Anthropology / Book Review

Vol. 5, NO. 1 / December 2019

Divine Medicine

George Scialabba

Letters to the Editors

In response to “Divine Medicine

A Natural History of Beer
by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall
Yale University Press, 242 pp., $28.00.

In the beginning was beer. Well, not quite at the beginning: there was no beer at the Big Bang. Curiously, though, as Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall point out in A Natural History of Beer, the main components of beer—ethanol and water—are found in the vast clouds swirling around the center of the Milky Way in sufficient quantity to produce 100 octillion liters of the stuff, though only at a very disappointing 0.001 proof. On earth, beer-like substances have long existed whenever grains, nectar, or fruits have spontaneously fermented. Chimps and other mammals in the wild have been observed getting sloshed on naturally occurring alcohol, which strongly suggests that very early humans did so too. Whatever the precise date of the first tipple, beer is a truly venerable article, coeval with human civilization and, of course, with some pretty uncivilized behavior as well. DeSalle and Tattersall tell its story with enormous erudition and panache.

The earliest evidence of beer consumption is from a Chinese village around 9,000 BCE, whose pottery yielded chemical traces of a kind of rice beer. There are hints of beer’s existence in the Fertile Crescent as early as 11,000 BCE, but nothing definite, although the fact that barley was cultivated and stored as early as 10,000 BCE means that evidence for very early beer consumption will probably turn up, especially as the biological sciences increasingly become part of archaeology. For now, however, beer’s earliest appearance in Middle Eastern history comes courtesy not of biochemistry or archaeology but of literature. In the celebrated third-millennium Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, the wild man Enkidu is domesticated by eating bread and beer. “This is what men eat and drink,” his discoverer assures him. After seven jugs of beer, the poem tells us, “he was suddenly joyful, and sang aloud.”1

Being portable as well as potable—often more potable than water, since it was boiled at one stage of brewing—beer was one of the earliest currencies, used by temple bureaucracies to pay craftsmen, workmen, and suppliers. We even know how much the laborers who built the Giza pyramids were paid: three allotments of beer per day, totaling four liters. Because Egyptian beer was thicker, sweeter, and more nutritious than most later versions—it was made from crumbled barley bread and sprouted grains and flavored with dates and honey—and because it was often drunk before it was completely fermented, and therefore probably contained appreciable quantities of brewer’s yeast, one of the most nutritious substances known, DeSalle and Tattersall conjecture that “beer was the lubricant that made the astonishing feat of pyramid-building possible.”2 Not all Egyptians considered beer an unmitigated blessing, though. A training manual for scribes warned: “Beer, it scareth men from thee, it sendeth thy soul to perdition.” An advice collection called The Wisdom of Ani echoed this warning: “Take not upon thyself to drink a jug of beer. Thou speakest, and an unintelligible utterance issueth from thy mouth.”3

Beer remained a provincial drink during the Roman Empire. Aristocrats and officials drank wine, which suggests that the Greeks, whom the Roman upper classes copied in most things, did not drink beer either. There was, however, a long and unbroken northern European tradition of brewing, dating from around 2,500 BCE. The church disapproved at first, but there was no separating the northerners from their beer. Soon monasteries, which received tithes from peasant harvests, were using their surplus grain to brew beer. In fact, as DeSalle and Tattersall note, the world’s oldest continuously operating brewing site is in a former monastery, the Weihenstephan Abbey in Bavaria.

Another possible sign of divine favor in this period was the discovery of hops around the ninth century. Beer had long been flavored with herbs and fruit, but no combination had produced universal satisfaction. The seed cones of the hops plant, Humulus lupulus, had various uses in medieval medicine but proved an ideal addition to beer, imparting a bracing bitterness and also acting as a preservative. The latter was important: it allowed beer to travel, making a wider market possible and spurring competition and innovation.

A beer’s bitterness can be measured, it turns out, by a formidably difficult-sounding process involving the isomerization of humulone, an alpha acid of the hops, and then measuring the isohumulone level with a spectrometer. Bitterness levels range from 20 to 2,600 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), though it is probably impossible for most people to distinguish levels over 150 IBUs. As a reward, perhaps, to the reader for working through the details of bitterness measurement, DeSalle and Tattersall reproduce a list of beers with their IBU rankings and their droll monikers: Struise Black Damnation, Dogfish Head Hoo Lawd, Triggerfish the Kraken, Flying Monkeys Alpha Fornication, and so on.4

The next milestone DeSalle and Tattersall chronicle is “the most momentous schism in the history of brewing”: lagering.5 Until the fifteenth century, all European beers were ales: that is, they were fermented by yeast at room temperature. Then some Saxon brewers surprised themselves by producing a new brew, “clear and bright, with a crisp finish,” apparently the result of storing and aging the beer in deep, cool caves.6 The process of cold storage was known as lagering, and the new variety as lager beer. From the fifteenth century until the present, ales and lagers have more or less divided the world between them.

