What happened to beer brewing in the ancient middle east?

In ancient Sumerian culture, and other subsequent cultures (such as Akkadians) in the middle east,beer brewingfeatured heavily. But later Middle Eastern cultures (e.g. greek, roman as well as in new and old testament biblical writings) wine plays a huge part but beer seems to have no place at all.

Why is it? Is this simply the result of the older cultures being replaced by the newer wine drinking ones? (even though other aspects of those cultures survived the take over, and the greeks and romans were never that influential away from the mediterranean). Or that wine making is technically superior(my student days can attest to the fact that wine is a more cost effective way of getting drunk than beer). Or did beer making live on but as it was the drink of the regular guys not the educated elite, it was not mentioned in the writings that are passed down to us?

Beer was known in Rome. It was called cerevisia (in which you can see the ancestor of the Spanish cerveza). For some reason, though, it was not as popular as wine, despite the vast amount of grain produced by the Roman Empire and consumed in Rome. Beer was, however, drunk in cities within the empirte, but outside Rome, especially by the army.


Probably a big factor is that wine had the advantage that it was storable, meaning it could be made in bulk and shipped long distances as an article of commerce. Traditional beer was perishable and had to be made locally and drunk fresh; it remained mostly a small-scale, home-made type of deal until hopping became common, sometime in the early Medieval era. Hops are a pretty good preservative and hopped beer can be stored and transported almost like wine. But still, by that point wine had more cultural clout; beer only really took off in those parts of Europe that aren’t well suited to grape cultivation.

That would explain why beer didn’t become an article of heavy commerce. But you would still be able to have the beer produced and drunk locally. Furthermore, you could import the grain needed for brewing from afar, then brew it locally.
So I can understand why the Greeks might not have been heavily into wines in the ancient days – rocky, cut-up ground is probably more conducive to grape asrbors than to large fields of grain (which would go into breads and the like). But Rome was hugely into imported grain – that whole “bread and circuses” thing. They shipped in enormous amounts from the provinces (including Egypt). You could’;ve set up a brewery in Rome and used the imported grain to simply make the stuff as needed. In principle, you would only be limited by your customer base. Except that that base apparently wasn’t very large.

Why? Cultural selection? You can’t put it down to beer smelling like a goat, despite what Julian says. Romans were into a lot of strong tastes, like garum fermented fish sauce.

I’d venture to guess that the Greeks drank it because the Greek islands aren’t ideal for grain production. And then the Romans drank it because the Greeks drank it.

The Romans did, after all, steal the Greek gods and the upper classes spoke Greek (not Roman) amongst themselves. On the whole, they were rather Greek obsessed.

Beer did exist in Roman culture, so the question is, what cultural or economic impetus was there to make it more popular? There was already a popular, profitable item (wine), and the alternative product was lower in price, less popular, and more trouble to make and handle (had to be produced relatively close to its point of sale, couldn’t be made in hot weather, took a variable amount of time to ferment based on the weather but would go bad if not sold within as little as a week or two in unfavorable climates, etc). Selling wine or grain was straightforward commodity trading; selling beer was more like running a bakery. In areas where wine was readily available and there was no pre-existing demand for beer (i.e., most of the Mediterranean), there wasn’t any economic advantage in trying to create that demand.

The Romans idealized Greek culture and rich Romans liked to have Greek servants or slaves for jobs like tutors and doctors, so a lot of Greek preferences simply became Roman preferences. The Greek preference for wine probably transferred this way.

It’s still the case that in the Mediterranean world wine is the drink of choice. France, Italy, Spain, etc all produce beer, but nobody raves about French or Italian beer. It’s pretty average stuff, frankly.

I suspect that what’s at the bottom of this is that, once you have mastered the techniques of viticulture, you’ll find that mediterranean climates and environments are suitable for producing really good wine, but only fairly average beer. Add to that the fact already pointed out - wine is more storeable and more portable and has a higher alcohol content and therefore a higher value-per-volume, with the result that wine gets traded in a way that beer doesn’t.

Wine is not the drink of choice in Spain, it’s beer. Per capita consumption:

Beer: 68 liters (2012 data)
Wine: 21 liters (2014 data)

Or, from 2010 data, alcohol consumption in Spain breaks down to…
49.7% beer; 28.2% spirits; 20.1% wine

Which pretty much ruled out the Mediterranean through much of the year, pre-HVAC. Breweries in Spain are either in the northern seaboard (whose weather is more similar to England’s than to the rest of Spain) or heavily refrigerated.

