I have recently finished reading A Short History of Drunkness by Mark Forsyth, which I picked up at a book sale for less than ten dollars. I wrote my final paper for my history of food course on the moral qualities attributed to alcohol in post-prohibition Ontario, and it was honestly fascinating reading. In particular, the laws that introduced liquor control boards in the province were exceptionally racist towards Indigenous people, prohibiting the purchase and possession of alcohol until 1951. More absurd than that fact is the fact that that was news to me when I first read it. While my professor did like my paper, there’s only so much to explore in 6-8 pages, and I figured some further reading on a larger scope might provide some interesting points.
And I mean the book was pretty good. It has some nice insights like, “cities are the result of farmers working too hard,” and, “if you have to condemn something, it’s because people are doing it.” However, it’s very colonialist. While each chapter attempts to address a different time and way of drinking, from the Ancients of Egypt, Greece, and Rome to American prohibition, there’s not much nuance in the author’s discussion of colonized Australia, only one chapter on China, and not a single mention of any African country.
However, the book was 10 bucks and hardly advertised as academic (although it does have a bibliography I can appreciate), and as an English-speaker who tried to write on Chinese marriage laws, I can understand struggling with the language barrier of written sources on niche topics.
Beyond this, some of the chapters I found remarkably interesting, including evolution, prehistory, Sumerian bars and Russia’s pre-revolution.
Sumerian beer, served in taverns run by female tavern-keepers, and accompanied with some hilarious, earliest recorded examples of animal-walks-into-a-bar-jokes known to humankind. I love finding snippets of the past that are identical (give or take) to the present. We drink. We get drunk. We tell jokes. Some things never change.
The beer itself was vastly different from a modern lager. It was brewed in the tavern and served unfiltered. There was barley beer, emmer-wheat beer, beer mixed with wine, and no macrobreweries to speak of. Beer had to be drunk through a straw to get past the bits of assorted grains that were floating on top in a fizzy barley porridge.
Kinda gross by current standards, but really a simple fix to the problem of filtration. The whole process seems reminiscent of mixing leaves and water in an old pot outside as a kid. Little me did not know they were a handful of steps away from frothy beer. And like, beer is still made from grains. Most beer now includes hops, but barley and oats are often used to add different flavours and ‘mouthfeel’ (love doing research and encountering new words that sound funny)
And what is brewing really? It’s a big pot of water and other bits that you heat. Some things never change.
So, in theory, there could have been a Sumerian beer brewed at one of the many taverns that existed that was solely made of oats and water. Oats, water, and some heat. Basically, instant oatmeal with a straw to get to the good part.
Now, what’s oat milk? It was invented as a lactose-free milk in 1994 in Sweden, but more recently it’s become super popular in the US, even surpassing almond milk insofar as best non-dairy milk. Don’t get me wrong, I like an iced oat milk latte as much as the next person, but what I don’t like is the internet recommending me at-home oat milk recipes.
Now how do you make oat milk? Soak oats in water, puree and chill.
Do you see the pattern? If we didn’t have in-home refrigeration, we would’ve accidentally invented Sumerian oat beer again. Some things never change.