Hello and welcome to Rome Across Europe! Over the past year or so we’ve put together some articles about Wine in Ancient Rome, the History of Wine, Winemaking, Wines within the Empire, even Who Wrote about Roman Wines.
Maybe we got a little vinum crazy. Heck, wine’s been this author’s main focus of each day since July so it makes sense as to why wine’s been a focal point.
As of late it seems as if we’ve been receiving quite a few messages about why we haven’t had any articles or videos about beer or if the Romans enjoyed beer. Well, those requests get answered now.
Today we’re discussing Beer…Roman Style!
Beer is an alcoholic beverage produced by the saccharification of starch and fermentation of the resulting sugar. The starch and saccharification enzymes are often derived from malted cereal grains; most commonly malted barley and malted wheat.
Most beer is also flavored with hops, which add bitterness and act as a natural preservative, though other flavorings such as herbs or fruit may occasionally be included. The preparation of beer is called brewing, which causes a natural carbonation effect.
Beer is the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage, and the 3rd-most popular drink overall, after water and tea. Leave it to the Britts to spread their influence around the world, right?
It is thought by some to be the oldest fermented beverage. Modern beer is sold in bottles and cans in pubs and bars, and is even available on draught.
Beer forms part of the culture of beer-drinking nations and is associated with social traditions such as beer festivals, pub crawling and pub games such as billiards.
Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the Early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed. It has been recorded in the history of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.
Archaeologists even speculate that beer was instrumental in the formation of civilizations. (I don’t think too many of my friends will argue that point.)
Some of humanity’s earliest known writings refer to the production and distribution of beer. The Code of Hammurabi included laws regulating beer and beer parlors, and The Hymn to Ninkasi, a prayer to the Mesopotamian goddess of beer, served as both a prayer and as a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a culture with few literate people.
The earliest known chemical evidence of barley beer dates to circa 3500–3100 BC from the Sumerian site of Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains. Some of the earliest Sumerian writings contain references to beer, providing the ancient advice (Fill your belly. Day and night make merry) to Gilgamesh, recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, by the ale-wife Siduri.
The Ebla tablets, discovered in 1974 in Ebla, show that beer was produced in the city in 2500 BC.
The Sumerians loved beer so much they ascribed the creation of it to the gods, among them, Inanna.
Brewers were female, most likely priestesses of Ninkasi, and early on beer was brewed by women in the home as a supplement to meals. The beer was a thick, porridge-like drink consumed through a straw and was made from bippar (barley bread) which was baked twice and allowed to ferment in a vat.
By the year 2050 BC beer brewing had become commercialized as evidenced by the famous Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur dated to that time.
Almost any substance containing sugar can naturally undergo alcoholic fermentation. It is likely that many cultures, on observing that a sweet liquid could be obtained from a source of starch, independently invented beer.
Bread and beer increased prosperity to a level that allowed time for development of other technologies and contributed to the building of civilizations.
The Sumerians passed on their knowledge of brewing to the Babylonians who further commercialized it and passed laws regulating the beverage. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylon states that tavern keepers who pour a “short measure” of beer would be drowned.
The Babylonians brewed many different kinds of beer and classified them into 20 categories which recorded their various characteristics. Beer became a regular commodity in foreign trade, especially with Egypt, where it was very popular.
Through trade, beer travelled to Egypt where the people embraced the brew eagerly. Egyptians loved their beer and breweries grew up all around Egypt. As in Mesopotamia, women were the first brewers and beer was closely associated with the goddess Hathor at Dendera at an early stage.
The Egyptian goddess of beer was Tenenit and it was thought the art of brewing was first taught by the great god Osiris himself. Workers at the Giza plateau received beer rations thrice daily and prescriptions for various ailments included the use of beer.
Over 100 recipes for medicines included the drink. Beer was thought to be healthier than drinking water and was consumed by Egyptians of all ages, the youngest to the oldest.
Beer was enjoyed so regularly among the Egyptians that Cleopatra lost popularity toward the end of her reign more for implementing the first ever tax on beer than for her wars with Rome which the beer tax went to help pay for.
