Hybrid cars, computers, those terrible smartphone games everyone’s hooked on: humanity has come a long way since our cave-dwelling, hunting-and-gathering, Quasimodo-looking forefathers. But why? What drove all of these fantastic exhibitions of human achievement?
Well, some of the biggest accomplishments in the history of mankind came about because of beer, which is ironic since beer is also one of the biggest causes of stupidity. The modern world was shaped by booze, the miracle elixir that gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling, followed by that headache-y, I’m-going-to-die feeling. These accomplishments include:
10. The Great Pyramid of Giza
Egypt will forever be associated with its famed pyramids, because those gargantuan things are impressive — especially the Great Pyramid of Giza. About 5,000 years ago, soon after Pharaoh Khufu took the throne, he realized that his soul was going to need somewhere to crash for the eternity after his death. All the good pyramids were taken, so he commissioned the building of the 455-foot behemoth, which remained the tallest man-made structure on the planet for almost 4,000 years.
An exorbitant amount of workers, estimated between 20,000 and 30,000, labored in the hot Egyptian sun for about 23 years. Cutting, dragging and placing limestone bricks wasn’t easy work, especially when you’re getting them almost 500 feet up. There had to be some motivating force to inspire workers, who were primarily farmers doing this in their downtime almost every day. That force was an estimated 231,414,717 gallons of beer.
“It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work,” said Dr. Patrick McGovern, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.” So without beer, the only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World would not be standing today. History: goes down smooth.
Fast-forward to the 1700s and beer is still a driving force behind civilization. The Bass Brewery was founded in 1777, and by the 1890s it was the most prominent beer company in England and the largest in the world, pumping out about 1.5 million barrels of the stuff every year. You can make the world’s most popular beer of the 19th century until the cows come home, but there’s an important element every product needs to resonate with its customers: brand recognition.
That’s, of course, where marketing comes in. Marketing is a constantly evolving business, but it was terribly archaic in the 1870s, so much so that it wasn’t really much of a thing at all. Bass Brewery knew they had a quality product on their hands, and they marketed it successfully enough to make it the most successful beer brand in England, but they needed to think of ways to secure its reputation and grow its brand recognition even more, to appeal to people in every walk of life. In doing so they revolutionized the advertising industry, and it was all in the name of getting people trashed. How did they do it? Well…
8. Logos and Trademarks
Bass Brewery decided their beer needed a visual identity, some sort of clear and distinct mark indicating which products were theirs. This was especially important since literacy rates were low, so this would allow uneducated folk to recognize a Bass Brewery drink when they saw it. What they did was take a red triangle, write “Bass” under it, and splash that sign all over everything they produced in one of the earliest examples of a logo.
They established brand recognition, but what was to stop other breweries from using Bass Brewery’s logo on their stuff, taking advantage of their reputation to increase their own sales? At the time, nothing, but on the first day of 1876, the British Trade Mark Registration Act went into effect, and the company’s name and logo became the first registered trademark in England. As is evident in the marketing-saturated culture we live in today, advertising and the whole “protecting your intellectual property” thing took off. So you can thank beer for Geico’s “hump day” commercials.
Around the same time as the founding of Bass Brewery, an inquisitive English chemist named Joseph Priestley was hard at work publishing over 150 works related to science, theology, politics and philosophy. In 1767, he moved next door to a brewery in Leeds. Naturally curious, he paid them a visit and picked their brains about their work. Priestley was fascinated by the gasses coming up from the vats of beer, and got permission from the brewers to perform some experiments.
He realized that by pouring water over the vats, it developed a sweet, fizzy flavor. In 1772, Priestley released a publication titled “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air,” in which he announced his new invention called “soda-water.” Priestley’s discovery of carbonation eventually led to soda and the billions of dollars of revenue that Pepsi, Coca-Cola and the like bring in every year, but his experiments in gas also reinvigorated his interest in studying air…
6. Discovery of Oxygen
Priestley knew that putting a living organism in a jar and depriving it of air was a death sentence, but he wasn’t sure why. As a (creepy) child, he enjoyed putting spiders in jars and seeing how long they would last before their eyes went dead and their legs stopped wiggling. Continuing his blood-lust fueled experimentation, he put a plant in a jar and waited for it to die. Not only did that not happen, it actually continued to grow.
This excited him, so he continued his work and, several experiments and papers later, Priestley had discovered oxygen gas. We now know it as the third most abundant element in our universe by mass and, along with awareness of the burden our posthumous debt would leave on our families and the constant desire for more beer, one of the key factors that keeps us from dying.
