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The evolution of beer

Biblical garden scholars re-create the ancient ingredients of the bracing brew

Thursday, September 03, 1998

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For a few more days, you can go to get your fill of beer at a local synagogue.

That's no more unlikely than finding beer in the Bible.

    More about beer:

Chemicals from hops studied for anti-cancer properties

Does cooking burn off alcohol?

Some foaming facts about cooking with beer


Irene and Walter Jacob discovered beer in the holy book, and in many other interesting places. That's why they brought beer to Rodef Shalom Temple's Biblical Botanical Garden as the toast of this summer's feature exhibit.

Meant to create a bit of a buzz, the exhibit also provides a lot of food for thought, titled as it is "The Story of Beer - Liquid Bread."

"It is liquid bread," says Mrs. Jacob, explaining how the pyramid builders of ancient Egypt were fed a daily quota of beer.

"It was a happy work force," quips her husband, a retired rabbi.

She goes on to point out how even nobles who wound up inside the pyramids wouldn't dream of being buried without beer. "Otherwise, you'll be miserable when you're dead."

Before we go with the Point Breeze couple into the lush garden and into the rich history of beer, here's a little background:

The Jacobs helped plan the one-third-acre garden, which opened in 1987 and now is filled with more than 100 plants that either are named in the Bible or have biblical names.

Each season, she - the garden's director - and he work to come up with a theme to focus on. Past themes have included the medicinal and textile uses of these plants.

Beer, they say, was another extremely important plant product. Plus it sounds provocative. As she puts it, "This is a beer town. We thought people would be interested in beer."

And so, using their extensive home library, plus tomes purchased on trips to Germany, the scholarly Jacobs researched beer with a gusto that would impress members of the Three Rivers Association of Serious Homebrewers (TRASH).

Much of the information that they dug up they published in the garden's newsletter, Papyrus, as well as in two education cases inside the garden.

In the first case you encounter, as you walk the winding path, is this introduction:

"Beer is probably the oldest alcoholic drink, brewed by Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians 6,000 years ago. Presumably a nomad accidentally discovered that soaked wild barley turned into a mash which sometimes fermented. When this was diluted and filtered it made a pleasant, nourishing beverage, rich in vitamin B12 and a supplement to a low-meat diet. It spread to the Greeks and Romans from the Near East. Ever since, beer has been guzzled by rich and poor alike, in greater quantities than any other alcoholic beverage."

The Jacobs themselves enjoy a good beer now and again, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Their interest, when it comes to this exhibit, is in the plants and how the beer made from them once was more important as a food than as an intoxicating beverage.

And so, let's start with the basic recipe for beer: Grain, water, yeast and herbs.

Those are, of course, the same ingredients for baking bread, which always has had a close relationship with brewing beer.

In fact, some scholars believe people first cultivated barley and other grains to make beer, notes Mrs. Jacob, who'll only say, "I wasn't there, so I don't know."

It is known that, from the dawn of the first hangover, barley has been a staple for brewing, for which the grain is sprouted ("malted" in modern terms), mashed (cooked with water) and fermented. But like bread, beer also has been made with wheat, rye, millet, oats and even maize.

Leading a tour of the garden, she points out the remains of those grass-like grains, which matured earlier this hot, dry summer.

By contrast, the hop plant - a climbing vine - is thriving, and loaded with cone-like fruit, which help preserve beer as well as provide aroma and a pleasantly bitter taste.

As she notes, hops have only recently become an integral part of beer. Other plants and herbs have been used to flavor beer over the ages. Those that she found and planted include several from ancient times: parsley, pomegranate and poppy - just to name those that begin with P. Others include sesame, cinnamon, lupine, anise, safflower, date, coriander, mint, lemon leaves, even horseradish.

The Jacobs also included other plants that were used later, from the Middle Ages to the present: fennel, carrot, ginger, German chamomile, lavender, rosemary, marjoram, myrtle, elecampane, juniper, nettle, box, cornflower, red currant, St. John's wort, cardamom, dandelion, licorice root, sugar, henbane, wormwood, angel's trumpet, strawberry, bay leaf, salvia and carnation.