Drunk or not, it appears that all ancients seemed to recognize that alcohol was a safer, and healthier, beverage than water which was typically unclean.
From Egypt, beer traveled to Greece (known there as zythos) but did not find the same receptive climate there. The Greeks, however, favored strong wine over beer and considered the grainy brew an inferior drink of barbarians.
The Greek General and writer Xenophon, in Book IV of his Anabasis, writes:
There were stores within of wheat and barley and vegetables, and wine made from barley in great big bowls; the grains of barley malt lay floating in the beverage up to the lip of the vessel, and reeds lay in them, some longer, some shorter, without joints; when you were thirsty you must take one of these into your mouth, and suck. The beverage without admixture of water was very strong, and of a delicious flavor to certain palates, but the taste must be acquired.
Beer was obviously not to Xenophon’s taste, nor was it any more popular with his countrymen. The playwright Sophocles, among others, also refers to beer somewhat unfavorably and recommends moderation in its use.
Beer was spread through Europe by Germanic and Celtic tribes as far back as 3000 BC, and it was mainly brewed on a domestic scale with methods mirroring those of the ancient Sumerians. The product that the early Europeans drank might not be recognized as beer by most people today.
Alongside the basic starch source, the early European beers might contain fruits, honey, numerous types of plants, spices and other substances such as narcotic herbs. What they did not contain was hops, as that was a later addition, first mentioned in Europe around 822 AD.
Again, women were the original brewers in Germania and beer was made from only fresh water, heated, and the best grains. The Germans, like those who preceded them, also instituted a daily beer ration and considered beer a necessary staple of their diet.
The tradition continued down into the Anno Domini when monks took up the craft of brewing and sold beer from their monasteries.
From the Celtic lands, beer brewing spread, always following the same basic principles instituted by the Sumerians: female brewers making beer in the home, use of fresh, hot water and fermented grains.
The intoxicant known in English as beer takes its name from the Latin bibere (by way of the German bier) meaning to drink and the Spanish cerveza comes from the Latin word cerevisia (of beer), giving some indication of the long span human beings have been enjoying the drink.
The Roman Emperor Julian even composed a poem exalting the virtues of wine as a nectar, while noting that beer smelled like a goat. Romans did brew beer, however, as evidenced by finds at a Roman outpost in Germania.
The Roman historian, Tacitus, writing of the Germans, says, “To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine”. Even so, the Romans were brewing cerevisia quite early as evidenced by the tomb of a beer brewer and merchant (a Cerveserius) in ancient Treveris.
Excavations of the Roman military encampment on the Danube, Castra Regina, unearthed evidence of beer brewing on a significant scale shortly after the community was built in 179 AD by Marcus Aurelius.
Beer could have caused the fall of the Imperium Rōmānum because it probably led many Romans to settle in lands far away from Rome. This left the heart of the Empire unprotected against ravaging barbarians.
The great Julius Caesar is known for his military campaigns and conquests in the province of Gallia. In the time of Caesar, the Legio Romanus wandered far and wide conquering lands to expand the Roman Empire.
The Legions were rumored to be able to march for days while only consuming water and a hardtack. A Legionarius between towns, would often supplement rations whenever, and wherever, possible.
Maybe even trying some “liquid bread”.
Beer could not travel well, and hops had not yet been introduced as a preservative, so it was easier to store and transport the grains than to move around large quantities of beer. Discovering this, brewers then became part of the lixae (camp followers).
For the local brewery to be able to supply the garrison with its favorite beer, a supply of grain would be needed. This could be taken from the military stores, but those would run short. A local crop of grain would be harvested or expropriated.
As the Roman Empire grew, the nobility created vast estates in the newly acquired coloniae. More and more forests were cleared to cultivate grain. Two of the initial crops planted were wheat and barley.
A week after the harvest, the first batch of fresh beer would be served. Legionnaires often stayed in newly conquered areas as either part of their praemia, or as deserters.