I used to work in a factory which had a rule to perform a certain inspection “in the summer”. We explained that to the consultants who were setting us up for a new computer system, and they said “oh, so we need to prepare the system to call up for those inspections from… June to August, right?”
“Uh, no… we define ‘summer’ as ‘any month when the thermometer goes above 30C.’ Normally that starts in April but we’ve had years February was part of ‘summer’”.
Those inspections were set to be triggered manually.

For people who have never seen a car being pulled out of the street after it sunk into the molten tar, it’s difficult to imagine.

That consumption for beer and wine has to do with when are both consumed. Most people in Spain will look at you funny if you suggest having wine without any food, but also if you suggest having beer with food.

Do these numbers refer to consumption of the whole beverage, or just the alcohol in it? If the former, then I don’t think you can use those statistics for the point you’re making. The serving size for wine is a lot smaller than that for beer, and the serving size for spirits is a lot smaller than that for wine. If in a week I normally drink twenty shots of liquor and one pint of beer, then by volume I drink more beer than liquor, but I don’t think most people would interpret this as meaning I prefer beer to liquor.

Indeed – but if running a brewery is like running a bakery, you wouldn’t expect them not to exist – you’d expect them to make batches no larger than can be sold before they went bad – just like bread. It doesn’t explain why there was no market for the product.

As far as “you can’t brew it in someplace hot”, that’s absurd. As long as you can find a cooler place (underground, for instance, in caves or excavated places) you can brew. Fer cryin’ out loud, beer was invented in the Middle East, and drunk widely in Egypt and Sumeria.

To be fair, that’s a pretty big “as long as”. A few days ago I visited the Beer Museum in Munich and if it’s one thing the exhibits really stressed, it was the difficulty of brewing beer in unpredictable weather conditions. (And keep in mind that Munich isn’t exactly known for its warm climate.) It wasn’t until the advent of artificial refrigeration that the brewing industry was able to take off on a large scale.

Beer does appear in the old testament, but not in the new:


Fewer mentions than wine, to be sure; but it is there.

Right, but we’re not talking about “large scale” – we’re talking about a lot of relatively small local brewers. Apply the same arguments people have been using to the baking of bread – “Bread wasn’t eaten in Rome, because without modern preservatives, bread went stale in only one or two days. Large scale bread production had to wait until the modern chemical industry was able to produce the sodium proprionate required.”

Only it ain’t true. They ate a lot of bread in Rome. It was baked fresh every day by a battery of bakers , as it is in cities in the Us and in large areas of Europe.
Or consider the dairy industry. “Large scale mkilk production had to wait until the development of refrigeration, because mil sours in a couple of days.” But Tevye the milkman made his rounds every day with fresh milk.
If modern refrigeration wasn’t available, and you effectively couldn’t export it, the lack of mederrn technology no more explains the lack of beer drinking in Rome than it predicts the lack of consumption of bread and milk in ancient Rome.

Beer is mentioned plenty in the Talmud. There’s no indication that it was ever not a part of day-to-day life for Jews in Israel or Babylon.

The bread that’s considered normal in Rome still goes stale in one or two days.

I just want to point out that I don’t myself have a good answer for why beer wasn’t more widely drunk in Rome. For all I know, it might have been, but we have little record of it. Cultural prejudice might explain it. My point is that the lack of refrigeration itself doesn’t – Beer was invented in the Middle East and brewed in Egypt and Sumer. And the Romans imported Egyptian beer! If there was a demand for it, beer could be produced in small lots and consumed before it went bad, like bread or milk. Lacvk of refrigeration doesn’t explain the lack of consumption. Something else is required.

Not to derail this, but to bring up another example, I’ve long wondered why American Indians didn’t drink wine. Native American labrusca grapes can be used to make wine just as well as European vinifera grapes. Limited amounts of alcoholic beverages were produced elsewhere in the Americas. You can’t argue that they didn’t have the technology or the raw materials. So why didn’t they produce wine? Some other explanation is needed.

I think the first figures do indeed refer to the whole beverage, but even so beer comes out ahead. A glass of wine is generally considered 4-6 ounces and a serving of beer 12 ounces. Even if we take the low end estimate of 4 ounces for the wine, that’s one-third a serving of beer whereas the statistics show a more than 3 to 1 advantage to beer.

As for the second statistic, the one showing percentages, that must refer to just the alcohol - otherwise Spaniards would be drinking way more hard liquor by volume than wine, which can’t be right.

I would like to point out that contrary to popular opinion, the Middle East is not hot year round and many places get very cold.

Some of the earliest recorded breweries were attested in the Elba Tablets which was near what is now Aleppo, which sees temperatures below freezing regularly.

Hell even Baghdad can seetemperatures below freezing.