"No Beer, No Civilization":

George Will thinks some folks underestimate the importance of beer.

UPDATE: Professor Bainbridge thinks it's really "No Wine, No Civilization." Redheadlaw7 likes that story better.

I've always wondered who first had the idea to take some plants, subject them to certain processes, and drinks whatever the result was.

I actually have the same questions about bread too. Who on earth would know that you could make something easily edible by chopping down these weeds, grinding up the seeds, etc. etc.

Come to think of it, whoever thought they would try crushing weeds, wrapping them on paper, lighting them on fire, and sticking one end of them in their mouth and inhaling?
7.10.2008 11:10am
byomtov (mail):
Not sure I buy Will's tale. Drinking alcohol causes dehydration. Relying on beer as the main source of water seems dubious, unless maybe the alcohol content was extremely low - "just enough to act as a preservative," as Sky Masterson told Sarah Brown.

I suspect the evolutionary process at work was developing immunity to lots of the contaminants in drinking water.
7.10.2008 11:18am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I recall that when an English army went to France during Henry VIII's time, their first move upon setting up a supply depot was to build a brewery. And a very big one, to my memory.
7.10.2008 11:20am
pgepps (www):
byomtov, drinking alcohol causes dehydration. Parasites, diahrrea, fevers, and cholera cause much WORSE dehydration. One can always balance a diet, but fermentation has been a basic element of the food toolkit for as long as humans have been around. Only silly moderns think these things strange.
7.10.2008 11:24am
I'm sure a lot of it was accidental, like the time I made yogurt by leaving a glass of milk on top of the fridge for a week. I didn't eat, but I probably would have if I'd have been hungry enough.
7.10.2008 11:25am
Sarcastro (www):
[I read some time ago in Scientific American that the first bread, in Egypt, was made from what was leftover from beer making.]
7.10.2008 11:43am
byomtov--Hence "small beer," served to children and at breakfast in olden times.
7.10.2008 11:44am
Will, unfortuately, missed the greatest evolutionary advantage of beer and wine to propagation of the species -- changing the perception of members of the opposite gender.
7.10.2008 11:45am
Originalism Is Useful (mail):

Will believes in that benefit. He dresses himself while drunk every morning. And he's drunk everytime he lovingly debates with Cokie Roberts.
7.10.2008 11:53am
Wayne Jarvis:
No TV and No beer makes Homer something something.
7.10.2008 11:55am
byomtov (mail):

That's why I mentioned the possibility that the beer being discussed had lower alcoholic content than modern beer.


Yes, diets can be balanced, but the way to balance dehydration is to take in fluids. I'm not one of your"silly moderns." I fully understand that people have been drinking alcohol for many thousands of years. I even drink it myself. My doubts were about the use of beer as the main, or only source of fluids. I suppose there's some level of alcohol content that leads to a net increase, rather than decrease, in fluids from beer. I don't know what is.
7.10.2008 12:20pm
Matt Caplan (mail):
That definitely made me smile. It so happens that, as I read the article, I was wearing a shirt with the quote he attributed to Ben Franklin.
7.10.2008 12:39pm
A mild demurral to the notion that alcohol is addictive: back when words had meaning, an 'addictive' drug was one which had to be taken in increasing dosages to get the same physical effect. Although we learn 'to hold our liquor' (thereby seeming to need more for the same effect), the physical effect in fact stays about the same.

'Habituative', yes; 'addictive', no.
7.10.2008 12:50pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
It's worth remembering, however, that Hitler got his momentum in a beer hall.

Beer is a social lubricant that permits for institutional evolution. But because of its affect on inhibitions, I would guess that it has been used more often for institutional changes organized around "us-them" distinctions rather than "true-false" ones.
7.10.2008 1:35pm
Richard A. (mail):
The great University of Pennsylvania professor Sol Katz theorizes that beer was in fact the font of civilization. The early cities in the valley of the Tigris-Euphrates farmed barley, not wheat. And barley makes awful bread but great beer.
Furthermore fermentation turns the incomplete protein of grains into complete protein, with a healthy dose of B vitamins as well.
You could live forever on beer with just a source of vitamin C, relatively easy to find in nature.
If you only had bread, however, you would die of malnutrition in short order.
7.10.2008 1:35pm
""small beer," served to children and at breakfast in olden times": not all that olden - it was what my father drank at morning break at school in ca 1923.
7.10.2008 1:36pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
Home Simpson was very profound when he said, "Beer: the cause of and solution to the world's problems."
7.10.2008 1:36pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Jonathan, aren't you encroaching on Orin's turf here?
7.10.2008 1:37pm
Houston Lawyer:
I believe it is more likely that the primary reason for early agriculture was to make beer, not bread. Agriculture led to established towns, since you had to stick around to tend the crops.
7.10.2008 1:54pm
General Disarray:

My guess is that for a long periods of human history there have been at least some human beings (the ones who could afford to do so) who have survived with beer or wine as their only beverages per se. That's not to say that they didn't also take in water in relatively safer forms such as wet, cooked foods (e.g., soups), raw fruits and vegetables, etc.

