A History Lesson from the Beer King

Alan Eames interviewed by Robert Lauriston

Cultural anthropologist Alan Eames loves libraries, hates to fly, and would like nothing better than to stay home in Vermont with his wife and children. So what drives him to sail up the Amazon in search of the Xe-speaking peoples' legendary black beer, crawl into Egyptian tombs in search of hieroglyphic brewing recipes, climb 14,000 feet into the Andes to drink beer made from giant strawberries, commute to Kentucky to run a brewing museum, and travel to so many consulting and lecture jobs that he has "enough frequent flyer to go to the moon and back and be the jet lag poster boy"? Would you believe, a passion for history? That's right, history, specifically the heretofore unexplored history of beer, a subject that Eames has found compelling since he was a teenager.

RL: What's the history of beer history? That is, to what extent can you start from secondary sources?

AE: It's all primary sources.

RL: So there is no history of beer history?

AE: No, I'm the first to take the subject seriously. About a hundred years ago in England there was an enormous interest in beer, just like today. The 1880s saw the publication of a couple of books where some English eccentric country gentlemen had gone around and preserved all these beer songs, and stories, and legends, and poems, and things like that.

RL: The Curiosities of Ale and Beer?

AE: Yes, Bickerdyke, though he was not a real person. It was a collaborative effort written by Charles Cook, his good friend J. G. Finell, and a third man--I've never been able to find his name--who was a country prelate of some sort. The other book, which came out almost simultaneously, was Marchand's In Praise of Ale. Both books have great similarity in size and content, but you had two groups of authors working independently, and published within one year of each other--and that was the end of it, until today's beer renaissance.

The problem today is, while there's tremendous interest in varietal beer styles, there's a tremendous cultural illiteracy among beer people. People care very much about beer, but only a few are aware of its history.

RL: How far back does beer history go?

AE: I'm certain beer is an older food than bread. Take some dried corn, put it in your mouth and suck on it, and it'll start to taste sweet. What's happening is that crucial first step in brewing, the conversion of cereal starches to fermentable sugars. You can do it in your mouth, anybody can.

RL: That's the malting process?

AE: Right. All you need is some grains, a gourd, some people, and wherever you are in this world, you can make beer. The classic tribal "brewery" is a group of women sitting in a circle, chewing grains, and spitting them into a pot to form a fermentable mass. Some ambient yeast blows in and infects the stuff, you put it away for a while, and bingo, you've got beer.

People talk as if the Belgian monastery brewers discovered the virtues of wild yeast, but such spontaneously fermented beers occur all over this world, in Latin America, in Africa, in India, in all tropical climates. I find it everywhere, to the point that we've gone to spend time with tribal groups where there's been absolutely no evidence that beermaking is going on, and we've never failed to find it.

What happens is tourists walk by, see this stuff being made in these filthy (by our standards) hovels, and they think, "My God, if I drink this it'll kill me." But in fact the beer is a great delicacy. The most memorable beer I've ever had, drinking professionally for 28 years, was frutillada, the strawberry corn beer made by the Quechua in the Peruvian highlands and southern Ecuador.

RL: Is this something that a fanatical beer drinker could get?

AE: How fanatical? It's only made 10 days out of the year, for the Pachamama festival, so you've got to go in February, around Carnival time. The trip is difficult--you've got to backpack over trails that you wouldn't want to, and unfortunately some of the area's controlled by drug dealers.

But when you get there, your reward is this bright pink beverage with a two-to-four-inch head of dense cream on the top, sprinkled with cilantro and mace, served in these quart jars. My god, it reeks of fruit, but it's a beer. Its density and body are extraordinary, better than any of the Belgian fruit beers you can find in the stores.

RL: Have you tried to interest any brewers in making stuff like that?

AE: We made some. At the American Museum of Brewing in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, we brewed up a batch for a beer camp, a quarterly event that we have there. It wasn't the same, of course, since the ingredients were so different. Andean strawberries are the size of baseballs, Quechua corn looks like some sort of atomically diseased ears with things sticking out, and the ambient yeasts are totally different.

RL: You said that tribal brewing is usually done by women?

AE: Yes. In my research it became apparent that, particularly in the Middle East--traditionally considered the birthplace of beer--all the written references to brewing refer to women, specifically Ninkassi or Ninkasis, "the lady who fills the mouth," in Babylon. In the Amazonian indian myths relating to the production of their manioc and corn beers it's always a woman who was tricked or seduced into making the first beer.

