A Happy Accident

I can understand how they discovered wine. You squash grapes. Wild yeast on grape skins devours the sugary liquid and voila! Sociables.

But how on earth did they figure out beer?

You have to grow barley, dry it and then—most critically—malt it, which means you need to add water to the grains to get them to sprout over a few days.

Then you have to kiln the grains (bake at 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit, the lower limit of most of our stoves) to get your basic pale malt. And this is just to convert the insoluble starch to soluble starch. There is still very little fermentable sugar in there.

At this point, the grain is now malt. You crack the malt and put it in very warm water and the enzymes in the malt wake up and convert starch to sugar. When they are done, you run more water through the malt/water mixture and then you finally end up with the liquid stuff (wort, pronounced wert) you ferment into beer. Phew.

Beer was a happy discovery. Some beer-loving anthropologists suggest our thirst for beer enticed us to settle down and grow crops in the so-called Fertile Crescent, abandoning nomadic life for an agricultural society.

The ancient people of the Middle East were noted beer drinkers. In fact, one of the oldest beer recipes came from the Sumerians (early inhabitors of what is now Iraq), inscribed on a clay tablet nearly 4,000 years ago.

It was made by soaking a barley-honey loaf called bappir with dates and spelt, then fermenting the mix with wild yeast—creating the furthest drink from Coors Light one can possibly imagine.

The ancient Egyptians were also big on beer… and interbreeding with aliens… and gods with animal heads and people legs. You know, regular ancient people stuff.

According to legend, the Egyptian god Osiris had the good sense to teach humans how to brew.

Beer was also responsible for saving humanity from absolute destruction.

The Sun God, Ra, was angry that his people weren’t worshipping as vigorously as they should have been, so he sent his daughter Sekhmet out to punish them. She took her task seriously and began a relentless slaughter that was so extreme Ra could only stop her through trickery.

He created an entire lake of beer and coloured it with blood-red pomegranate juice. In her bloodlust, she drank the entire beer lake dry, fell asleep and awoke with the mother of all hangovers, with very little fight left in her.

(Actually, the legend says she had only three days to teach humans a lesson, and when she awoke the three days was up.)

I like to imagine human beer history as being punctuated by a series of happy accidents.

All sorts of weird ingredients have made their way into the brew pot over the ages, to varying degrees of success. Some were added for known medicinal properties, such as licorice (adrenal booster), ginger (good for circulation) and juniper (wards off evil spirits).

Others might have been added to hide the skankiness of poor sanitation practices (hops and smoke do this fairly well).

These days, many microbreweries are in heavy experimentation mode trying to create the next new flavour sensation with chipotle, rose petals, garlic, oak chips and others all getting their turn in the brew pot.

My happy accident with beer happened when I first brewed a saison. Saisons are light Belgian-style ales brewed in the spring for those long days of summer working out in the field. These beers have a slightly sour quality that makes them refreshing under a hot sun.

The beer is spicy (from the Belgian strain of yeast) as well as from the addition of some serious spice action.

I’m not much of a recipe person, preferring to let my natural instinct turn out divine inspiration or… a train wreck.

After steeping Bengal spice tea in water and mixing in ground cardamom, coriander, clove, allspice, vanilla bean, juniper berries and black pepper, I threw everything in the fermenter and prayed.

When I tried the finished beer six weeks later it was a six car pile-up. None of the spices had mellowed or melded. It was all too intense.

But the great thing about owning a well-stocked beer fridge is that you lose beers sometimes and get to rediscover them. Six months later I was pleasantly shocked to discover the beer had become a tasty, refreshing spiced ale.

I attribute the ultimate success to the presence of juniper in warding off evil spirits. Sometimes you just gotta believe.

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