Brewing beer goes back 12,000 years, and that's just the beginning

Brewing beer goes back 12,000 years, and that's just the beginning

VicesNovember 19, 2018 By Will Brendza

Avery’s Travis Rupp, the Indiana Jones of Brewing, drops knowledge on where beer came from and why we love it so.

People down it at craft breweries, buy it in cases at liquor stores, guzzle it by the growler at home; they preach and boast and nerd out on nuanced flavors, sniffing, swirling and swilling grainy beverages rambling vaguely about hop indexes, flavor profiles, IBU’s and ABV’s.  

But even among the most heroic of geeks, few truly realize how essential beer was to the development of mankind. How the drink brought people together in the wake of the last Ice Age. Gave us sacred spiritual experiences across civilizations. Saved our asses from bacterial evisceration. 

“Barely the tip of the iceberg’s been touched in regards to the history of what’s driven beer production over the last 12,000 years,” says Travis Rupp, a Boulder-based beer archaeologist, special projects brewer, and research and development manager at Avery Brewing. He’s also a full-time professor of art history and anthropology at CU. 

So Rupp knows well and good what he preaches — spending much of his time traveling the world searching for ancient brew sites, analyzing evidence of fermentation, deciphering recipes — and then bringing them back to Colorado where he recreates recipes for Avery’s “Ales of Antiquity” series. Essentially, Rupp is the Indiana Jones of beer. Literally writing the book on it.

“Beer production may have occurred as early as 8500 BCE,” says Rupp. “And it could have potentially come even a little bit earlier than that because we have found some pretty solid archaeological evidence to support that rye started to be domesticated as early as 10,000 BCE.”

That’s 12,000 years ago … 10,000 years before Christianity; 8,500 years before the pyramids of Giza; 6,900 years before Stonehenge. Eons before Fireball. No civilization, no modern religion, nor any culture of people has ever lasted that long. 

“For too long we’ve operated under the premise that the ancients were stupid — that they were too ignorant to really know what they were doing,” explains Rupp. They had to figure out the entire brewing process on their own, with no guidebooks, no technology, and no prior knowledge to help them do it. Which, Rupp argues, was probably extremely difficult for those early brewers.   

And, considering how few people back then were privy to skills like literacy, it’s no wonder so much of that ancient brewing knowledge was simply lost to the ages. If it wasn’t passed down orally, it probably didn’t get passed down at all.

“We’re really relying on a very small percentage of the population to write about some of these things,” adds Rupp. “People who may not have understood exactly how [the beer] was being created.” 

That’s a big reason why it’s so hard to tell exactly where beer was first produced. Record keeping 12,000 years ago wasn’t exactly Google quality. But those ancient brewers left other clues. And at one of the oldest known ruins on Earth, Rupp says he has found evidence of beer production. 

It’s at a site that dates back to the very end of the last Ice Age — to a time when massive climatic shifts were happening around the planet — to a place that’s as mysterious as it is bizarre: Göbekli Tepe. 

This Neolithic anomaly in eastern Turkey is a complexity of large stone pillars, similar to Stonehenge, but much, much older and much larger, too. And, according to Rupp, the ancients who occupied it were drinking beer there. In quantity. 

“Göbekli Tepe is a really interesting location in this discussion, because it certainly demonstrates what appears to be mass production of some kind of gain,” says Rupp. When the last Ice Age ended, this region, which was once lush with trees and vegetation, underwent near-total deforestation, and cereals like rye, wheat and barley started to pop up instead. 

These cereals, the ancients began to experiment with. And in very specific ways.

“There’s evidence there that they may have actually been malting drink. And that’s just super cool,” says Rupp. “In a period of history when humans should have been very nomadic … this could possibly be one of the earliest kilning facilities in order to make malt, to actually do some kind of malting of grain.”

Göbekli Tepe was probably built sometime between 9,000-10,000 BCE, back when mammoths still roamed the planet and people wrestled saber-toothed cats for fun. Archaeologists like Rupp believe that the formation was likely used as a communal place for social and ritual gatherings — not quite a “settlement” or a “city” as we might imagine today, because humans were still nomadic, still wandering, hunting and gathering. Instead, Göbekli Tepe was probably more like Red Rocks or The Gorge, a popular venue for nomadic tribes to stop through on astrological holidays, for celebrations or simply just to take a break from life on the move. To get lit. It was a place of beer and community during a period of natural hazards and violent tribalism.