I'd also be curious to hear from one of the MDs here whether there's some lower threshold of hydration at which your kidneys will simply begin to ignore the diuretic effects of any further alcohol you consume.
7.10.2008 2:12pm
Zywicki (mail):
We Dartmouth folk long ago recognized that beer is the foundation of civilization.

I've been reading "The Pillars of the Earth" and the sequel this summer and it has taken some getting used to the constant reference to everyone drinking beer all the time, including kids and including for breakfast.
7.10.2008 2:17pm
George Will is late to the party.
7.10.2008 2:20pm
Beer is safe because boiling is part of the brewing process and kills the nastiest bugs in the feed water. The alcohol isn't sufficient (in most beers) to kill all micro-organisms, this is why bars need to clean their taps frequently, and brewers clean their equipment: to prevent bacterial infections.

In wines and higher alcohol / bottle conditioned beers, the higher alcohol is sufficient to kill most bugs.
7.10.2008 2:23pm
Richard A. (mail):
byomtov: Beer does not cause dehydration for the simple reason that it is almost entirely water. If you can find any study that shows otherwise, please post it. Otherwise you are simply repeating something you heard somewhere with no proof thereof. A common hazard of the Internet, unfortunately.
7.10.2008 2:33pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Richard A: Speak for yourself! I'm quite fond of barley bread.

It's not exactly certain what the first beer was made from. It might have been dates; it might very well have been barley. There's an interesting seal from the Dilmun civilization (approx. 2000 BCE, in what is now the country of Bahrain) that shows two men sharing a jug of beer, drinking it through straws. This image accurately relays the design, though it is a modern interpretation in textiles.

In the 'too good to be true' department, the original seal was discovered during excavations funded in part by a Scandinavian brewery, as recounted in Looking for Dilmun.

It appears to be that certain breads were baked intentionally to brew beer from them. Evidence of such is found both in Sumeria and ancient Egypt.
7.10.2008 2:35pm
General Disarray:

Out of curiosity, how do we know it was beer in that Dilmun jug?
7.10.2008 2:43pm
byomtov (mail):
byomtov: Beer does not cause dehydration for the simple reason that it is almost entirely water. If you can find any study that shows otherwise, please post it. Otherwise you are simply repeating something you heard somewhere with no proof thereof. A common hazard of the Internet, unfortunately.

I don't know about you, but when I drink beer I tend to urinate a lot, part of the dehydration effect, so taking in water in and of itself does not mean it does not cause dehydration.

In any case, wine is mostly water. Whiskey of less than about 100 proof is mostly water. Do they not cause dehydration?

My very simple point is not that beer causes dehydration but that alcohol does. (If you can find any study that shows otherwise please cite it.)

Therefore, when we drink a mixture of water and alcohol, like beer or wine, the water content and the dehydration effect will offset one another. what I am curious about is where the breakeven point is in terms of alcohol percentage in the mixture. Without knowing that we don't know whether beer causes dehydration.

That seems like a straightforward enough question. Note that I made no claims, just expressed some doubts.
7.10.2008 2:55pm
ClosetLibertarian (mail):
Benjamin Franklin also discusses the drinking of beer throughout the day in his autobiography, and attributes part of his success to abstaining (at least partially). This is hard to square with his other quotes which are more common and more admired by me.

I can personally attest to the fact that you can stay hydrated on beer. We forgot the water but remembered the beer on a all day fishing trip in the hot sun and felt no more tired or dehydrated than on a usual trip.

The hops in beer are also a preservative but its wide use is relatively recent compared to the history of beer.

Also, as old as beer is, mead is probably older. True it doesn't have the same relationship to farming. Alot of mead is not boiled.
7.10.2008 3:00pm
byomtov (mail):
From WebMD on avoiding dehydration:

Do not drink alcohol, including beer and wine. They increase dehydration and make it difficult to make good decisions.
7.10.2008 3:02pm
Ex parte McCardle:
This was why McCain's June pledge to "veto every single beer" was so distressing: it would spell the end of civilization itself.
7.10.2008 3:08pm
ClosetLibertarian (mail):

WebMD also says to avoid caffeine which is a proven myth. So, I would like to see a better source. I haven't seen a study either way on alcohol, but my own experience says beer is net source of hydration like coffee. I wish someone would do a study on alcohol in the same way as the caffeine study.

