Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beer as big as I think

Research proves it's as vital to mankind as to me

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Have you ever sat down and seriously contemplated the contribution beer has made to the development of modern civilization?

No, of course you haven't! That's because you are what we like to call "normal" and have to juggle the complicated demands of work and family life, whereas Canadian researchers apparently have way too much time on their hands.

I say that based on news reports I have just read stating that a team of researchers from Simon Fraser University has made a remarkable discovery -- beer-making was crucial to the development of human civilization as we know it today.

As the official spokesman for guys of my gender, I would like to issue my reaction to this major breakthrough in the following heartfelt statement: "Duh!"

I'm kidding, naturally. The truth is, this is the kind of groundbreaking discovery that all of us, regardless of gender, race, religion or education level, can feel proud to support, especially if we have consumed between eight and 12 beers.

What you need to know is that three archeologists at SFU synthesized dozens of studies on the ancient Natufian culture that, about 10,000 years ago, occupied a region just east of the Mediterranean Sea in what we now call the Middle East, thought to be the cradle of agriculture in the ancient world.

According to the reports I read and partially understood, a love for beer appears to have played a key role in driving these nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle down in stable communities that grew crops, such as the cereal grains needed for brewing beer.

The researchers are quoted as saying "the domestication of cereals was for the purposes of brewing beer rather than for basic subsistence purposes."

Here's how the New York Times summarized the Canadian study in the headline on a recent article: "How beer gave us civilization." You don't want to argue with the New York Times, do you? No, I didn't think so.

While I am not technically an archeologist, I can state with some authority that the invention of beer is shrouded in mystery, because I am too tired to look it up online. There is little doubt it stretches back to prehistoric times, as we see from this fictional transcript:

First caveman: "What's that?"

Second caveman: "I call it 'The Wheel!' "

First caveman: "Cool! What's it for?"

Second caveman: "No idea, but I'll bet it'll be huge as soon as someone invents the internal combustion engine."

First caveman: "Sweet! Why don't we roll it over to my cave and celebrate with a few beers?"

Second caveman: "Sounds good. Maybe later I'll invent the pizza, possibly chicken wings."

First caveman: "What's a chicken?"

History aside, the point is, it is safe to say that, without the influence of beer, great people such as Columbus, Jacques Cartier and Einstein would not have made their major discoveries. It is safe to say that because all those people are dead and, therefore, unlikely to hire lawyers.

Do you know how many discoveries were made because of the existence of beer? I personally don't have a clue, but I'll bet it numbers in the hundreds, possibly thousands. Off the top of my head, I doubt we would have beer-league hockey if it weren't for this frosty beverage. To say nothing of professional darts, bungee jumping, lingerie football and NASCAR.

I can also assure you that, based on my own experience, many of mankind's greatest achievements occurred after some daring pioneer screwed up his courage, turned to his colleagues and uttered these legendary words: "Hold my beer and watch this!"

What we do know, thanks to the Canadian researchers, is that the beer sucked back by the ancient Natufians was far different than modern suds. Here's what they state in their paper in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory:

"Beers made in traditional tribal or village societies generally are quite different from modern industrial beers. Traditional beers often have quite low alcohol contents (two to four per cent), include lactic acid fermentation giving them a tangy and sour taste, contain various additives such as honey or fruits, and vary in viscosity, from clear liquids to soupy mixtures."

So these would have been the perfect beers for fraternity keg parties, because modern university students would not know good beer if it ran up and bit them, which some of these ancient beers probably could.

Forgive me for getting emotional, but it's important, as a society, to remember where we came from. I personally am a middle-aged, overweight newspaper columnist with only a handful of brain cells to rub together.

And to think I owe it all to beer!

doug.speirs @freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2013 A2

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