Beer: a global journey through the past and present

Review by Max Nelson

Arthur presents a global history of beer inspired by his two-year stay with the Gamo people of Ethiopia. He begins with a brief introduction examining beer in terms of technology (as fermented malted cereal processed with various additives), health (as a nutritious food safer than water), ritual (as a communally consumed and socially important product), and economics (as a commodity that can motivate work). Chapter 2 expands on the technology of beer-production by detailing the variety of methods and the great diversity of ingredients used over the millennia. A useful appendix includes listings of known beer ingredients by place and time-period. The next four chapters proceed area by area in greater detail, beginning with Asia (location of the earliest evidence for beer-making, which pre-dates both the domestication of grain and the invention of pottery), then going on to Africa (ranging from ancient Egyptian beers to modern Tanzanian banana beers), Europe (surveying its great variety of popular styles), and finally Central and South America (examining diverse maize beers and their uses). All of these chapters are accompanied by handy maps and images. Australia and North America are omitted because of the lack of beer among their Indigenous societies. The last chapter details the influence of ancient beer-making in modern times and includes recipes recreating ancient beers.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Mark Nesbitt

Arthur’s book is ambitious and wide-ranging, and includes an impressive bibliography of nearly 700 items. His main contribution is to bring to the fore the often neglected ethnoarchaeological and ethnographic evidence, while also presenting archaeological finds, which he occasionally supplements with literary sources. Inevitably, as might be expected in a work of such scope, with an emphasis on breadth over depth of research, there are some mistakes and even contradictions (particularly between Chapter 2 and later chapters). For instance, Arthur speaks of men beginning to brew in monasteries in Europe in the 8th century (p.16) but then later says that St Benedict from the 6th century is thought to be the originator of Trappist beer (p.130), whereas there was no beer at St Benedict’s monastery, and Egyptian monks already had beer as early as the 4th century. The Roman army goes from having brewers in Britain in 900 BC (p.34) to AD 100 (p.122), only the latter being correct. Arthur further says that the oldest text reference to hops dates to AD 768 (p.36) but later calls this citation only ‘[a]nother early mention’ (p.126), and in fact hops are already found in Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. Despite such flaws, this is a recommended read that distils much scholarship on the history of beer.

Beer: a global journey through the past and present
John W Arthur 
Oxford University Press, £18.99 
ISBN 978-0197579800