Put yourself in their caligae. If your term in the Exercitus Romanus were up, would you march back to Rome or would you stay where you were?
There were always plenty of women around in these new colonies, especially since most brewmasters traditionally were women.
When push came to shove, there were not enough soldiers to protect Rome from the barbarians. Most battle hardened veterans, the survivors, were all living their lives away from the heart of the Empire.
Beer was important to the Roman Amy as proven in Diocletian‘s Ēdictum Dē Pretiīs Rērum Vēnālium where zythus (beer of Egyptian type) is rated at half the price of cervesia and camum (beer of Gaulish and Dalmatian type). This again fetches half the price per pint allowed to table wine.
Fresh water is one of the vital ingredients for a good beer. Roman communities had fresh running water, which was brought in from vast distances through their viaducts.
It was piped in to public fountains and the homes of the rich. In fact during times of drought, the water department would reduce the flow of water to the public initially before the supply to the rich would be affected, and even the rich took a backseat to wine and beer.
Breweries would be located upstream from the community and the flow of water would not be reduced. Too many taxes would be lost by cutting off the supply of water to such valuable and essential businesses.
Created with the water and local grains, wort would be cooked in a large copper pot. Then it was transferred to a clay pot.
Because yeast’s role in beer making was not fully understood until just a few decades ago, the pot was left to sit open in the hope that the god of beer and wine would kiss it and make it start to ferment.
The use of central heating in Roman homes would make the production of beer easy to control. Even though most breweries were in the countryside, the floors of Roman homes were heated so a clay pot sitting over an open vent would be warmed directly on the bottom.
The equipment used to make beer and wine has not changed much since the Romans introduced the screw press, which is used even today for crushing grapes. Many modern brewers are using methods and equipment that have been handed down through the generations.
Clay crock pots like those used by the Romans will always be with us. Modern airlocks, yeasts, and cleansers have been added to the brewer’s list of supplies, simple improvements on classic techniques.
The Romans, like the Greeks and Egyptians before them, were constantly trying to improve their brewing and vinification techniques. In ancient times brewing knowledge and techniques would be part of the secret society of brewers.
To learn the craft Romans would work in a guild or family that held the secrets of the brew. While the brewers themselves were well known in the community, the knowledge of how to make a good beer was not shared with the public or even within the brewing community.
It was important that the competition not find out the brewer’s trade secrets. Although the secrecy may have led one brewer to covet another’s method, not much was known about the science of making beer.
When it came to making a beer, the Romans used the techniques and equipment that worked the last time and relied on locally grown ingredients. Therefore, each town’s beer had a unique taste and appeal.
By 770 AD Charlemagne the Great was appointing brewers in France and, like the Babylonians before him, regulating the use of it. In 1516 AD, William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law) was instituted which regulated the ingredients which could legally be used in brewing beer (only water, barley, hops and, later, yeast) and, in so doing, continued the practice of legislation concerning beer which the Babylonians under Hammurabi had done some 3,000 years earlier.
This may be perhaps the oldest food-quality regulation still in use today.
Today, the brewing industry is a global business, consisting of several dominant multinational companies and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewpubs to regional breweries. All it took was a couple thousand years and the collecting of ancient knowledge and techniques to make it happen.
We hope we have satisfied your thirst for beer knowledge. Maybe now it’s time for you to go grab one of your favorite brews in honor of this ancient tradition.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Cornell, Martyn. Beer: The Story of the Pint. ISBN 0-7553-1165-5.
Glover, Brian. Beer: An Illustrated History. ISBN 1-84038-597-9.
Haydon, Peter. Beer and Britannia: An Inebriated History of Britain. ISBN 0-7509-2748-8.
Hornsey, I. A History of Beer and Brewing. ISBN 0-85404-630-5.
Mark, Joshua J. Beer.
Mark, Joshua J. Beer in the Ancient World.
Smith, Gregory. Brew Julius Caesar’s Beer.
Tlusty, Ann. Bacchus and Civic Order: The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany. ISBN 0-8139-2045-0.