I cannot be the only one who has wondered about the origin of the word beer. Sipping on the smooth and frothy drink in my hand, I started to ponder. While I was sitting at a bar with friends, pre-gaming before a concert, suddenly the subject came up in conversation. Why is beer called beer? None of us knew the exact answer. From that point on, I was on a mission to find out the answer. Here is what I have discovered! Where did the word beer originate? Why is beer called “beer”?
The word beer comes from Old Germanic languages. Throughout history, languages and cultures have spread and evolved all across the world. The origin of our common English word, beer, comes from the Old English word: bēor. Bēor was the definition of a strong drink or mead. The word bēor has derived from the Old Germanic word: bier and is still used today in Germany. Even the Old Norse word björr is traced back in time through the centuries. In Old Frisian, the word for beer was biar. In variations of the Dutch language, beer was known as bier. Bibere was the latin word for beer and simply meant, “to drink”.
As you can tell, this word is ancient and is easily traceable to thousands of years ago. It is hard to pinpoint the true origin of the word. However, we clearly can see that it has been part of humanity for many lifetimes. The word beer made its way into our modern-day language through the migration of those Germanic tribes, Anglo Saxons to the British Isles, and eventually the United States. “Beor”, used in Old English started to become very common in language use around the 16th century. The word beer is found in old poems and songs that date back to the 18th century. The English Drinking Song, for example, dates back to the year 1757. Other famous English folk songs about beer indicate the true love for the sweet, sour, and even sometimes bitter beverage.
Once I thought about this and realized that this word has an origin that dates back to centuries ago, I had an instant burst of curiosity. It led me to understand that the word beer comes from languages used over 1000 years ago! From the 5th through 11th century, Old English was the primary English language. We can safely say this was the earliest form of our modern-day English language. From that information, we can conclude that the word beer itself has been around for thousands of years! Like beer, the origin of the word itself, and its history of our is also quite intoxicating.
How Was Beer Made in Ancient Times?
Photo: Stela depicting a Syrian mercenary drinking beer. Egyptian New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, Aménophis IV. Neues Museum, Berlin. Source: Vassil / Wikipedia
Beer is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world. Some may even consider this beverage prehistoric. It is also quite possible that beer is the oldest recipe of any kind in world history overall.
Around 4000 B.C., the Sumerians of the Late Neolithic Age and Middle Bronze Age era harvested grain that led them to produce some of the first kinds of beer to ever appear in human history. The grain was used for food, of course, and also for making beer. Stanford archaeologists have confirmed evidence of tools and domesticated cereals that are several millennia old in the Ancient Near East (a makeup of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt). We know that beer comes from fermented cereal grains, like wheat or barley. In ancient times, beer was made by crushing grains and heating them with water to help start the fermentation process. Soaking barley bread with yeast was also customary for making beer. Grains and bread have been part of beer production for thousands of years. Beer production is not a modern invention.
There is tons of evidence that archaic people were guzzling down a beer or two, just like we do today. An old Sumerian poem honoring a goddess of the brew dates back to about 4000 years ago. The poem found on the clay tablet not only honors the goddess but is also the oldest beer recipe to have been discovered in the world.
Was Beer Invented by a Woman?
If there was a poem made for Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing and beer, this must mean that women have dabbled with beer for centuries! Titled, The Hymn of Ninkasi, the poem doubles as a Mesopotamian beer recipe and a tribute to the goddess Ninkasi. Ninkasi was a goddess who was a master of her craft: and that was preparing beer daily. According to historians, the poem and recipe, found on the clay tablet were written down in 1800 BCE.
In ancient Sumerian culture, brewing beer was more of a womanly task. Women were the ones responsible for brewing beer because it was considered a domestic chore. In those times, the way of life for the Sumerians was very patriarchal, leaving the majority of kitchen tasks to females. By combining water and herbs and heating them on fire, women discovered the art of brewing and invented beer.
Who Were the First Beer Drinkers?
Sumerians, Babylonians, Chinese, Egyptians, Ancient Celts, Greeks, and Romans have all played their part in the history of beer. Those groups are historically the first beer drinkers that we know. Although the first kind of alcohol ever was made in China, we know that Sumerians were likely the first to start the actual beer brewing process roughly 10,000 years ago. Art forms like paintings and sculptures depict images of humans and gods alike enjoying beer and alcoholic beverages. In myths and poems, beer has made an appearance throughout the centuries. In each of these ancient cultures, beer was always there withstanding the test of time. Beer was part of every social class that you can imagine in ancient times. It was a critical part of early civilizations.
Beer was part of their everyday life and routines. Beer was rationed at the end of the workday, like food, for the ancient Sumerians. In Egypt, beer was part of religious ceremonies and festivals. Beer was a staple in the diets of our earliest ancestors, so much so that breweries were born.
What is the Oldest Brewery?
The oldest brewery we know of is in Germany. I find this very ironic considering that the word beer derives from a Germanic word. The oldest operating brewery in the world is Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstaphan. What was once an old Benedictine monastery quickly turned into one of the first and oldest breweries in the world. The Brewery in Weihenstaphan produces a variety of pale lagers and wheat beers, including the famous Weihenstephan Hefe Weissbiere. Two of the most impressive high alcohol-content drinks they brew include the Infinium (10.5% ABV) and Vitus (a 7.7% ABV wheat beer). Many people believe that beer was less potent in the old days.
Considering our technology today is much more up-to-date and allows us modern brewing methods to produce the best beers, ale, and lagers, one would think the variety of beer available today is the most potent. One of the strongest beers of the past comes from ancient Egypt. Historians and food experts have even gone as far as trying to recreate beer from thousands of years ago. Professor Charles Cockell, for example, according to Britannica, mentioned that beer from ancient Egpyt had about 10% alcohol content. Not bad for ancient times!
What Did the Beer Taste Like Thousands of Years Ago?
It might be easy to imagine that beer was thick, disgusting, and gross before modern breweries came about. In some cases, that might be true. For the ancient Egyptians, however, that is not the case! Despite not having state-of-the-art brewing technology, the people of our past were able to come up with some pretty good recipes and techniques. They made sure to pack flavor inside of beer. Thousands of years ago, before proper filtration systems were in place, people would drink beer through a straw to filter out herbs or large pieces of sediment from being consumed while drinking. Storing beer included using vats and substantial jugs that people could also drink out of with straws.
Food historians who worked closely with the British Museum have recreated ancient beer from the recipes and methods of Egyptians thousands of years ago. Egyptians were quite meticulous about documenting everything from their daily lives, religious beliefs, food, and so on. Through the recreation of techniques of the archaic people before us, we know that the beer they drank tasted pretty good! Stored in terracotta jugs and mixed with a variety of grains and herbs, it seems our ancient ancestors helped start the trend of what would become modern-day brewing and beer appreciation.
- The Brewer’s Tale – A History of the World According To Beer by William Bostwick
- The Comic Book Story of Beer by Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith
- Uncorking the Past by Patrick E. McGovern – Paperback – University of California Press (ucpress.edu)
- A Brief History of Women and Beer, From Sumerian Goddesses to the Pink Boots Society | Wine Enthusiast Magazine (winemag.com)
- Food historian recreates ancient Egyptian BEER | Daily Mail Online