Here are the caffeine studies:
7.10.2008 3:19pm
mischief (mail):
Alcohol is addictive. Alcohol is seriously addictive. It is one of the few drugs where the withdrawal can kill you.

(Check here. It's about drugs, but he contrasts with alcohol.)
7.10.2008 3:53pm
Seamus (mail):
I don't know about you, but when I drink beer I tend to urinate a lot, part of the dehydration effect

I don't know about you, but I tend to urinate a lot when I drink *water*. I guess water must be dehydrating, too.
7.10.2008 3:54pm
General Disarray:

From the Snopes article you yourself linked to:

The only common drinks that produce a net loss of fluids are those containing alcohol -- and it usually takes more than one of those to cause noticeable dehydration, doctors say.

It's not clear what they're basing that statement on, but it seems noteworthy that it's included in an article that seems generally very skeptical about claims that drinking things other than water will leave you chronically dehydrated.
7.10.2008 4:04pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):
Give me a BUd Light.
7.10.2008 4:20pm
byomtov (mail):
Closet Libertarian,

Believe what you like. You have the right to be utterly stubborn in your ignorance. I'm not going to search the world for the quantity of information it would take to convince you.


Alcohol stimulates urination over and above that induced by just drinking water.

Look here for one explanation. There are many sources that say the same thing.
7.10.2008 4:32pm
A Law Dawg:
Alcohol stimulates urination over and above that induced by just drinking water.

I have empirical evidence that alcohol stimulates urination over and above the lower bunks of Freshman dorms as well.
7.10.2008 5:14pm
Steve in CA (mail):
Of course beer is less hydrating than water, but that doesn't mean its dehydrating. Try it this way: drink a glass of water, and you've hydrated yourself x amount. Drink nothing, and you've hydratated yourself 0. Drink a beer, and you've hydrated yourself at x-n. What's the x and what's the n? I have no idea. But beer is only like 4-8 percent alcohol, so the water you're consuming vastly outweighs the dehydration of the alcohol. Drink straight vodka, and you'll become dehydrated (although you'll probably pass out before you become dangerously dehydrated).

The moral: there's nothing bad about drinking beer. Ever.

Personally, I think it's fascinating to read about how much booze people consumed in pre-industrial times. They weren't drinking watered-down beer, they were just slightly stewed all the time. I've read somehwere that the modern economy only works because people are wired on caffine all the time instead of half-drunk.
7.10.2008 5:24pm
Maybe I'm being dense, but how does Professor Bainbridge really contradict the thesis here? Professor Bainbridge seems to be interpreting the question as which came first, beer or wine. But George Will's article seems to focus on what was better at hydrating city masses and preventing them from catching waterborne diseases.

I believe it's pretty common knowledge that wine is typically a higher alcohol content than beer. It seems that alcohol is a diuretic and whether or not that overcomes the water content to dehydrate depends on the % of alcohol. It's perfectly possible that wine is typically too high of an alcohol content to hydrate a person.

Also, you don't have to boil the water to make wine, do you? That could be an additional reason why beer was more effective at hydrating city masses safely.
7.10.2008 5:44pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
General Disarray: Chemical analysis of residues found in pots of the same shape as shown on the seal, basically. I don't know which exact tests were used for the Bahraini pots, but I know that mass spectrometry was used for the Egyptian samples.

Barley, of course, wasn't the only grain used. Rice beer--early San Miguel?--shows up from the Indus Valley civilization to Sumeria as well. And, as noted above, mead has a pretty long run. The antiquity of African beers, based on millet and sorghum is, to my knowledge, yet to be established.
7.10.2008 5:45pm
Actually, George Will focused on what was necessary to hydrate city masses, and believed the answer was beer. He never really addressed wine.
7.10.2008 5:46pm

Also, you don't have to boil the water to make wine, do you? That could be an additional reason why beer was more effective at hydrating city masses safely.

Well, you don't use water to make wine. It's grape juice. However, they would sometimes add water to wine to dilute it, and that would be unboiled water.
7.10.2008 7:07pm
Cornellian (mail):
Alcoholic cider has unfairly fallen by the wayside, eclipsed by both beer and wine.
7.10.2008 7:33pm
Sam Hall (mail):
Well, beer is fine, but it appears that the early U.S. navy ran mainly on rum.

The following is from a tale related by the Chief Curator of the National Park Service, and printed in no less an authoritative source than "Oceanographic Ships, Fore and Aft", published by the Oceanographer of the Navy. It has to do with a cruise of the 204-foot frigate USS Constitution, commonly known as Old Ironsides, in 1779. The quote:

On 23 August 1779, the USS Constitution set sail from Boston loaded with 475 officers and men, 48,600 gallons of water, 74,000 cannon shot, 11,500 pounds of black powder and 79,400 gallons of rum. Her mission: to destroy and harass English shipping.

