Greek tradition has it that the god of wine, Dionysus, fled from Mesopotamia in disgust because its people were so addicted to beer – or, more correctly, ale, since the preservative herbs used in true beer were not introduced until the end of the Middle Ages. Certainly, a staggering amount of the Sumerian grain yield went into ale; something like 40 per cent of the total. The ordinary temple workman received a ration of just under two pints a day, and senior dignitaries more than eight pints, some of which they may have used as currency.
There was, of course, no great range of alternatives at this time – no grape wine, no tea, no coffee, and water that, coming from irrigation canals rather than free-flowing streams, must have been badly contaminated. Most of the brewers in the ancient world were women, who sold the ale from their homes and were under the nominal supervision of the goddess Ninkasi, ‘the lady who fills the mouth’. It was she who baked ‘with lofty shovel the sprouted barley’.
As well as barley ale, of which there were eight kinds, Sumer had another eight made from wheat and three from mixed grains. The quality of all of them seems to have been variable; indeed, the Code of Hammurabi (1750 bc) sounds very much like the Campaign for Real Ale in its condemnation of understrength and over-pricing.
It seems that the discovery of ale was stimulated by the process of bread-making. At some stage in the Neolithic era people had learned that if, instead of using ordinary grain, they used grain that had been sprouted and then dried, it made a bread that kept unusually well.
Something very like this was used in brewing. The Egyptian process was to sprout the grain, dry it, crush it, mix it to a dough and partially bake it. The loaves were then broken up and put to soak in water,where they were allowed to ferment for about a day before the liquor was strained off and considered ready for drinking.
In Egypt the commonest ale was haq, made from the red barley of the Nile. It seems to have been fairly weak, though other Egyptian ales were so sweet and aromatic that they were very little inferior to wine, and are thought to have achieved an alcohol content of about 12 per cent. Some of them, certainly, must have been potent or it would
not have been necessary to warn drinkers, as an Egyptian papyrus of 1400 BC did:
‘Do not get drunk in the taverns in which they drink ale, for fear that people repeat words that may have gone out of your mouth, without you being aware of having uttered them.