The Good, The Bad, and the Belly: The Facts About Ancient Beer

Written by Lucie Goulet for

Earlier this month, beer-drinkers from around the world convened at Oktoberfest to celebrate their favourite bevvy. Associated with fights and bloated bellies, beer gets a pretty bad press these years. But the brew has been drunk for millennia, and it seems that the ancients had some surprisingly positive benefits for the drink.

The invention of beer is impossible to attribute to either a period or country. The easy fermentation process means that civilisations around the world probably started producing beer independently around the same time.

Early evidences of beer existence have been found in Iran and Iraq and date back to around 3500 BC, and we know that the Egyptians and Nubians also favoured the drink. The Nubians most likely borrowed the Egyptian recipe of fermenting barley. Barley, a cereal grain, is nowadays used in some health food, and is known for its vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Analysis of modern beer has shown that hops contain antioxidants, which might protect against cancer.

In 2005, research showed that Nubians, in what is now Sudan, also used beer as antibiotic. In bones found in North Africa, anthropologists discovered traces of the antibiotic tetracycline, a substance used nowadays to treat acne and urinary infection. According to the National Geographic, Nubian beer was “made from grain contaminated with the bacteria streptomycedes, which produces tetracycline”. The drinkers were probably not aware of the benefits of their beverage. The researcher “believes the tetracycline protected the Nubians from bone infections, as all the bones he examined are infection free.” Recent research at at King’s College and St Thomas’ Hospitals in London has shown that beer could limit the risk of osteoporosis. The ethanol in the beer suppresses the hormones responsible for bone loss even better than calcium.

The Egyptians also believed beer to be helpful in fighting gum infections, and it was used as part of recipes for ailments such as snakebite. On the other bank of the Mediterranean, Hippocrates, the Greek “father of medecine”, thought it could bring fever down and had healing properties. The presence of alcohol in the beverage could explain why the Greeks (and the Egyptians) used it on wounds.

But that’s not all it’s good for – for Babylonian women, beer was the secret for softer skin. Cleopatra bathed in it (An alternative to the milk and honey concoction, rumoured to be another favourite of hers, and still used in some beauty parlours nowadays). Babylonians and Egyptians were partially right – despite the obvious drawbacks of a beer bath (smell anyone?), beer contains B vitamins, which have cleansing and nourishing properties. In East European countries, certain pubs and spas still offer beer bathes and facials.

In the UK, beer likely appeared during the Neolithic era, and would have been brewed by women, and drunk by the whole family. Imagine those prehistoric men having a pint after a day work moving stones around Stonehenge. Thanks to its weather, Britain is better for the culture of cereals than vineyards. The Roman attempts at making wine failed in Britain, but only partly because of the rain. Beer was a popular drink, part of the nation’s folklore and no introduction of cider or wine by various invaders could change that. Beer also had its practical advantages – it was easy to keep, and the alcohol in it prevents the development of bacteria found in unsanitary water, making it the ideal drink when clean water wasn’t available.

Until scientists showed a negative link between alcohol and pregnancy, expecting and nursing women were encouraged to drink beer as part of a healthy pregnancy diet. Brewers like Guinness and Mackesons did not hesitate to market the beverage as good for you. If Mad Men were shot in England, no doubt Betty Draper would pour Don a pint after his day’s work.

Queen Victoria is believed to have said: “Give my people plenty of beer, good beer and cheap beer and you will have no revolution among them.” Considering that no serious uprising happened during her reign despite the levels of poverty in London, she might have been right. On the other side of the pond, John Adams, 2nd President of the United-States, had bread and beer for breakfast when he enrolled at Harvard at the age of 15. Legend doesn’t say however if beer was consumed when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

But it’s not all good news for beer drinkers. Research has shown a positive link between beer consumption and a reduced risk of high blood pressure, strokes and cardio-vascular diseases, and the government advises for no more than two beers a day, three days a week. It’s advice that the ancient Egyptians would have agreed with. Despite the occasional party, they were firm believers in moderation, and overindulgence was strictly taboo. Better make that a half then.

About the Author

Lucie is a final year student in International Relations and History. She is really interested in how the internet is modifying the way we study history.

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