While Viking raiders were known more for their sins than their beer, two Irish saints were as famed for their brew as their good deeds. St. Bridget is said to have brewed the best ale in her time, and St. Patrick carried his own brewer on his Irish missionary route.

Doing so was hardly necessary, as the Celts had been mixing up a beer called coirm for millennia. In the early Irish epic Tain Bo Cualinge, King Conchubar often spent “a third of his day feasting, a third watching the young warriors wrestle, and a third drinking coirm until he falls asleep.” The size of Celtic storage casks was on an epic scale too. Legend holds they were bigger than most houses.

Patrick and Bridget were not the only clerics who were fond of beer. In the cloistered shelter of medieval monasteries, monks raised the art of brewing to heavenly heights. With a gallon daily allowance, much of their earthly reward was reaped long before they reached the pearly gates. Even the penitential Culdee monks who subsisted on an extremely austere and spartan diet were allowed a daily ration. For the sin of gluttony, however, over-indulgers were made to do penance. If a monk drank so heavily he could not recite the psalms, he was deprived of supper.

There were rules for lay folk as well. The Brehon Laws allowed anyone who so chose to concoct his own brew, but stipulated stiff regulations regarding the manner of running pubs. For quarreling in an alehouse a person was forbidden to graze his cattle for three days, and if a mentally disabled person brought to an alehouse by a rational man for amusement should injure anyone, the jokester was liable for compensation of all ensuing damages and/or injuries.

Early brews were made from just about any grain — oats, wheat, or barley — plus spring water and frequently honey. It was not until the late 18th century that breweries began producing beer made from a mixture of malt, grain, water, sugar, yeast and hops on a commercial scale. Today, a visit to any pub will evidence that although ale, beer, lager and porter are on tap, a “properly pulled pint” of stout is the quaff of choice. And it was a descendant of the coirm-loving Celts who devised the recipe for the quintessentially Irish thick, rich, dark brew that when poured correctly is capped with an inch of creamy white foam.

On New Year’s Eve 1759, Arthur Guinness took possession of the 80-year-old brewery at St. James Gate, a defense point remaining from the medieval walled city of Dublin. In exchange for the annual sum of 45 pounds sterling, Guinness received a 9,000-year lease on the property and all the water he’d ever need FREE from the River Liffey.

Arthur’s new black beer took off like a rocket, and the city fathers quickly realized what a dreadful mistake they’d made. When a sheriff attempted to destroy the pipeline, Arthur appeared brandishing a pickaxe and hurling a volley of colorful Irish curses. After a twenty-year court battle, a compromise was finally reached. Today, Guinness production tops 750 million pints a year!

Though known around the world, Guinness is only one of many fine Irish brews. My own personal preference is Smithwick’s Ale, produced by Ireland’s oldest operating brewery. Predating Arthur Guinness’ contract coup by nearly five decades, in 1710 John Smithwick opened a brewery on a site once occupied by Kilkenny’s 14th — century St. Francis Abbey which also produced a light ale. For more than one hundred years, the brewery remained a small operation, until Edmund Smithwick took over in 1827. By mid-century he had built the family business into a flourishing export operation, and today Smithwick’s is the largest-selling ale in Ireland.

Many a cook knows that beer enlivens the palate and adds an extra measure of pleasure to food. Soups are heartier. Slow-cooked beans become velvety. Delicate beer batter adds zip to fried fish. Spicy fruitcakes age with a mellow tang. Few will deny that the most refreshing drink, bar none, is a frosty mug of ice cold beer. Add a loaf of wholegrain bread and a wedge of fine Irish cheese to the bill of fare, and you’ll be enjoying a repast that’s as old as Erin herself. Slainté! ♦

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