And it must have been one hell of a party. Imagine that place on a full moon: ancient hunter gatherers, huddled amidst a vast labyrinth of etched stone pillars, under unpolluted starlight, getting spiritual, feasting and fucking into the night, celebrating their wild lives with malted alcoholic drink and great bonfires. 

If only the modern brewery could be so strange. 

But Göbekli Tepe wasn’t necessarily the epicenter of beer. Evidence of fermented grain and beer production has been found in Iran from 7000 BCE, in China from as early as 5400 BCE, and in Iraq from 5000 BCE. And in the Americas, too, beer cropped up totally independent from the rest of the world as the Inca discovered how to ferment maize and fruit all on their own (albeit a bit later on). 

“Look at fermented beverages in the Yellow River basin area or any of these regions in far East Asia,” says Rupp. “A lot of the early production of fermented alcohol there was going on almost exactly at the same time that it was starting to be mass produced in the West, in say, the ancient near-east of Syria, Jordan, Israel and then eventually into Egypt and Greece.”

Brewing, it seems, is an inevitability of human development. Though no one really knows exactly why.

The simple explanation would be because it tastes good and it feels nice. People love that fermented flavor almost as much as they love the beer buzz that follows it. However, Rupp says, that’s maybe not the whole story, suggesting that it likely had more to do with good health and spiritual prosperity.

“Beer was a safer source of hydration than the water was in a lot of locations,” he explains. “A lot of studies have shown that even as little as 1 percent alcohol in water will kill about 99 percent of the bacteria in it.” 

Back then, he says, drinking beer wasn’t all about getting sloshed. They had more important things to worry about. Sure, the ancients could get drunk off their beer, but the ABV probably wasn’t much higher than 1-2 percent — which makes getting drunk something of a commitment. “It was more of a source of nutrients and a source of food for [the ancients]. But also, it was a lot safer to drink that than anything coming out of, say, the Nile.”

So, beer was also a survival mechanism. Even though, most of the time, the ancients considered it to be a spiritual one, as Rupp explained. 

“There’s a location on the island of Cypress that dates to maybe about 2500 BCE,” he says. “It was a primarily religious locale — no buildings, no domiciles, no constant living — but there’s evidence there of mass production of malted grain for … well, what else would it be for?”

Brewing. Beer. Drinking. Naturally. 

“Or, look at other major locations like Macchu-Picchu, for example,” Rupp continues. “With Macchu-Picchu, it was a communal area, but it was also a major religious hub, a major festival hub for that community for its entire existence. We see massive beer production being undertaken for religious festivals there.”

And, Rupp points out, “Interestingly, in most of these cultures, whether it be in the West or in the East, whether it be in ancient Peru or in ancient Egypt, the brewers were typically women.” 

Which also coincides with the many goddesses of beer: Accla, the Incan goddess who brewed; Cerridwen, the Celtic goddess of barley; Gabjauja, the Lithuanian goddess of grain; Ashnan, the Mesopotamian/Sumerian goddess of grain; Hapi, the Egyptian goddess of grain; Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and grain crops;  Huitaca, the Columbian goddess of drinking and dancing; Icovellauna, the Ouranian goddess of ale brewing …

The list goes on. The past, at least in beer brewing, was female.

These days, the spiritual correlation seems to have dissolved, somewhat. People don’t really drink beer for religious purposes any longer. They drink it to have fun, to take the edge off, because the flavor. Some might consider their local craft brewery a place of worship, but it’s not quite the same — drinking beer religiously and drinking beer for religious purposes are two very different things. 

Nevertheless, the practice of brewing has been preserved and upheld, adored even, around the world and across time. When you take a sip from that ale, lager, stout or sour, you are plugging directly into ancestral roots, partaking in a custom as old as the Stone Age, sharing a boozy connection with millennia past. 

“Brewing beer seems to be one of these things that’s just inherently human,” says Rupp. It’s just part of who we are.  

Which, seems to make beer kind of spiritual in and of itself. Maybe craft breweries are churches of a modern form. Maybe we never really lost that spiritual connection to beer, after all. 

Or, maybe this is all just a good excuse to crack open another cold one.