Beer and Society: Historical and Cultural Context

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Beer and Society: Historical and Cultural Context


Beer is one of the oldest beverages that have changed the course of human culture, not only in the context of taste, but also in the context of strong social relationships. For a long time, alcohol has played a key role in sacred ancient rituals. The main social function of beer in all cultures is to define the nature of occasion, thus accumulating a possibility for communication between classes, genders, or cultures. In addition, beer allows people to relieve everyday stress, accumulated as the result of hard work. In this case, beer is always associated with a working-class, and it mostly has derogatory connotation. Gradually, beer has turned into a powerful tool for socialization and communication, after which many important business deals were sealed; people met each other and then created innovations for future generations; groups were formed as a base for latter powerful organizations. All this follows to the thesis that beer is a constructive social method of human communication without any social limits, where the culture of drinking is rather a method than a goal for creating both individual and collective social groups for centuries.

For this study, it is important to clarify the historical and cultural background in order to demonstrate how beer has evolved from primitive type of alcohol to a more complex channel of social communication. Hence, the first part examines how beer emerged in ancient civilizations, especially in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Ancient Greece. The second part is dedicated to the cultural base of beer, so the types of representations of beer as well as its cultural value, symbolical role, and gender background are analyzed.

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Historical Context

The sociocultural evolution of beer began from the first primitive cultures and apparently, people wanted something more in their socialization. Many historical anthropologists still do believe that beer is not only a simple way for getting drunk and relaxed as well, but also a powerful social method of creating a strong tribe. As Matter stated, “since the 1950s, many scholars have found circumstantial evidence that supports the idea that some early humans grew and stored grain for beer, even before they cultivated it for bread.” Moreover, the recent archaeological excavations have proved that beer was an important aspect of the banquet and social order in the archaic primitive cultures. It is important to investigate what social function was fulfilled by beer in other ancient civilizations in order to understand why beer is so essential for many people today.

Beer and the First Civilizations

Social anthropologists believe that most of the archaic rituals were accompanied with beer. In this way, shamans attained the state of altered consciousness and they could communicate with spirits. There is also a theory that archaic people suppressed their animal and, especially, herd instincts with beer, or some other fermented potions that were similar to beer. At the same time, this logic is rather outlandish because alcohol usually releases such instincts. Nevertheless, Matter mentioned that conversations around the campfire took on a new social dimension of quelling the angst of instincts. If this is true, it shows that beer played a function of suppressing the aggressive energy that could destroy first societies, and therefore, people found a common language while drinking beer.

Sumerian Practices

Mesopotamia was also another civilization where beer acted as a very powerful factor of human socialization, especially in religious rituals. Most of them were devoted to the mother goddess Ninkasi, also known by the name of Ishtar, which was a source of joy and pleasure. Bread, animals, and sometimes beer were used as offerings to Ishtar. As Smith indicated, A Hymn to Ninkasi comprises a pair of drinking songs, dating from the eighteenth century BC, one of which describes the brewing process in detail, while the other praises the goddess for providing the opportunity for pleasurable intoxication (42). Hitchcock reconstructed the ancient beer according to the Sumerian Hymn of Ninkasi (Appendix 1).

Beer was a very important source for the success of Sumerian religious rituals. Beer was brewed directly in the churches, so Sumerian temples were the first breweries in the world. The important fact is that beer was consumed in collective rituals that often ended with orgies. Additionally, beer was also used not only in the religious rituals of the goddess Ishtar, but also at the funerals. The dead body was soaked in beer, because Sumerians believed that in this way, the path to the afterlife kingdom would be easy.

The anthropologists assumed that bread and beer were equally important in Sumerian society (Matter). Moreover, The Code of Hammurabi defined the permissible norms of beer for different segments of society, so beer was not easy to drink. It is known from Sumerian records that, by the fourth millennium BC, this productive society of scribes, farmers, and brewers used as much as half of its annual grain harvest for producing beer (Smith 48). Thus, for this civilization, beer became an integral part of everyday and sacred culture.

Beer in Ancient Egypt

There are many facts proving that beer had played a significant role in the culture of Ancient Egypt. According to the legend, Osiris taught the ancient Egyptians how to brew beer, but traditionally, only women did this work. After the excavations at Tell el-Amarna, the ancient capital of Egypt, British archaeologists discovered the remains of a brewery, owned by the church, built for the famous Nefertiti. The image of the Queen, drinking beer through a strainer, was found on one of the wall panels.

The beer recipe has been preserved from the times of Ancient Egypt, dating back to 3500 BC. It is also important that beer was considered curative and was used for medicinal purposes. Over time, beer has become increasingly popular, and at a certain stage of development, the ancient Egyptian civilization was introduced to the limit of consumption of beer, a kind of ‘dry law’. The persecution was so intensified after the Arabs came to the territory of Egypt, that consumption of alcohol was completely banned later.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In these cultures, beer was not so important as in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Beer was considered a drink of poor people who did not have the funds for a variety of wines in Hellas. Yet, Hippocrates devoted one of his works to the barley drink, and Aristotle brought the conclusion that a man affected by beer intoxication would fall backward while a man would stagger around in the case of wine consumption. It is worth noting that the Greek wine is quite diluted with water, and the expression ‘to drink undiluted wine’ meant to be ‘a drunker’. It is clear that even the lightest beer was too bitter and quite strong for the ancient Greeks. The Romans also did not like beer. Yet, it was sometimes sipped at the celebration in honor of the goddess of agriculture Ceres. Perhaps, that is why the Romans called beer ‘ceres’. According to Braudel, almost to the 10th century, beer was “a drink of barbarians and the poor people” (Matter). Therefore, it can be summarized that the civilization of man related to the production of beer (Eberts 2), and the more beer production was developed, the more the cultural level of society increased.

