Can there be a more magnificent libation than beer? For thousands of years, beer was a staple of the diet for the whole family, children included. It was a safe source of drinking water, supplied valuable nutrition, and the microflora it contained strengthened the immune system. Beer drinkers were resilient, vigorous, and the soluble nutrition they ingested increased brain power. How does nature reward such fine specimens? By making them more attractive to potential mates. Humans had discovered the magical elixir that fed, watered, fortified, gave them a social life and increased their opportunities to go forth and multiply. And a new phrase entered the lexicon – beer goggles.
In several ancient middle eastern cultures beer was central to society, an essential element of cultural identity. In Sumer (modern day Iraq) beer was a sacred gift from Ninkasi goddess of seduction, fertility, the harvest, and beer. Sumerians worshipped her at great public feasts by drinking prodigious amounts of beer and entering a spiritual state. To drink beer was to be civilized, fully human and enlightened.
Mesopotamian city states such as Babylon enshrined in law the beer rations citizens were entitled to. Dire punishments including the death penalty were meted out to brewers and innkeepers who brewed substandard beer or served short measures. Beer was also medicine for treating all manner of ailments. In Egypt beer was used to anoint newborns, as currency, tax, and as tribute to pharaohs.
Beer is the most sociable of drinks at its best when consumed in company. Paintings and photographs from Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and 20th century Tanzania depict groups of people around communal jars of beer sipping it through long straws. The drinking straw – what a marvelous invention – was devised thousands of years ago (hollow plant stalks for the majority, gold and lapis lazuli pipes for the nobility) in order to consume the luscious liquid of beer and avoid any floating cereal husks. Throughout history different cultures established venues specifically for people to meet in and drink beer. Mesopotamians and Egyptians had alehouses, Vikings and Saxons had beer halls, Germans have beer gardens, and Britons the pub. People who drink together think together.
Beer has a mystical quality possessed by no other drink – the ability to cement social relations and unite people whether neighbours in the community or through international diplomacy. Imagine British Prime Ministers inviting visiting heads of state to the local boozer and toasting the relationship with a gin and tonic instead of beer. As career diplomats would say ‘the optics are all wrong’ because beer is a lingua franca that connects people regardless of culture, language, religion, or colour.