The Saxons had stumbled on a new species of yeast. The traditional ale-brewing yeast (also used for making wine and bread) was Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is active around 21 degrees Celsius. The new, lager-producing yeast, active around 4.5 degrees Celsius, is Saccharomyces pastorianus, which sinks to the bottom of the liquid and does its fermenting there, making lagers generally clearer than ales. It is somewhat humbling to reflect that brewers were stumbling along in the dark for all those centuries, with no idea whatever how fermentation took place; yeast was only discovered by Louis Pasteur in the early nineteenth century. Similarly, brewers have been malting their barley—soaking it and aerating it to begin sprouting, then arresting the process by drying, leaving it ready for fermentation—since Sumerian times without knowing that they were breaking down long starch molecules into shorter sugar ones that the yeast could deal with.

At this point A Natural History of Beer gets into the hard stuff—not spirits but biology and chemistry. DeSalle is a molecular biologist and Tattersall a physical anthropologist, and they throw themselves into explaining the principal component analysis of barley landraces and the phylogeny of Saccharomyces cerevisiae with the same gusto they bring to recounting the colorful history of India pale ale (IPA). Some readers will find these technical chapters too difficult, even though the authors are very good explainers. But there is no harm in skipping them; there is plenty of matter in the rest of the book.

The four fundamental components of beer are water, barley, hops, and yeast. The most relevant characteristic of water for brewing is hardness or softness, which measures the level of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, or other ions dissolved in it. Hardness or softness corresponds roughly to pH, and because the enzymes that break down the sugars will work only at specific pH levels, only certain brews can be made with water of a given pH.7 In general, ales use hard water and lagers use soft. Some of the hardest water in any brewing center is in northern England and goes into making heavy IPAs; the softest is found in Pilsen, Czech Republic, and goes into the feathery light pilsner lager.

Corn, millet, rice, and sorghum have all been used to make beer at some point in history. But barley is now used almost exclusively, because of its convenient biochemical properties. Barley seeds store starch to fuel the plant’s growth, as well as enzymes that break open the endosperm, release the starch within, and convert it to sugar when germination starts, either naturally or through malting.

There are currently 36,000 recorded strains of barley, of which 25,000 have complete or partial pedigrees—more evidence, if any were needed, that a truly enormous number of people care passionately about beer. Barley breeders have long existed alongside brewers, trying haltingly to produce improvements in quality and yield. The progress of molecular genetics has made that research vastly more efficient and productive. “Today … just one student can do all the work that was accomplished in genomics theses during the 1980s and 1990s in less than a second, at a tiny fraction of the cost.”8 Genetic modification may or may not be part of the human future, but it will definitely loom large in the future of beer.

Yeast are single-celled organisms, but they have a fairly complex reproductive life. When nutrients are abundant in the environment, yeast reproduce asexually, budding off identical daughter cells. When nutrients are scarce, they produce spores, which allow them to exchange genetic material with other yeast cells. Because beer is brewed in batches, several times a year, while wine is generally made only once a year, the reproductive cycles and even genealogies of beer yeast and wine yeast are different, even though both are Saccharomyces cerevisiae. For details, see DeSalle and Tattersall’s sister volume, A Natural History of Wine.9

However doubtful the impact of technology on contemporary society may be, there is nevertheless a prospect, however distant, of Beertopia. “What if beer could be produced continuously,” the authors ask, “much as many spirits are nowadays?”

A University of Washington chemist … has proposed a way of doing this. Using three-dimensional printing techniques, his team has produced minute hydrogen gel bioreactors in which a population of yeast can flourish and be active for months at a time. When these tiny yeast-infused cubes are dropped into a glucose solution they set to work doing what they do so well—fermenting it, in a process that continues for as long as the solution is replenished.10

Readers of a certain age may be reminded of a stanza from a well-known American folk song: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains / You never change your socks, / And the little streams of alcohol / Come trickling down the rocks.”

