This semester, Kings College is offering a course titled “Brewing Science: The History, Culture and Science of Beer,” taught by professor Gordon Mcouat, an instructor in King’s History of Science and Technology program.
I managed to get myself enrolled in the class, and so will be posting regular (or irregular, as this first late post attests) updates on its progress.
Week One: Brewing and the birth of civilization.
(I, er, did a bit too much studying after class, and so this post is horribly late. In fact, it’s two weeks late, and I’m handing it in with the second week’s assignment as well. I’m sure I’ll get dinged a grade point or two, but maybe I can make it up by studying extra hard this weekend.)
Mcouat started his lecture with an astounding suggestion: that people became civilized only because they were looking for a good beer. Apparently there’s much debate on this point, and most anthropologists and historians reject the idea because they’re overly influenced by Marxist interpretations of the world: history is supposed to unfold logically, mechanistically, and not for bullshit reasons like “some guys were looking for a good buzz, and so invented civilization.”
But, two or three drinks in, this story starts looking pretty good. See, it’s been demonstrated that hunters and gatherers had a better diet and consumed more calories than people living in agricultural-based societies. The first farmers ate mostly one crop, and were subjected to one crisis after another---drought, pestilence, and so forth. And, hunters and gatherers spent maybe an hour or two hunting and gathering, then the rest of the day painting cave walls and holding wild orgies with godly man-goats, but farming takes a lot of work--- so, why bother?
The only reasonable explanation, says Mcouat, is that people figured out the fermentation process, and then needed the grains to make the whole thing work. They learned about beer, then ordered their lives around the beverage.
I can relate.
Ever the keener, I cornered Mcouat after class and asked him if he was suggesting that each and every independent invention of farming---in his book “Collapse,” Jared Diamond lists something like 13 times humans around the globe, from New Guinea to the African Sahel region to Mexico, re-invented farming---was the result of people looking for more booze.
“Yea, that’s the argument,” he said.
My fellow Kings students actually know a bunch of stuff about Plato and Aristotle and such---I hear they read a lot of books there---and so the rest of the lecture was a bit harder for me to follow, but basically, Mcouat said that the Egyptians picked up on this beer thing really early on, and liked it a lot. The Greeks liked a stiff drink too, but for some reason (sometimes I think Mcouat makes this stuff up as he goes along), they got all uppity about their wine, and thought of beer as a low-class thing, a regrettable mistake that continues to infect people of a certain class.
Regardless, the Greeks gave brewing their full attention, and being the philosophers they were, dreamed up all sorts of classifications and justifications and arguments and counterarguments to explain what the heck they were doing. This all revolves a concept called “techne,” a word the Kings students bandied about for 20 minutes or so in a wide-ranging conversation that went completely over my head.
Thusly humbled, I meekly accepted Mcouat’s invite for a post-class beverage, while the rest of the class continued on with a tutorial led by a grad student that Mcouat had somehow roped in to do the actual teaching part of the class.
The rest, as they say, is history.