5. Refrigeration and Shipping
In 1871, German engineer Carl von Linde published a paper on improved refrigeration techniques, which caught the eye of local breweries. The environment required for beer brewing needs to be cold, so production of it had to be put on pause during the warmer months. Beer is a cash cow that breweries would rather not stop milking for any stretch of time, so von Linde’s expertise became highly sought after.
Gabriel Sedlmayr II of the Spaten Brewery asked von Linde to develop a way to keep his brewery cold, so he went ahead and made a refrigerator, which before that point didn’t yet exist on a scale that would be useful for a brewery. It worked fantastically, and brewing beer became a year-round pursuit in areas where this wasn’t previously possible.
The implications of von Linde’s work were broad. Food could be kept cold and preserved without ice, which was useful both in the home and in the shipping industry. Export of food (and really, any product that had to be kept cold) was difficult and oftentimes impossible, so refrigeration opened the floodgates and added a new dimension to long-distance shipping. Refrigeration is also used in air conditioning and a multitude of other fields.
4. Modern Medicine
Sour milk sucks, as it’s a regrettable waste of a perfect and versatile beverage, but the problem would be so much worse without French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur. He was asked to help a local brewer who wanted to know why his beer was going sour. He took samples from the vats, looked at them under a microscope and found thousands of microorganisms, which he believed were the cause of the putrefaction that was making the beer taste bad.
With this in mind, he invented a process that’s now known as pasteurization, which involved warming the beer to below boiling point to kill off the bacteria that was spoiling batches. Today, this process is used widely in the food industry, most notably in milk and other dairy products.
This also led to him disproving spontaneous generation, confirming that matter didn’t simply arise out of dust. Using this information as a stepping stone, Pasteur discovered that microorganisms, like those that rendered so much beer worthless, also caused disease in humans. This school of thought is called germ theory, and was the catalyst of modern medicine. Pasteur’s work opened the door to research into the identification of disease-causing germs and life-saving treatments.
Let’s go back to the rumored origin of beer: Some gatherer left a container of raw barley in the rain, which started the germination process. The barley was then dried and used for baking or whatever else people would have used it for, but was then again left out in the rain, where the partially germinated barley was exposed to natural airborne yeasts and an extremely primitive version of beer resulted.
Probably on a dare or lost bet, one of these people took a sip and realized this new liquid not only tasted great, but had the same inebriating effect as his people’s honey and fruit based wines. The ancients loved this stuff, and they needed more, but collecting the grains needed to make it would be a lot simpler if all the barley was in one place. From there, driven by an indefatigable desire for more beer, they planted, cultivated and harvested crops. Agriculture was born.
2. Written Language
Farming is more than sticking seeds in the ground and hoping something emerges from the dirt: there’s a lot of organization involved. Farmers have to know what’s growing where, how long it’s been there for, when it’s time to harvest and other crucial bits of information related to the growth of barley and brewing of beer. How were you supposed to keep track of that during the dawn of mankind? Some sort of system for recording this information would have been helpful so people could rely less on memory and word of mouth, and more on a definite source of accurate information.
This is where writing comes in. According to Dr. Stephen Tinney, an associate professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania (that’s the study of ancient Mesopotamia, not butts), “The reason for inventing writing was the need to record the production and distribution of commodities like beer.” That’s hard to dispute: One of the oldest pieces of preserved writing is a clay tablet with a record of beer rations for workers.
1. The Creation of Civilization
Early humans were nomadic, but these people couldn’t keep moving without abandoning their crops and therefore losing their sweet, sweet beer. It was time for a change. People had to stay put. They had to create more permanent shelter. These shelters were built closely to each other because that would make the cooperation involved in farming a lot easier. That kind of sounds like a town, doesn’t it?
These farming villages kicked off a period in history known as the agricultural revolution, or the Neolithic revolution. This ended hunter-gathering and led to the world’s first ever civilization: Mesopotamia, one of the first traces of organized society. Once people were moving less and leading more sustainable lives, they could spend less time worrying about being eaten and put thought into the challenges their new lifestyles presented. The concepts they came up with changed the world.
Math was supposedly invented so farmers knew where their land ended and the next guy’s began. The wheel may have been created to more easily transport goods like crops and beer. These and other ideas blossomed and snowballed into the world as we see it today. So thank you to beer for the pyramids, advertising, graphic design, medicine, farming, refrigeration, soda, writing, and everything else. We’ll deal with the hangovers, empty wallets, awkward social encounters and walks of shame; you just keep on tasting great.