Only women can brew, and women can pass their brewing equipment only to their nearest female kin. I once asked some women on the Xingu river, "Do men ever make beer?" They thought that was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. When they'd recovered themselves enough, they said, "Oh, you're a very funny guy, you're funny. A man making beer would put gas in the belly and make the bowel run."

In my opinion, women have maintained power and status in macho, male-dominated, hunter-gatherer societies by developing their skills as brewsters. Also, since beer was a critical dietary staple, women just took control of it.

RL: Beer's nutritional value was important?

AE: Beer is alcohol. When you have an alcoholic food source, you have a preserved food. That's the difference. You take primitive unleavened breads--

RL: The shelf life's not so good?

AE: In hot tropical climates, bang, it's gone. Beer can last much longer. It's also terribly pure, because of the endless boiling that goes on in the manufacturing of all beer. There was a wonderful man, a hero of mine, named James Death, who was an anthropologist and head brewer of the Cairo Brewery in Alexandria. In 1868 he published his life's work in a book called The Beer of the Bible, wherein he proposed--and I think he's right--that the manna from heaven that Jehovah fed the wandering tribes for 40 years in the desert was wusa, Arab bread-based, porridge-like beer. As far as they were concerned, it was unleavened, and I've seen it made in the Sudan today.

Beer was a staple of the ancient Egyptians as well. In the average poor or middle-class person's home, it was made in a little niche in the kitchen. We know what kind of equipment they used from hieroglyphics and statues, and the wealthy ones went to their tombs with entire miniature wooden breweries: a big brewing vessel on the floor, a basket supported by sticks, the boiling mash poured into a basket which acts as a sieve, the use of cremated human bones, the use of charcoal in the bottom of the pot to draw particulate matter out of the beer.

In archeological sites in Egypt and the Sudan, in 5000-year-old Sumerian cuneiform manuscripts, among contemporary tribal people and rural farmers from Peru to Norway, you find the exact same thing: women making beer, same way, same basket, same pot, same rituals. Tibetan beers are very similar to Amazonian manioc beers. The nomads of the Yellow River area of Mongolia have these little portable breweries that go on horseback, and the women take them wherever they go. It's kind of a collective unconscious.

RL: How late do you think that tradition lasted in western society? Were the Norse drinking halls and the medieval student drinking songs an outgrowth of those traditions?

AE: I think so. The Vikings brewed on ship, they brewed going up and down the Volga, they brewed wherever they were in search of loot. For them beer was a spiritual business just as much as it was for the Egyptians and Amazonians. The night before a war party, they'd get the eldest woman blitzed on ale and put her on a platform 12 to 18 feet high, in a drunken stupor, and she would go into a trance and "brag"--that is, foretell the future of the next day's expedition. They were truly, as near as I can determine, the most beer-drunken people that ever lived, and it was in an ale-induced state of berserk that they reduced western Paris, Rome, Hamburg, and the rest of Europe to ashes.

As for the drinking halls, it was considered the function of great universities to provide healthy nourishment to the student body, so all the great universities in Europe had in-house breweries. Harvard had five, each one burned down by rioting divinity students. But they also had a book of drinking rules for freshmen. Here's your campus map, here are your textbooks, and here's your little booklet on how to behave in the beer hall, because we're going to give you beer three times a day--breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

RL: How is it that modern society lost those traditions?

AE: Beer as a cottage industry started fading away in the 14th and 15th centuries when the monasteries got into the beer business, but home and commercial brewing by women continued even in the United States until the very late 17th and early 18th centuries. The end came with the advent of refrigeration and the industrial revoution, when commercial brewers were able to make beer in large quantities and in many different styles.

The other tradition we've lost is tribal drinking. What I mean by that is, in earlier societies the behavior of the drinker was controlled and dominated by the group, and the group set the parameters of what was acceptable and what was unacceptable behavior, and that was that. In small tribal societies, the drinking activities are controlled by women, who hide weapons and break up the fights. The pushing and shoving, the illicit lovemaking, and all the other stuff that goes with these beer orgies is a cathartic event for the tribe, which in my opinion plays a very important psychological role in the health and well being of the group.

This is not to say that abusive drinking didn't occur. In fact, in remote western Peruvian Amazon, you find much of the drinking is done in a sense that we would call abusive. I mean, they really bang it down until it's all gone. But the solitary drinker is unknown. The notion that after a hard day hunting tapir a guy goes out and has a beer--that's crazy.