At the end of Autumn, the farmer sits in his tractor, but he doesn’t touch the steering wheel, the computer guidance system directs the wheat into the ground. The computer detects stonier ground, and so slows down a little, in order to compensate for the increased likelihood of damage, and on rougher terrain they’ll up the seed rate 110% in order to maximise potential yield. For more seed will go to waste on the rocky soil. Across the field, the computer will attempt to achieve an even crop. On reaching the end of the field, the farmer takes the steering wheel, turns with the aid of his GPS, lining up the tractor with the advised trajectory, and once again the computer takes the wheel. The farmer monitors his crop, keeping a keen eye on his mobile phone. His farming apps will tell him the optimal time to spread the fertiliser, to spray the pesticide. Come the end of Summer, the ear on the wheat will have appeared, full of the grain, ready to be harvested. The combine harvester will come into action, dividing the grain and stalks, which are turned into hay bales, and are left to dry. The Harvest Service is had. And then the farmer returns to the field, to plough it, ready for the cycle to begin again.
It was once believed that humanity gave up on their nomadic (hunting and gathering) lives, to grow wheat, which could be turned into flour, to bake bread, in a period known as the Agricultural revolution, which was about 12,000 years ago. This period resulted in a less mobile human population, more wedded to the land. As such the variety of people’s diets was reduced dramatically. This revolution happened in the Middle East, in an area known as the fertile crescent, spanning modern day Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. It was here that people embraced a more stagnant way of life, and accepted their poorer diets, which unsurprisingly resulted in a sharp increase of all sorts of health problems. Life expectancy dropped. Whereas prior to the Agricultural revolution most people could hope to live into their mid-30s, after the revolution, most didn’t make their 30s. So, we may well wonder why humanity at large would have made this trade-off, and it is of course to do with farming. But not to make bread - bread alone was not worth all these negatives, no, humanity needed something far better to make it all worthwhile. It made the trade-off because of beer! You could easily make the argument that the root of Civilization is the fermented beverage. The Agricultural revolution meant that you could have denser populations of people living together, and it was no longer necessary for the whole population to be devoted to obtaining food. As such, authority structures could be established, which allowed for the emergence of more sophisticated cultural and religious expressions. So, whether it was religious festivals, Harvest feasts, or other social gatherings, this emergence of more complex social structures was a result of beer.
When we think of alcohol in the Bible, we don’t normally think of beer, but rather wine. Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. He talks about vineyards in his parables, and in John he talks about himself being the true vine. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful”. You get these analogies in the Bible, because wine was drunk far more than beer in bible time. And yet beer is in the Bible! As you know, in the Old Testament animals were sacrificed to God. Sacrificing animals to the gods was common practice in the Neolithic and Bronze age period; this was done at least initially because people believed God (or the gods) needed to be fed. Of course, our understanding of God has evolved a huge amount. Who or what God is evolves a great deal over the course of the Bible. The earliest understanding of God was more akin to a big mega man in sky than anything else. And if he is a big mega man, then of course he will require lots of meat (check) and lots of beer. Two litres a day to be precise. These instructions are laid out in the book of Numbers, which specifies God’s beer drinking needs, which of course included more beer on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:7–10). By Medieval times, customs around gathering in the final harvest were well established. Elaborate plays were put on, in which a man would personify ‘harvest’. He would get on the stage and have reapers gather around him, who would proclaim him ‘master’. There would be a great jovial mood, followed by lots of singing and drinking. In Medieval times, beer was one of the most common drinks, consumed by all classes.
This year we’re marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which is traditionally marked from the day Martin Luther allegedly nailed his ninety-five theses – decrying problems within Catholicism – to the chapel door in Wittenberg, which is thought to have happened on the 31st October 1517. In the coming next couple of months, we’ll be talking a lot more about this event, and its ramifications. But I bring up Martin Luther today, because he’s probably the most famous beer-drinking theologian there’s ever been. So, we’re in Germany. Germans are very much a beer drinking people, in fact so much so that during medieval times, using an excessive amount of grain to make beer resulted in a number of German famines. So, they had their priorities straight. In Martin Luther’s time, beer was made in monasteries and by commercial brewers, but most of it was made domestically, which Luther preferred. We have records of him decrying the commercial brew industry in the 16th Century, saying such brewing was the curse of Germany, because it tasted so much worse. Luther’s fondness for beer was so well known, that in later life, after the tumultuous events of his life, thanks were sent to him annually in the form of beer, even from a Duke himself, who sent him his favourite brew. In the letters we have from Martin Luther, he would often mention in invites to his friends to come over for good theological debate, that his wife had brewed another barrel, and as he travelled around the country he would often mention in his correspondence to his wife the poor quality of the beer he was being forced to endure. So, there we go. Not only at the root of civilization itself, but even at the root of the reformation, we find beer. Where would we be without it?