Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The ancient history of beer

Carol Sherman
Chicago, Illinois, United States


Cylinder seal (left) and modern impression (right) depicting two people drinking beer through long straws, found in Khafajeh, Iraq, c. 2600–2350 BC. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Beer is a short word with a long history. According to the World History Encyclopedia, it is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink. The name comes from the Latin “bibere” via the German “bier,” meaning “to drink.”1 The origin dates back to the first Stone Age settlements.

During the Neolithic period, the Stone Age people were creating settlements, leading a sedentary or semi-sedentary life, introducing farming, and domesticating animals. As early as 13,000 years ago, people drank beer made from grains and produced as a nutritive beer gruel.2 The Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians also drank beer, often through straws made of reeds or of gold, depending on their social class.3,4 More specific evidence of beer brewing comes from the Raqefet Cave in Mount Carmel near Haifa in Israel, a late Natufian archaeological site discovered in 1956.2 The beer was probably not consumed as an alcoholic beverage but more likely as an organic fermentation food made for ritual feasting.

The fermentation process was understood much later, in the mid-1800s, when Louis Pasteur studied the fermentation of yeast as a process for pasteurization.4 In antiquity, however, early beers and beer-like beverages were often made by women5 in their kitchens.6 Some early beers from Mesopotamia and later from ancient Egypt were produced with honey and dates.5,6

The ancient Sumerians thought beer was a magical gift from the gods. It endowed the drinker with health, peace of mind, and happiness. It was also an important part of their diet. Not surprising, they had a Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi, for whom they sang hymns of praise.5

The Chinese also made beer-like formulations quite early on. According to recent archaeological findings, Chinese villagers brewed such drinks using rice, honey, and fruit as far back as 7000 BC, and they were used in rituals throughout the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties.1,7,8 The drinks were different from sake in that the breakdown of the carbohydrate from mold was not used in its formulation. Ultimately, Chinese beer fell out of favor in preference to yellow wine, so that the Sumerians are rightly viewed as the first to create the brew that evolved into modern beer.7,8

Sumerians occupied Mesopotamia around 4,000 BC, and archeological excavation tablets show villagers drinking a beverage from a bowl with straws. They drank beer for nutrition, as it was safer than water obtained from often contaminated nearby rivers and canals.4,5 Archeological finds on pottery from Iran also show people drinking beer, often through straws, and even before the conquest by Persians and Macedonians, the Babylonians had commercialized the brewing and distribution of beer.5

The economics of producing beer, of which there may have been over seventy different brews in Babylon,5 fostered laws that designated the allocation of beer based on social status and gender. To facilitate its consumption, tavern keepers created a barter mechanism of exchange. Some nations had laws to prevent shorting customers by imposing steep penalties, even death by drowning.1,9

As part of foreign trade, beer made its way to Egypt, where it became popular. The Egyptians then created their own processes to make a lighter product and commercialized the product as shown in a brewery discovered at Hierakonpolis, near Luxor. Workers building the Great Pyramids at Giza each received a daily ration of beer three times a day.6 This served as refreshment and nutrition and compensated them for being away from their families for long periods of time. Egyptian beer in the New Kingdom was made from malted barley and was flavored with herbs and fruits. It required soaking and crushing the barley, then boiling it to create a mash in large clay pots and allowing it to ferment in pottery jars.

The ancient Egyptians also used beer as medicine,6 for digestive problems, for nutrition, as well as for headaches, fever, and skin diseases. Jars of the brewed beer have even been found in tombs, presumably for use in the afterlife.

The ancient Greeks thought beer was a healthy beverage, but it was not popular, being considered the drink of barbarians or of lower caste people.1 Yet there is evidence from small archeological footprints that beer was brewed as early as 2100 BC, with finds at two Bronze Age settlement sites, Archontiko and Pella Argissa.10

As in the Greek period, the Romans also drank beer, known as “cervisia,” but did not particularly embrace it. Yet some evidence of beer brewing was found in a Roman military encampment from about AD 179 on the Danube in modern day Regensburg in a community built by Marcus Aurelius.11 More than a century later, the Emperor Julian the Apostate composed a poem claiming the scent of wine was that of nectar while the smell of beer was that of a goat.11 Yet beer continued to be used to treat a variety of ailments such as insomnia and digestive problems.