It wasn't easy to get all these specimens, and make them grow here. (One great source, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Center, probably thinks of her as "that crazy lady in Pittsburgh" for seeking a single sugar plant, she says with a laugh).

But the real challenge, they agree, was doing the research.

Fortunately, Mrs. Jacob can read German texts, which she found invaluable for their thoroughness. They bought some in Germany, where they regularly visit for a project to help rebuild Reform Judaism there.

Beer isn't specifically mentioned in most translations of the Bible, Rabbi Jacob explains. But, in addition to wine, there are several references to "strong drink," or shekhar in Hebrew. (As in Leviticus 10:9: "And the Lord spoke unto Aaron saying: Drink no wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you do not die." )

Pottery remains and other archaeological evidence in Israel suggest that this strong drink included beer, which, after all, was being brewed by other Middle Eastern cultures at the time.

The education case makes the point strongly, in the title: "The Bible without Beer - Impossible."

The case provides many tasty tidbits, such as the fact that, in Babylonia, beer was made from malted grain that was lightly baked into loaves, which then were broken into water and fermented. The thick, syrupy beer would be drunk through tubes.

Beer was called "Hek" in ancient Egypt, where "Bread and beer were the chief sources of nourishment. Beer had the advantage of easy storage. Furthermore it would not readily spoil."

Again, Mrs. Jacob stresses, "I don't think it was as intoxicating as our beer."

Just the same, one of the pictures she included is an Egyptian drawing of a woman throwing up, with a caption that explains, "Hangovers in the ancient world were quite common. Drunkenness showed mirth and possibly also religious ecstasy in the ancient Near Eastern religions."

As they note in one newsletter, despite this "additional benefit of making the drinker feel temporarily benign toward the world," beer continued to be considered nutritionally beneficial into the Middle Ages, and even later.

In medieval Europe, barley, rye and oats were more digestible in beer than in bread, and so became part of the diet, too. "Such beer was light in alcohol content, but high in vitamin C and B. It was generally thick and mixed with various ingredients. It formed a nourishing soup and was present at virtually every meal. Old bread and other ingredients were often added."

A similar soup was consumed in colonial America, where "Ben Franklin recorded that he and his press companions in Boston drank a pint of beer for breakfast, a pint later, another at dinner, and two more later in the day."

The Jacobs, who knew little about beer before starting on this quest about a year ago, clearly had some fun with this topic. One of the accompanying programs, "The Art of Brewing," was presented by Bryan Pearson, head brewer at the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville. Last month, the Jacobs held a dinner at the synagogue, and enjoyed with their garden docents a half dozen recipes cooked with beer. She says, "There wasn't a thing left on the plates."

The couple also came to be amazed at what they learned.

He says, "I think the most intriguing were the laws and penalties in the Code of Hammurabi," several paragraphs of which dealt with beer. For instance, someone who overcharged for beer faced being thrown into a river (a penalty that continued into the Middle Ages). Someone who adulterated beer could be drowned in his own kegs.

"Unbelievable," says Mrs. Jacob, who says she didn't know there were so many different ingredients for beer.

A modern beer distributor may look like it carries a mind-boggling array, she says, "but it's not that much. They had more variety in ancient times."

She also hadn't realized that the Belgians - especially Trappist monks - brew some of the world's greatest beers.

Another of her favorite "I-had-no-ideas" was, "I had no idea the Pilgrims landed where they did because they ran out of beer on the ship" and so decided not to go on to Virginia as planned. As the education case explains, on board the ships, beer was safer to drink than water. Also, "Brew houses were among the earliest structures in the first winter at Plymouth."

In their own world travels, especially to tropical climes, the couple have relied on beer to be safe liquid refreshment, and they enjoy it for reasons of taste, as well.

But they prefer beer to be like it was in the ancient times - not too alcoholic, Mrs. Jacob says. "We go to sleep very easily."

The Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden, at 4905 Fifth Ave. in Oakland, is free and open through Sept. 15.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and noon to 1 p.m. Saturday.

For more information, call (412) 621-6566.

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