SCIENCE ON TAP: Dr. Ernie Schuyler on “The Origin and Evolution of Beer” in City Paper

Courtesy Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia

January 6, 2010 - Philadelphia, PA

From City Paper

By Felicia D’Ambrosio 

Back in May ’09, we first touted Science On Tap, a joint venture of scientific discussions held every second Monday of the month at National Mechanics (22 S. Third St.) by the Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Philosophical Society Museum, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Mütter Museum, and the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Now this consortium is venturing into our territory with a Jan. 11 talk by Dr. Ernie Schuyler, Curator Emeritus of Botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences. His topic? The Origin and Evolution of Beer.

Schuyler’s talk, which is free and begins at 6 p.m., will examine the possibility that the first humans who cultivated barley did so with the intention of making beer, rather than simply eating grain-based foods. We got in touch with the fine doctor to find out more.

Meal Ticket: How do you know that humans cultivated grains primarily for the production of beer, rather than for food?

Dr. Ernie Schuyler: The driving force for cultivating grains could have been beer. We do not know for sure. I think human consumption of beer preceded the cultivation of grains. I will present two hypotheses: (1) the wet grain hypothesis and (2) the gruel-bread hypothesis.

In the first scenario, a hunter-gatherer went to a wet storage bin and tasted a fermented beer porridge. A similar thing happened in the early 1980s in northwestern Montana when there was a grain spill on the Burlington Northern Railroad at the southwest edge of Glacier Park. The grain eventually fermented into a beer porridge and grizzly bears got intoxicated on it. They kept coming back for more, which made for many delays on trains running between Chicago and Seattle.

The second scenario involves soup (gruel) thickened by heating barley. One day somebody came back from the grain bin with barley that had germinated (malt) and discovered that the gruel was sweeter. From that day on malt was used for gruel instead of grain. Somebody (Mel Brooks?) may have left the soup sit for awhile and wild yeast went to work. Wild yeast could have been on fruit added to the gruel, possibly figs. Wild yeast may also have been present on the ceiling of the structures that housed hunter-gatherers. Gruel may have been baked into bread that could be stored and eventually mixed with water and fermented. It is possible that we made bread to brew beer, not to eat. Bread beer is still made today in some places. . . .

Link to CP

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