The past 20 years or more have seen a huge growth in the craft beer industry, with breweries popping up in small towns, big cities, and interstate corridors with some regularity.

Thousands of amateur brewers and budding professionals want to put their own stamp on a beverage that has been around for much longer than most people realize.

An article in the December 2021 issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology offers new evidence of beer production in the Levant as far back as the Chalcolithic period, six to seven thousand years ago, though it probably goes even further back.

In “From Hangovers to Hierarchies: Beer production and use during the Chalcolithic period of the southern Levant – New evidence from Tel Tsaf and Peqi‘in Cave,” Danny Rosenberg and several joint authors have published evidence of beer consumption based on a study of microfossils attached to ceramic strainers similar to ones known to be used in beer production at other sites.

Tel Tsaf was a settlement in the Jordan River valley from about 5200-4700 BCE, and the Peqi‘in Cave was a burial site located in the upper part of the Galilee, in use from about 4500-3900 BCE.

According to the authors, microfossils associated with the strainers included “phytoliths, starch granules, yeast cells, and fibers” that “indicate that both strainers once contained fermented beverages made from Triticeae (wheat/barley), Panicoideae, and Cyperus tubers.”

An impression from a Sumerian cylinder seal shows two people sipping beer through long straws.

An impression from a Sumerian cylinder seal shows two people sipping beer through long straws. (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / Cropped /

They conclude that beer production was regularly practiced during the Chalcolithic period, and ritual drinking appears “to have played an important role in various social settings for communication among social groups as well as between the living and the deceased.”

We’ve long known that beer was a big deal in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where art often depicts people sipping beer from large pots through long straws.

The world’s oldest pay stubs, small clay tablets from Sumeria, use stylized heads and conical symbols to indicate how much bread and beer workers were paid.

In Egypt, workers who built the pyramids were paid about 1 1/3 gallons of beer per day. The goddess Hathor was associated with beer drinking.

A pay receipt in Sumerian cuneiform.

A pay receipt in Sumerian cuneiform. (Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 /

The Sumerian “Hymn to Ningursu,” the patron goddess of beer, even includes a recipe of sorts. Beer was made mainly from barley grains that were soaked in water, mixed with torn up barley bread that had been half-baked and left to ferment, along with water and a form of sugar such as chopped dates.

The heady concoction took only a couple of days to ferment, but it didn’t preserve well, so it had to be drunk quickly. The method left such a hefty layer of dregs and detritus at the bottom that it had to be filtered, hence the preponderance of clay pots or strainers with holes punched in them.

The practice wasn’t limited to the Middle East, either. A recent study by Russian researchers published in the journal Antiquity and available online through Cambridge University Press concludes that gold and silver rods from the Maikop tomb in the northwestern Caucasus (c. 3700-2900 BCE) were probably used as communal drinking straws with built-in filters.

First discovered in 1897, the hollow, meter-long tubes, some with decorative bull figurines attached, had mystified archaeologists. They were previously interpreted as scepters or canopy poles, but the recent study focused on the decorative tips at the lower end, which were designed with tiny slits or holes not unlike known drinking straws from Mesopotamia. The tiny holes served to filter out the crud at the bottom of the communal beer barrel, as it were.

A micro-botanical analysis of residue from inside one of the tips showed the presence of barley starch granules and cereal phytoliths that could indicate (though not prove) that the long straws had been used for beer consumption.

To those announcements we can add the publication of a discovery in Abydos, Egypt, of what has been billed as the world’s oldest known large-scale brewery, dating back to King Narmer, the founder of Egypt’s first dynasty, around 3,000 BCE.

A mixture of grains and water was heated in huge vats that could produce up to 5,000 gallons of beer at one time. Matthew Adams of New York University, co-leader of the expedition, said it was likely that the brewery served the needs of funerary rituals associated with the royal burial site.

Most people aren’t aware that biblical folk drank beer, too, mainly because a word that probably refers to beer was consistently translated as “strong drink.” The Old Testament contains 20 or so references to “strong drink,” which almost certainly refers to beer, and the archaeological record in Israel contains many examples of spouted pitchers with perforated strainers.

Biblical beer is often found in conjunction with wine, as in “wine and strong drink,” and some argue that shekhar simply refers to undiluted wine, but there would be little sense in using two different words unless they were talking about two different drinks.

There’s no evidence that distillation was used to produce seriously strong liquor in the ancient world, so “strong drink” does not refer to whiskey or vodka: it’s more likely to have indicated beer or possibly strong wines made from fermented fruit, such as dates.

Some biblical texts warn against overindulgence in wine or beer (Prov. 20:1). Prophets condemned heavy drinkers (Isa. 5:11, 28:7) and prophesied judgments that would take the joy out of drinking (Isa. 24:9). Priests couldn’t drink while on duty (Lev. 10:9), and Nazirites were prohibited from anything close to alcohol, including fresh grape juice (Num. 6:3).

At least one old proverb, however, advised offering it to help folks in distress forget their miseries (Prov. 31:6-7)

Most people aren’t aware that beer was also involved in the Israelites’ community worship: regular offerings were to include not only lambs, grain offerings, and oil, but also an offering of “strong drink” to be poured out before God (Num. 28:7).

According to Deuteronomy, when pilgrims to the annual feasts traveled so far that it was impractical to bring sacrificial lambs and food with them, they could convert their goods to cash for the journey. On arrival, they could “spend the money for whatever you wish – oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together” (Deut. 14:26).

I’ve never been a big fan of beer, but it has obviously been a big deal for a long time, and often a part of religious rituals. Given the challenges of dwindling church attendance and the instructions of Deuteronomy, should we argue for allowing congregants to chow down on wings and beer while listening to the Sunday sermon?

But, no. That might lead to more congregational rejoicing than the average church could handle.

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