Cultural Context

During its long history, beer has become a part of society around which the special cultural climate has been formed as well. First, beer culture plays a function of removing everyday stress, so it is the antithesis of the everyday hassle. Matter supposed that “today, many people drink too much because they have more than average social anxiety or panic anxiety to quell.” However, the evolution of culture has shown that beer was not always a simple way of removing stress, but a more complex phenomenon with a special place in cultural hierarchy. As Caillat and Mueller stated, cultural variables may contain “dominant values, rhetorical style (such as the use of either direct or indirect speech), advertising appeals, and the occasion for product usage” (81). Hence, beer always transmits certain cultural values and symbols from one social level to another, thus creating a communicative circle.

Cultural Value of Beer

Primarily, beer reflects such important cultural value as the integration of a certain social environment. In this case, people forget about their social status, income, or other public markers. It is a very powerful instrument of assimilation into the unfamiliar context. However, many officials are concerned with beer consumption, because “drinkers underestimate the negative consequences of beer consumption”, and therefore “beer consumption is an integral part of the socialization routines of young drinkers” (Hundley 350). However, the most important value of beer is that it becomes a symbol of national identity. For example, for the Irish, Guinness is a part of their culture, so one’s national beverage can be a powerful expression of one’s loyalties and cultural identity (Eberts 8).

Symbolic Role

Sociological studies have shown that in almost all cultures alcohol is classified in terms of symbolic meaning that determines the complexity of social world. Beer represents a type of cultural tradition, national mentality, and different styles of communication between people. In some cultures, especially with a high status of religion, alcohol is a taboo. Therefore, beer is not a socially neutral phenomenon, so it symbolically identifies personality, life goals, and values. The choice of beer often reflects a complex cultural history because in different cultures, special sorts of beers dominate in a certain way.

In addition, the selection of a beer speaks of the social status of the person. A person with good income prefers expensive varieties, and poor people can drink cheaper beer. Therefore, in order to determine the social status of a person it is always better to look at the brand of beer one chooses. In addition, the choice between a glass and a tankard is representative. When someone chooses a tankard, he is already ready for open communication, as opposed to the choice of a glass of beer, which provides a discreet aristocratic conversation. France is dominated by glasses, but in Germany and the majority of other European countries, tankards are more popular.

The consumption of beer also acts as a social differential in age. McDonald notes that “in the domain of drinks, there is generally an increasing sophistication when one moves from cider to wine to beer, correlating with decreasing age and with a move from agriculture to occupations outside it” (14). In other words, the older person chooses softer drink when a younger one is always inclined to beer. Accordingly, older people seek some eternal peace and comfort, when the youth wants to communicate in cheerful companies.

Beer and Gender

People believe that the culture of beer is exclusively male because women are not associated with beer. Analysis of many ads showed that the percentage of women is much lower than men. The main argument is that the image of women drinking beer is not very aesthetically pleasing, so they prefer to drink wine. According to McDonald, “where female drinking is particularly deplored but nonetheless occurs, alcoholic beverages consumed by women are often conveniently granted a sort of honorary ‘non-alcoholic’ status” (56).

This stereotype is rather an example of gender prejudice, because there is no documented evidence that beer belongs to men only. For Kirkby “gendering beer drinking as masculine is a paradox given the well- documented history of women as brewers and ale-sellers from medieval times to the present” (244). However, some gender stereotypes work even nowadays. Women prefer lighter varieties of beer, and men enjoy darker and stronger ones. Such a division is attributed to the fact that women often view beer as a method of flirting, and it must be added that alcohol is a significant instrument of building relationships between the sexes.

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Therefore, the changes in alcohol consumption reflect the fundamental changes in society. In ancient societies, beer was a method to achieve altered states of consciousness, which was an essential element for the implementation rituals. Depending on the success of rituals, the original social order could be constructed or not. In addition, beer provided a base for the first communication practices, whihc was a distant prototype of modern social relations. The main reason for the lack of beer is that ancient tribes had no manufacturing technology, unlike the Sumerians. For the Sumerians, beer partially had a religious function, as accompanied by rituals dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. In addition, beer also was used in burial rituals and other ancient ceremonies. The first brewery was founded in Mesopotamia, and with time, the Greeks borrowed the principle of production in order to create their own beer. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, beer had a very low social status because it virtually belonged to the poor and farmers. This status dominated for ages, until beer started to belong to almost all social levels.

In addition, beer has an important symbolic value in every society. It identifies whether a person is ready to communicate, whether he or she has money, or even a cultural tradition to which someone belongs. Accordingly, beer is a powerful channel for transmission of information, mainly because beer is associated with a holiday. Beer is also a method of relieving the daily stress, and therefore, such social function as a personal recreation is achieved. Moreover, beer is a method of social integration into a community, so it is important to know the symbolic context before the process of adaptation. However, beer consumption has a culture that is associated with certain rituals, rules, and values, so it does not matter if someone is a man or a woman – in any case, the rituals should be performed properly.