The Celts produced beer by a different formulation and drank it regardless of economic status. Unlike in Greek and Roman cultures, the women also drank beer, openly in public and at religious events.

Beer in medieval Europe was popular for recreational as well as for its purported medicinal properties.12 Monks in monasteries were some of the earliest brewers in Europe and made beer both for consumption and for medicinal purposes. They thought it could help digestion, boost the immune system, and even cure diseases such as smallpox. In the early Middle Ages, the monks maintained the breweries to make beer for their personal use. This was especially important for their sustenance during fasting. In the later years of the Middle Ages, monasteries used copper kettles and added hops. These small copper kettles were smelted using the technology of their time. The timeline substantiating the first use for hops in the beer formulation was tied to rules on collecting hops as first mentioned in the ninth century as set forth by a Benedictine monastery.13 With the distribution and the proliferation of other breweries, larger operations would use larger vats and larger copper containers.12

Beer has been a part of human history for thousands of years for its nutritional value, for religious observances, and for medicinal and recreational purposes. In leaving the women’s ancient kitchens, innovative recipes were designed to use available grains and help sustain the community. Over centuries, each culture put its unique stamp on beer, sometimes competing with wine and other drinks, but always changing and evolving. To study the complete history of beer to the present time could be a Herculean and perhaps even an inebriating task, requiring the study of new brewing formulations, its role in nutrition, in industrial competition, in legislation, and in fashions in different countries and different times.



  1. Mark, Joshua. “Beer in the ancient world.” World History Encyclopedia, March 2, 2011. https://worldhistory.org/article/223/beer-in-the-ancient-world/.
  2. Katz, Brigit. “Traces of 13,000-year-old beer found in Israel.” Smithsonian Magazine, September 13, 2018. https://smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/traces-13000-year-old-beer-found-israel-180970282/.
  3. Brooks, Jay. “Brooks on Beer: The ancient origins of beer—and straws.” The Mercury News, last updated August 12, 2016. https://mercurynews.com/2014/08/20/brooks-on-beer-the-ancient-origins-of-beer-and-straws/.
  4. DiValentino, Ariana. “14 things you didn’t know about the history of beer.” Insider, April 7, 2019. https://insider.com/facts-about-the-history-of-beer-2018-10.
  5. Mark, Joshua. “The hymn to Ninkasi, goddess of beer.” World History Encyclopedia, November 11, 2022. https://worldhistory.org/article/222/the-hymn-to-ninkasi-goddess-of-beer/.
  6. Mark, Joshua. “Beer in Ancient Egypt.” World History Encyclopedia, March 16, 2017. https://worldhistory.org/article/1033/beer-in-ancient-egypt/.
  7. “Beer in China.” Wikipedia. Last updated March 24, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_in_China.
  8. “Alcoholic drinks in China.” Wikipedia. Last updated March 14, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcoholic_drinks_in_China.
  9. Kwo, Kimberley. “Beer: The origin of civilization?” One of Everything, August 18, 2017. http://oneofeverything.ca/blog/2017/8/16/beer-the-origin-of-civilization.
  10. Chrysopoulos, Philip. “Beer was brewed in Bronze Age Greece.” Greek Reporter, June 27, 2022. https://greekreporter.com/2022/06/27/thirsty-greeks-brewed-beer-in-bronze-age/.
  11. “Roman beverages.” The Romans in Britain, last updated March 30, 2023. https://romanobritain.org/2-arl_food/arl_roman_recipe_8_drinks_main.php.
  12. Oliver, Garrett. “The Oxford Companion to Beer definition of the history of beer.” Craft Beer & Brewing. https://beerandbrewing.com/dictionary/UqfrcsPoAI/.
  13. “The history of hops.” Dogfish Head Alehouse, June 16, 2015. https://dogfishalehouse.com/the-history-of-hops/.



CAROL M. SHERMAN has a Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Science, Major in Political Science, and an MBA in Finance. Currently as President of TransLumen Technologies, she has expertise in advanced technology visualization software applications for observational security, technical simulation training, data visualization, and health and healing digital art. She has also held executive positions as Chief Operation Officer, Chief Administrative Officer, and CFO in Fortune 100 companies, private companies, startups, corporate turnarounds, and managing companies in both growth and recession environments. Additionally, she serves on several not-for-profit boards.


Spring 2023  |  Sections  |   Food

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