When and where did beer first originate? It’s difficult to attribute the invention of beer to a particular culture or time period, but the world’s first fermented beverages likely emerged alongside the development of grain agriculture some 12,000 years ago.
As hunter-gatherer tribes settled into agrarian civilizations based around staple crops like wheat, rice, barley and maize, they may have also stumbled upon the fermentation process and started brewing beer. Some anthropologists have argued that these early peoples’ thirst for a brewed beverage may have contributed to the Neolithic Revolution by inspiring new agricultural technologies.
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The earliest known alcoholic beverage may have been brewed around 7000 BCE in China in the village of Jiahu, where neolithic pottery shows evidence of a mead-type concoction made from rice, honey and fruit.
The first barley beer was most likely born in the Middle East, where hard evidence of beer production dates back about 5,000 years to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia. Not only have archeologists unearthed ceramic vessels from 3400 B.C. still sticky with beer residue, but the “Hymn to Ninkasi”—an 1800 B.C. ode to the Sumerian goddess of beer—describes a recipe for a beloved ancient brew made by female priestesses.
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These nutrient-rich suds were a cornerstone of the Sumerian diet and were likely a safer alternative to drinking water from nearby rivers and canals, which were often contaminated by animal waste.
Beer consumption also flourished under the Babylonian Empire, where its ancient set of laws, the Code of Hammurabi decreed a daily beer ration to citizens. The drink was distributed according to social standing: Laborers received two liters a day, while priests and administrators got five. At the time, the drink was always unfiltered, and cloudy, bitter sediment would gather at the bottom of the drinking vessels. Special drinking straws were invented to avoid the muck.
Few ancient cultures loved their beer as much as the ancient Egyptians. Workers along the Nile were often paid with an allotment of a nutritious, sweet brew, and everyone from pharaohs to peasants and even children drank beer as part of their everyday diet. Many of these ancient beers were flavored with unusual additives such as mandrake, dates and olive oil.
More modern-tasting libations would not arrive until the Middle Ages when Christian monks and other artisans began brewing beers seasoned with hops.