Beer as Medicine – Beer during times of Disease

In times of disease people in the Western World often turn to beer to see them through those tough times. Beer may be the most popular alcoholic beverage in the best of times. But when we look back through history some of our most revered figures were those who insured beer was available during the worst of times. Today we’re going to turn back the clock and examine how beer has helped humanity through its toughest times and into brighter tomorrows.

In case you want to know more about the history of beer feel free to check our Five Weird Beer Styles of Long Ago.

The Ancient World

In the ancient world, early civilizations were constantly dealing with things like famine and disease and beer was a major lifeline for them. Men, women, and children all drank beer in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. As it was considered a great source of nutrition and not just some intoxicants. To be sure ancient beers were significantly different and arguably more nutritious than modern brews.

First of all, they were using whole and unmalted grains which lent most if not all of their nutritional value to the final beer. They also didn’t filter any of their brews. Meaning they got all the nutritional value from the yeast that fermented the beer as well. Today it’s becoming increasingly popular to add nutritional yeast to things like protein and health shakes. But ancient people got all those benefits simply by drinking unfiltered beer.

Different types of whole grains and seeds places of wooden spoons.
Credit: https://theconversation.com/how-combining-and-fermenting-grains-can-help-nutrition-in-africa-117203

Perhaps most important was how the ancient brewers flavored their beers. Today we use hops as the main flavoring agent. They bring a clean bitter balance and slight antiseptic qualities to the final product. A couple of thousands of years ago they had to use whatever herbs and spices they had on hand to add some extra taste. But this also added extra vitamins and anti-inflammatory compounds. This made beer an important immune system booster and sometimes even helpful for fighting specific diseases.

The Medieval Europe

Fast-forwarding at least a thousand years in medieval Europe hadn’t built much upon the traditional understanding of medicine that the ancient world had. But they sure did build on their brewing knowledge. As the dominant institution of the age, The Catholic Church controlled the majority of beer and brewing on the European mainland at the time.

So when disease reared its ugly head people turned to their local religious leaders for advice. Beer was considered a gift of health to it its spent yeast content and pretty low levels of alcohol. this level of alcohol was the perfect level to provide mild feelings of relaxation without compromising your hydration. The yeast provided a lot of vitamin B which is important for metabolism and general health.

A painting depicting beer brewing in a church monastery in medieval Europe made by monks.
Credit: https://brewminate.com/medieval-mystic-margery-kempe-and-the-economics-of-beer-brewing/

While medieval Europe showed us that beer can change the course of an outbreak of disease. This era of history also showed us how disease can change the course of beer.

More Modern Times

After the Uk was raveged by the Black Plague in the 15th century wages on the island nation grew by 250%. The unfortunate economic reality was that as more of people of working age passed away the price of labour grew. Tratidtionally brewing beer was a cottage industry. A domestic task that fell on women. But because money was so good working outside the home women spent lesst ime on theri domestic tasks.

Demand for ale never truly dops in england. So those women that still dedicated their time to brewing began to do a lot more of it. UK historians say this is how the first pubs or public houses began to be established.

The cholera outbreak

A portrait of John Snow and his city mapping system.
Credit: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/09/26/1854-cholera-outbreak-broad-street-everyone-got-sick-except-drank-beer-instead-water/

In 1854 Londons Soho district was being rabaged by a cholera outbreak. At the time most people thought disease spread from person to person via bad air. Not a terrible starting theory but physician John Snow wated to track down a definitive cause. His first move wat to plot each case on a map of an infected district. He then combined his map with a map of Londons water system. Noticing that all the cases were centered around certain water pumps.

This led Snow to theorize that water was what carried the infection not the air. Everyone was getting sick except those who were drinking more beer than water.

It wasnt until late 1900s that researches found the exact reason why drinking beer actually stimulates the prodduction of gastric acid. Which kills cholera infection before it can find its way fully into ones bloodstream.

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