Sunday, June 24, 2012

The ancient history at the bottom of my beer keg

Cast your mind far back into the wastes of time, readers. No, not last Monday when you took the rubbish bin out, further than that! At least, ten years, in fact, when you may well recall the show Bush Tucker Man on ABC television. Cheerful ex-army guy pootling around the sunburnt country, plains with their sweeping qualities, mountain ranges that were suitably rugged, and so on, plucking leaves and berries off various native plants and turning them into various unlikely soups and broths. So popular was this show, in fact, that a parody turned up on D-Generation - I can't remember the name, but perhaps it was "Bush Tucker Bloke". The Bloke would wander around some paddock, probably just behind his house, and reach into a bush producing - voila! - a McDonald's hamburger. Later, feeling thirsty, he'd go down to the river, and put his hand into some rocks bringing out - ta da! - a can of Fosters Beer.

Delving now, as I am, into the ancient mysteries of cheese-brewing-beer-crafting, etc, I'm occasionally tempted into similar theoretical exercises in gastronomical history. When did cave men go on the hunt for the first six pack? Where did they find the gorgonzola before supermarkets, or refrigerators, or milking had been invented? And what about yeast, when it was still wild and uncultivated, how on earth did they explain all those little wild and uncultivated plastic sachets lying around, and when did they work out that you had to put it into the flour to make it go?

The basic mystery, of course, is how did people get into drinking and eating stuff that, frankly, tastes just a little bit wrong and a little bit off? Especially, how did they get into tasting it before they even knew how to age it or ferment it or brew it correctly, so that it probably tasted really wrong and even more off? Were their choices that limited (it's either this or rock salad again tonight)? Lots of people nowadays would probably go for the rock salad.

As it turns out, the official explanations for the development of all these food stuffs is rather unreliable. Strachan in his book on brewing suggests that bread happened when someone was preparing a bread dough and some yeast which just happened to be walking by jumped in to have a little party. Well yes, that does have at least the virtue of simplicity. Not so much for this boffin here, by the name Shellhammer, who begins his rant with the waftily grandiose statement 'about 10,000 years ago, hunter gatherers were collecting wild barley....' They were collecting it 'as a source of nutrition', which they then place in 'some sort of collection device'. (How do you say 'source of nutrition' and 'collection device' in early human?) Then they get sick of the gathering and go off on a hunt instead, and while they're away, it rains, creating the familiar mash of barley grains used to get malt. Then it rains even more. Then yeast (which was always wandering about the ancient world causing trouble for people) jumps into the dough. Likely? About as likely as an Amish person winning Tatslotto.

This piece on the origins of yoghurt and milk drinking contains similar notional theorising about speculative probabilities, with a chap by the name of Thomas happily waffling at length about 'selective pressures for lactase persistence' that cause 'lactase persistence to evolve in Africa'. So, apparently, people kept on drinking and eating this stuff that made them sick and died for a couple of hundred years until they developed an immunity to it. 

I know, I know, I'm not a scientist and these things had to happen somehow and these explanation does sound reasonably simple. But how about the sort the ancients might have favoured? "A god came to earth and showed me how to do it." It's even simpler than all of these other stories.

Though why the Gods of Beer-making created the yeast in those little plastic packets, I'll never know.


Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

"Legend has it that the process of wine-making was discovered by an Assyrian queen. Her husband had died and, in a moment of desperation, she drank the juice of some grapes that had fermented, assuming that the juice would be poisonous, as it had 'spoiled'. In fact, the fermented juice made her so happy that she forgot all about her widowhood."
- Pietro Demaio, Preserving the Italian Way

TimT said...

Well it certainly preserved the Assyrian queen, though I don't see any evidence for it being a particularly Italian method of preservation...

Renting a keg said...

Really? Is it really the true legend of beer and kegs? Well, thanks to her.

Renting a keg said...

Really? Is it really the true legend of beer and kegs? Well, thanks to her.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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