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Forklore: Carbo loaded

November 18, 2012|By Charles Perry

Most societies that make bread also make some kind of beer. In a way, beer is just a batch of bread gone wrong. If batter contains the enzymes to convert starch to fermentable sugars, either from sprouted grain (malt) or saliva (if the grain has been chewed), it will turn into beer, though not exactly a well-hopped lager with a creamy head of foam. As beers still are in some remote places, it will be a bit sour, only slightly alcoholic and so porridge-like it provides B vitamins as well as carbohydrates.

Since the 1940s, anthropologists have occasionally, and with varying degrees of seriousness, entertained the idea that beer came first and bread was a byproduct. Would hunter-gatherers, they ask, who had such a satisfying life rambling freely hither and yon, settle down to weeding and hoeing and the rest just for bread? (If hunting and gathering for a living is so much fun, reply other anthropologists, why aren't you doing it?)

The earliest written evidence of beer comes from Mesopotamia, where the ancient Sumerians called it kash (not related to the name of Ninkasi, their goddess of brewing). The Sumerian recipe was unleavened barley wafers, malted barley and date juice, called geshtin (the g probably sounded like the ng in sing), which was often made into a kind of wine on its own.

Kash was definitely a porridgy beer. Sumerians, and Babylonians as well--they called beer shikaru; a tavern was a bit shikari--are usually depicted drinking it with reed or metal straws to hold down their fiber intake.

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