On 6 October, she made Jamaica, took on 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum. Three weeks later the Constitution reached the Azores, where she provisioned with 550 pounds of beef and 6,300 gallons of Portuguese wine.

On 18 November, the ship set sail for England where her crew captured and scuttled 12 English merchant vessels and took aboard their rum.

But the Constitution had run out of shot. Nevertheless, she made her way unarmed up the Firth of Clyde for a night raid. Here her landing party captured a whiskey distillery, transferred 40,000 gallons aboard and headed for home.

On 20 February 1780, the Constitution arrived in Boston with no cannon shot, no food, no powder, no rum, no whiskey. Just 48,600 gallons of water.

7.10.2008 8:59pm
Damn that Josephus Daniels!
7.10.2008 10:18pm
TokyoTom (mail):
Orin, too bad your underlying 2006 link is dead.
7.10.2008 10:25pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
Wine came before beer. If anyone's interested, I found a great book on this topic a few years ago: "Ancient Wine; The Search for the Origins of Viniculture" by Patrick E. McGovern (printed in 2003 by Princeton University Press)

It goes into great detail on the origin of wine, why it's pretty clear that wine preceded beer and how alcohol contributed to the rise of civilization. It's one of the more interesting books I've read.
7.10.2008 11:11pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Beer is as old as bread, and bread is as old as our civilization. Beer has many advantages over wine: Grape wine can be made only once a year, while barley can be made into beer any time of year. The range of suitable grape climates is much smaller than for barley. Yields per acre of barley are much higher than grapes. Bird pecks can spoil soft fruits like grapes, while they don't harm the rest of an ear of barley. Grape wine is quite high in alcohol compared to beer, and much more acidic, meaning beer is far more thirst-quenching than wine. Wine storage requires liquid-tight, well-sealed jugs, to preserve the harvest from year to year, while beer can be drunk soon after brewing.

One batch of barley malt can be used up to three times. The first run is high alcohol, the last "small beer."
7.10.2008 11:57pm
General Disarray:
That's a great quote, Sam. By my calculations, even leaving aside the unknown quantity of rum captured from English merchantmen, and assuming that they ran out of booze on the last day, during the course of its 181 day mission the Constitution's crew consumed an average of about 2.25 gallons of rum, wine and whiskey combined, per man, per day. Great Scott! It seems . . . unsurvivable.

Tokyo Tom, Orin's link works fine for me.
7.11.2008 12:10am
ClosetLibertarian (mail):
byomtov, the strength of your arguments is shown by your name calling. Fallow all of your wisdom to your doom.

General Disarray, Yes I wish that statement was referenced and quantified.

Steve in CA, Exactly! It has to be so.
7.11.2008 9:11am
Randy R. (mail):
I fully agreed with Will up to the point regarding hydration. This is one of the causes of a hangover -- dehydration. And one of the cures for a hangover is to drink plenty of water.

Also, I was with Will until he made the snarly comment about liberals. It isn't the liberals who are trying to stop people from drinking beer (we have, afterall, FDR to thank for repealing that odious Prohibition Amendment). It is the religious wingnuts and fundamentalists, who believe that the Bible is inerrent, with the sole exception that Jesus actually drank grape juice, not wine.

"Will, unfortuately, missed the greatest evolutionary advantage of beer and wine to propagation of the species -- changing the perception of members of the opposite gender."

Or, ahem, members of the same gender....
7.11.2008 11:09am
General Disarray:
"Or, ahem, members of the same gender...."

Well, that effect would seem to be sort of a nullity from an evolutionary point of view.
7.11.2008 11:24am
Dear Randy: As General Disarray subtly points out, you should become an ID proponent.
7.11.2008 12:31pm
Also, I was with Will until he made the snarly comment about liberals.

I'm sorry, but I didn't find anything in that article about liberals. I *did* see a funny jab at health food store clerks, and some uncharacteristic understanding of the feelings of secularists, but definitely no "snarly" comments about "liberals".

That said, the only thing liberals are likely to do in relationship to beer is get you to drink *better* beer, like microbrews (you know those elitist beers).
7.11.2008 1:45pm
Randy R. (mail):
Starry:"I *did* see a funny jab at health food store clerks."

I stand corrected. However, even this is bizarre, to assume that health food store people don't drink beer. It's still a snide aside.

"Well, that effect would seem to be sort of a nullity from an evolutionary point of view." Who's talking about that? As the old joke goes, what's the difference between a straight boy and a gay boy? A six pack!
7.12.2008 2:59pm