National Geographic : 2017 Feb
53 bottles a year of expensive, imported Italian red. “And wine was primarily drunk by elites,” Poux says. “We have to assume lots more beer and mead was drunk by commoners.” Still, by today’s standards, the quantities may not sound impressive. The modern world is awash in booze, and ever since the perfection of distillation in the Middle Ages, we’ve consumed a lot of it in concentrated form. Worldwide, people age 15 and over average about a drink a day—or more like two if you include only drink- ers, because about half of us have never touched a drop. In the United States, alcohol abuse kills 88,000 Americans and costs $249 billion a year, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Millions of years ago, when food was harder to come by, the attraction to ethanol and the brain chemistry that lit up to reward the discovery of fermented fruit may have been a critical survival advantage for our primate ancestors. Today those genetic and neurochemical traits may be at the root of compulsive drinking, says Robert Dudley, whose father was an alcoholic. Throughout history, ethanol’s intoxicating power has made it an object of concern—and sometimes outright prohibition. And through the ages, says Rod Phillips, author of Alcohol: A History, most societies have struggled to strike a balance: “Allow people to drink because it makes them happy and is a gift from the gods, but pre- vent them from drinking too much.” The ancient Greeks were a good example. A crucial part of their spiritual and intellectual life was the symposium fueled by wine—within lim- its. Mixing wine with water in a decorated vessel called a krater, Greek hosts served their (exclu- sively male) guests a first bowl for health, anoth- er for pleasure, and a third for sleep. “When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home,” the comic poet Eubulus warned in the fourth century b.c., according to one translation. “The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes. The eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the 10th to mad- ness and the hurling of furniture.” A Taste of Our History It’s been 24 hours since Zarnkow mashed to- gether barley, bread, and milled grain in a wide- mouthed laboratory pitcher. The mixture spent the night sitting on a table next to his desk, cov- ered by a paper plate. When Zarnkow flicks on the lights, I can im- mediately see that the slop has come alive, thanks to yeast from the sourdough. Muddy sediment at the bottom of the pitcher resembles wet muesli. Every few seconds, a large bubble of carbon diox- ide percolates to the top through a scummy lay- er of foam. A translucent gold liquid, resembling the wheat beer brewed in massive steel tanks at the brewery next door, rests in the middle. Zarnkow says the inspiration for the brew came from a 5,000 -year-old song. A hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer, it sounds a lot like the technical brewing manuals lining Zarnkow’s office shelves. “Ninkasi, when your rising bread is formed with the noble spatula, it has an aroma like from mellow honey,” one re- cent translation reads. “ To let the fermenting vat produce loud sounds, you place it appropriately on a sublime collector vat.” He and I look at the bubbling pitcher, in my case a little uneasily. “ There’s no added carbon dioxide, no hops. It’s not filtered. It’s not to Eu- ropean tastes,” Zarnkow warns me, managing my expectations as he strains some Sumerian home brew through a coffee filter. “But back then, the alternative wasn’t tea or coffee or milk or juice or soft drinks. This is much more tasty than warm water filled with microorganisms.” I pour a few fingers into a flimsy plastic cup. Bits of grain float to the top. I take a cautious sniff. I sip. The beer is both tart and sweet, bready with a hint of sour apple juice at the end. It’s ... actually pretty good. If I close my eyes, I can almost imag- ine it changing the world. j Photographer Brian Finke has shot stories for the magazine on the science of taste, food waste, and meat. Andrew Curry’s last feature was on Trajan’s Column in Rome. He lives in Berlin.