Est et occidentis populis sua ebrietas fruge madida, pluribus modis per gallias hispaniasque, nominibus aliis, sed ratione eadem. Hispaniae iam et vestutatem ferre ea genera docuerunt. Aegyptus quoque e fruge sibi potus similes excogitavit, nullaque in parte mundi cessat ebrietas, meros quippe hauriunt tales sucos nec diluendo ut vina mitigant. At Hercules illic tellus fruges parere videbatur. Heu mira vitiorum sollertia! Inventum est quem ad modum aquae quoque inebriarent.
There is among the western people their own (type of) intoxication (made from) soaked grains, with many varieties (drunk) throughout Gaul and Spain and, also with many names, but the product is the same. The Spaniards even taught us that such drinks can be aged.
In Egypt they make similar drink from their own grains and, in that part of the world, drunkenness never ceases. Of course, they drink such juices unmixed (with water) and they don’t they soften the drink by dilution as (is typical with) wine. And, by Hercules!, in Egypt it seems as if the earth is prepared (entirely with) grain. Alas, what a marvelous skill of terrible things! They even discovered how to get drunk on water.
This passage ends Pliny the Elder’s book on wines. Although he mentions beer on several occasions in other books (See previous posts 1, 2, 3), this chapter makes it clear that beer – though, not typically consumed by the Romans – should be treated as a variety of wine.
We, again, have confirmation that in the 1st c. CE, the Gauls, Spanish, and Egyptians drank beer. Beer is described as a drink made from “soaked grains” and its alcoholic qualities are inferred from its place in the wine chapter (Book 14).
The Egyptians, at least, preferred their beer at full strength. This contrasts with typically Greco-Roman procedures for wine consumption which was typically diluted at the time of drinking. This prevented the drinker from becoming too inebriated during an all-night drinking bout (“session wines,” anyone?). Excessive drunkenness and, by extension, preference for unmixed alcoholic beverages were considered characteristics of barbarians (i.e. those not Greek or Roman) – the uncultured, unrefined, wild, and out of control.
Pliny is particularly astounded by the Egyptian’s delight in drunkenness. Surely with hyperbole, Pliny describes all available land in Egypt as filled with barley and wheat that were dedicated for beer production. A near-contemporary, Dio Chyrsostum describes a similar inclination for inebriation among the Egyptian common-folk (1). BCS also highlighted the evidence for the beer-tradition continuing into the 4th c. CE, at least (1). Such is not surprising, as the ancient Egyptians are well-known beer drinkers who had brewed for millennia prior to the Greco-Roman period.
Finally, those who think Beer Cellars are a new fad: Think again! The ancient Spanish have you beat. Pliny tells us that their beer could be aged for very long periods of time. Perhaps, this suggests that their beer was of higher alcohol or inoculated with sour bacteria – favorable qualities in beer that make for prime cellaring candidacy. It also suggests that many of the additives (spices, herbs, etc.) were potentially added only at the time of drinking or were steeping in the beer during the aging process. Like hops, such flavors tend to diminish over time. Alternatively, the Spaniards may have just kept beer around on hand and had few designs on altering/maximizing the flavor of their drink.
Wikimedia Commons. “The Grain-threshers, Egypt” by Jean-Leon Gerome. Photo credit: Sotheby’s