But beer is not an entirely harmless substance, and A Natural History of Beer is not all fun and games. DeSalle and Tattersall take a hard look at the effects of beer-drinking on our metabolisms and our brains. “Most of the chemicals in beer,” they acknowledge, “don’t belong in our bodies in the concentrations that beer delivers.” In fact, “at best, they tax the human metabolic system to its limits.”11

The problem is ethanol, which is hard to metabolize and which, when metabolized, has 75% more calories than the carbohydrates and protein in beer. In the stomach, some ethanol slips away from pepsin and the other digestive enzymes, disrupting normal stomach function. If it seeps into the bloodstream, it may trigger the release of insulin by the pancreas, which initiates the storage of fat. Repeat often enough and the result is a beer belly. The kidney is a stabilizing organ and itself requires a delicate chemical balance. Ethanol disrupts that balance, and in particular attacks vasopressin, our antidiuretic hormone. The kidney responds by releasing more water in the urine, leading to dehydration—for which reason it is a good idea, the authors note, to chase beer with water. They also go into considerable detail about the fate of a liver “chronically bathed with ethanol.”12 The short version: the liver releases large amounts of the enzyme CYP2E1, which metabolizes ethanol but also causes scarring of the liver, a condition which, when aggravated, is called cirrhosis. As DeSalle and Tattersall dryly remark, “[A]ll [this] makes an excellent argument for not overdoing it.”13

Beer’s effects on the brain are less lethal—unless one is behind the wheel. Apparently ethanol messes with several neurotransmitters. Glutamate facilitates synaptic function; ethanol inhibits glutamate production; as synaptic communication slows, mental and physical coordination diminish. In a kind of reverse mechanism, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which dampens synaptic activity, is rendered more active by ethanol, further affecting coordination. And perversely, although alcohol is a depressant, it also increases production of dopamine, the positive-reinforcement neurotransmitter. “It’s a neurological catch-22: you drink more beer because your dopamine levels are going up, but as you drink that beer, your nervous system enhances those feelings of depression.”14 It also raises a tricky philosophical question: what is the ontological status of the pleasure produced by artificially enhanced dopamine levels?

If convincing descriptions count as evidence, then the pleasures of beer are very real indeed. DeSalle and Tattersall begin each chapter with a paragraph recalling their encounter with a memorable beer. Their descriptions are lyrical. The Belgian White Monkey was “a classic harmonious tripel, with sweet malty tones and a decadent finish.”15 The venerable Weihenstephaner lager poured “smooth, the head modest, the color a bright light amber. The flavors that followed were beautifully balanced between malt and hops.”16 Into their own home-brewed ale, which they baptize “Tattersalle,” they put

a complex blend of chocolate, crystal black, and wheat malts, followed by chips from old Bourbon barrels, Scottish ale yeasts, and Golding and Chinook hops. The result was a dense, dark, and creamy ale with a durable head, a pleasing sweetness, and a hint of whiskey on the aftertaste.17

The prize goes to a passage quoted from the beer writer Pete Brown, describing a contemporary re-creation of the legendary India pale ale:

It poured a deep copper colour, slightly hazy from the sheer weight of the hops. The nose was an absolute delight: an initial sharp citrus tang, followed by a deeper tropical salad of mango and papaya. [Then] my tongue exploded with a rich, ripe fruit, seasoned with a hint of pepper. That bitter, hoppy spike had receded, the malt reasserting itself now against that hoppy attack. … There was a delicate tracery of caramel … the finish was smooth and dry, clean and tingling.18

What is the future of beer? Throughout much of the twentieth century, the English-speaking world was condemned to characterless mass-produced stuff from giant conglomerates. By the 1980s, Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors controlled 80% of the American beer market. The situation in Britain was much the same. In both countries, the biggest firms ground down or bought up smaller competitors and, with a steady barrage of advertising, convinced most consumers that their bland industrial lagers were the real item.

Not all consumers, fortunately. By the late 1970s, the search was on in both Britain and the United States for alternatives to the standardized, unimaginative product of the beer multinationals. In England the movement took the form of a revival of the ales that once figured largely in English popular culture. In America, where there was no such tradition, the movement was more heterogenous. It has found its public, though: by now there are 5,000 craft brewers in the United States producing 20,000 brands of beer. It is one of the bright spots in America’s otherwise dismal recent history.


  1. David Ferry, Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), 13. 
  2. Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall, A Natural History of Beer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019), 20. 
  3. Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006), 29. 
  4. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 121. 
  5. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 28. 
  6. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 29. 
  7. Apparently, it is now more common than not to treat the brewing water or to have a quantity of harder or softer water on hand. 
  8. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 100. 
  9. Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall, A Natural History of Wine (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015). 
  10. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 111. 
  11. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 152–53 
  12. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 162. 
  13. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 163 
  14. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 174. 
  15. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 3. 
  16. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 24. 
  17. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 55. 
  18. DeSalle and Tattersall, Natural History of Beer, 207. 

George Scialabba is a contributing editor of the online art and literary magazine The Baffler.

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