Since I have gotten older, I have chosen to basically limit myself to an occasional glass of wine, which means I seldom drink beer. However, on Friday evening, I sat down to watch a Discovery Network documentary entitled How Beer Saved the World (also available to view streaming on Netflix if you have an account). This particular program was quite informative, taking the viewer through an extensive tour of history beginning with an introduction to mankind when it was still in the hunter-gathering stages of existence. The film then continued its progression of history through the Egyptians building the pyramids and finally through the industrial and technological developments of the 21st century. Throughout this romp through history, the producers of the show attempted to solidify their hypothesis that none of this would have been possible without the invention of a limited alcohol beer that saved the masses from drinking contaminated water. The premise was that, without the invention of beer, we would still be living in a cave today.

How Beer Saved the World and Contributed to TechnologyIn my opinion, there are one or two issues that arise here that seem to require quite a stretch of the imagination. The first questionable bit of fuzzy logic revolves around how beer was discovered. According to the documentary producers’ research, they claim that some barley accidentally became immersed in a vessel of water after it was left outside in the elements. This caused the barley to expand, but nothing really noteworthy happened until the barley received another good soaking. The brew continued to ferment until the gatherers returned and discovered the concoction. Its smell intrigued them so they decided to drink the brew, which they continued to enjoy for days afterward because, according to the film, it tasted good. It didn’t hurt, though, that the gatherers quickly discovered that in addition to tasting good, the concoction produced a mild feeling of euphoria.

As we continued our adventure through time, our next stop in the time machine brought us up to the days of the pyramids where the laborers were supposedly paid in beer. Of course, this information is provided by reliable sources, including the testimony of a bar patron, who just happened to be there drinking a beer. According to him, the average stone pusher could have received up to one gallon of beer a day, depending on how much ingenuity and brawn the laborer exhibited. The patron’s knowledge was apparently extensive as he went on to affirm that while providing a mild form of inebriation that made the workers non-combative and gave them a more cooperative attitude, it also appeared to provide them with an increased source of energy.

As civilization progressed throughout time, there was a transition from being a hunter-gatherer society to one that embraced farming, bringing about an agricultural society. Of course to again prove their hypothesis, the producers claim that this transition was due to civilization’s desire to raise barley, the main ingredient needed to produce beer. Though I doubt that barley was the only crop being grown, the documentary only concentrated on barley and the affect it had on beer production. It seems that as the farms grew in size, the farmers then needed to devise a way to determine the size of each farm. The result of this was (again the result of civilization’s desire for beer) the development of some early forms of mathematics. The need for mathematics and beer’s contribution to society continued with the need to develop a means of working the barley fields. That meant that farm implements, needed to bust open the soil, had to be designed, engineered, and developed to meet that need. These developments remained at the forestay of agriculture, all the way up to the invention of harvesting machines.

It has to be noted, however, that while the film was able to hold the viewer’s interest due to some witty and lighthearted moments, some of the facts presented actually demonstrate the importance of beer and its contribution to society. As an example, we have all heard stories of how cholera and diphtheria were spread as the result of contaminated water. These diseases were common in the early years of civilization and all the way through our own country’s pioneer days and it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur stumbled on germs, while investigating the properties of beer, that man realized that germs were harmful to our bodies. Prior to this, people chose to drink fermented beverages without the knowledge that the fermenting process was actually preventing them from intaking the harmful bacteria. So, while they just enjoyed the effects of drinking the beer, they were uninformed as to how the fermenting process was actually killing these deadly bacteria and making the brew safe to drink.

However, the producers went on to attribute Pasteur’s scientific discoveries, which included his discovery of germs and thus penicillin, to the wonders of beer and how civilization’s dependence on it brought us to the brink of our current age. They state that without his interest in beer, Pasteur wouldn’t have discovered penicillin, which for decades was our primary antibiotic and base for the many derivatives that have been developed since. The producers also offered some theories that without the need for beer, America may never have been settled because the Mayflower only landed at Plymouth Rock because its crew had run out of beer and needed fresh sources of water. There is also a supposed statement made by Ben Franklin in which he allegedly stated that beer was proof that God loves us all and wants us all to be happy.

So how has beer contributed to technology? Well, if you have a wonderful and bizarre imagination, you may be able to stretch your reasoning to take hold of the information provided through the documentary’s time machine. That means, however, that you must believe the early cave dwellers left barley out to rot and that their discovery resulted in the formation of an agricultural society that was based on drinking beer rather than on food to feed their families. You must then believe that these farmers chose to measure their fields just to track how much barley each farmer produced, which resulted in a need for the development of early mathematics. In turn, advanced mathematics were needed to weigh, measure, and sell barley to those who produce beer for us today. I guess with that in mind, mathematics could be said to be the root foundation of today’s computers. If you disagree with this conclusion, have a couple of beers and your opinion could change. My personal opinion is that while I found the documentary very entertaining, it was basically little more than a beer infomercial. With this in mind, I still believe that you would enjoy watching it.

All the best in the new year!

Comments welcome.