The Cold (Ancient) Comfort of Beer

Beer has been in the news a lot lately, and not just because a particular U.S. Supreme Court nominee may have enjoyed a cold one, or a keg or two, in June 1982. Stanford University archaeologists near Haifa, Israel have discovered humans may have first started brewing and drinking beer 13,000 years ago, not 5,000 years ago, as previously thought. Traces of alcohol have been found in stone mortars carved into the floor of Raqefet Cave, which potentially refutes the initial theory that beer was just a happy byproduct of making bread. One of the most delightful findings of this research, published by the Journal of Archaeological Science this October, is that beer may have served as a funerary rite, a libation for both social ritual and honoring communal grief.

In terms of what makes us human, drinking beer is surely one of those acts that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, right? Not really. Butterflies and meme-worthy moths love fermented brews according to Dr. Katy Prudic, an entomologist at the University of Arizona who has fished plenty of butterflies out of beer cans. According to National Geographic, new-world leaf-nosed bats, Malaysian pen-tailed shrews, fruit flies, moose, white-tailed deer, and more have been known to indulge in alcohol to console themselves, from being rejected as a sexual mate (fruit flies) to tipsy Bohemian Waxwings, starling-sized birds, who simply overdid it on the fermented berries of the rowan tree.

Drunk birds and moose notwithstanding, for anyone with even a smidge of Irish blood, we know the ritualistic role beer and alcohol play in wakes. Drinking excessively by one’s self is often seen as a sure sign that a drinking problem may exist. Yet, drinking with friends and family, especially during times of loss, is celebrated and normalized as how a community marks the death of a loved one. The Natufian hunter-gatherers of the Eastern Mediterranean, who are believed to be the earliest brewers of a porridge-like beer, placed their brewery near a graveyard, which Stanford University team leader Dr. Li Liu said to The Times of Israel may indicate beer production was initially born as a religious custom.

Having enjoyed a Bavarian Dunkel at Pittsburgh’s former St. John the Baptist Church, now The Church Brew Works, it is hard to argue with Dr. Liu’s hypothesis of beer’s first appearance as spiritual. Surely, there are as many types of grief as there are styles of beer. When I struggled through four years of infertility and a miscarriage, I enjoyed the occasional cold comfort of Founders Porter or one of the other fine craft beers Grand Rapids, Michigan has to offer (FYI, beercations are a thing). When I navigated a lay-off this year, the citrus smack of New Belgium Brewing’s Citradelic Tangerine IPA and Stiegel Radler (and the sweet-and-sour tang of Schlafly’s Cranberry Cider) reminded me summer promised a better season.

On Twitter, old college friends, Erik Petersen and Dave Singleton, reminded me grief also includes what devoted fans feel after a beloved home team loses yet another game. Petersen wrote, “Leinenkugel helped me and @dfsingleton mourn many Mizzou football Saturdays.” Singleton cited Kansas City-based Boulevard’s unfiltered wheat with a wedge of lemon as a cooling balm. Sports fans across the world surely toast in triumph and console within their community with one more beer.

In America, especially as attendance at religious services continues to fall, many communal grieving processes have become exceedingly private. Would it not suit us to clink mugs (of anything) together more often, as I routinely toast my toddler daughter’s Kefir with my morning coffee? Would it help if we remembered the origins of beer as a communal sacrament, one to be enjoyed with others? As Petersen asked, “I wonder if, in the West, we’ve replaced ceremony and community with memory and nostalgia?” A timely question indeed.