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Give us this day our daily beer
For a long time, students of the human diet assumed that our ancestors learned to bake bread about the time they started to cultivate cereal grains like wheat and barley. And that the desire for bread was what drove the adoption and spread of agriculture. In their natural state, such grains are nearly inedible, with hard coats that defy human dentition. Those early bakers smashed the grains with stone pestles and later grindstones to break the hulls and let water soften their innards. At some point wild yeast, which was and still is ubiquitous in the air, settled on the mash and began to predigest it, making the carbohydrates and proteins inside the grains more available for human absorption. Heating—baking—the dough halted the process by killing the yeast, which otherwise turned the mash sour.
The importance of bread gave rise to its being called the staff of life. Bread became synonymous with money and other things of value. Religious sects built rituals around bread, with Christians going so far as to believe that communion bread was transmuted into the body of Christ upon the priest’s speaking the sacred formula spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper.
More recently, the attention of archaeologists has turned to that other staple produced by the fermentation of grain: beer. Residues of beermaking—including calcium oxalate, called beerstone—have been found in vessels that date back thousands of years. Some of the investigators have asserted that it was beer, not bread, that drove the embrace of agriculture. The fermentation of beer mimicked the fermentation in baking. Both versions unlocked nutrients that would have passed right through the human alimentary canal. Beer lasted longer than bread. And it had the inestimable advantage of giving its drinkers a pleasant buzz.
In our modern era, this buzz is what beer is best known for. But in the early days of brewing, the nourishment beer provided was more important. For most people during most of history, the most pressing nutritional need has been calories, and beer provided calories in readily usable form. For centuries some workers received part of their pay in beer; others paid for beer from their own pockets but deemed it essential to their labors.
This could be a mixed blessing. Benjamin Franklin discovered as much during a stay in England in the 1720s. Franklin had apprenticed as a printer in Boston, and he now accepted work as a journeyman in a London printing house. “At my first admission into this printing-house I took to working at press, imagining I felt a want of the bodily exercise I had been used to in America, where presswork is mixed with composing,” he wrote. “I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer. On occasion, I carried up and down stairs a large form of types in each hand, when others carried but one in both hands. They wondered to see, from this and several instances, that the Water-American, as they called me, was stronger than themselves, who drank strong beer! We had an alehouse boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o'clock, and another when he had done his day's work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he supposed, to drink strong beer, that he might be strong to labour.”
Franklin underestimated the degree to which beer, in a crowded city like London, kept waterborne diseases at bay. The acid produced in fermentation killed harmful bacteria. The guzzlers in his printhouse didn’t know why beer had this prophylactic effect; they simply knew it did.
He tried to convert his pressmate from beer to bread. He reasoned from nutritional value. “I endeavoured to convince him that the bodily strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made; that there was more flour in a pennyworth of bread; and therefore, if he would eat that with a pint of water, it would give him more strength than a quart of beer. He drank on, however, and had four or five shillings to pay out of his wages every Saturday night for that muddling liquor; an expense I was free from. And thus these poor devils keep themselves always under.”
Franklin wasn’t alone in noting the muddling effect of beer on workers’ performance and lamenting the tax it imposed on their take-home pay. Prohibitionists preached clearer heads and fuller wallets. But their efforts didn’t catch on until water supplies grew safe enough to make water a reliable alternative for the masses.
Even then the movement didn’t stick, and America gave up prohibition after a dry decade-and-a-half. Yet that period was long enough to entrench organized crime in major cities, with beer the agent of entrenchment. Distilled liquor could be moved in small quantities, but beer required trucks, which police forces had to be bribed to ignore. Once bribed for beer, the crooked cops were in no position to crack down on extortion and other crimes.
Man does not live by bread alone, said Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy. We’ve lived by beer too, and for just as long.