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A Brief History of Beer Mythology

Through its history, beer has inspired many people to tell lies — including some about the sweet tipple itself. Niko Savvas looks through the questionable evidence and gets some answers (cred goes to Owen Salisbury for his tireless research)


Few beverages inspire as many myths as beer. People like to talk about beer almost as much as they like to drink it. Unfortunately, when people talk they often tell outrageous lies, especially after they’ve had a few beers. Some of the most widely circulated untruths include:


The Egyptian Slaves who Built the Pyramids were Paid with Beer


We can thank the ancient Greek historian Herodotus for this one. He visited the pyramids nearly 2,000 years after they were built and apparently had a lousy tour guide — somehow he managed to mix up the story in two different ways.


First, the people who built the pyramids weren’t slaves. Contemporary archaeological research by Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner has shown that most of the pyramid builders were ordinary Egyptian citizens who presumably would have been far less willing to toil for fermented yeast than captive foreigners. And while many workers were indeed buried with jars of beer, this was a standard Egyptian burial practice roughly equivalent to pouring out a 40 in modern times — and if your homie was paid with a Colt .45, then he deserves a little more sympathy than just dumping a can of brackish piss-water into the street, doesn’t he?


But anyway, this whole idea is a myth. The historical revisionism doesn’t stop here, though. It continues into the Middle Ages, about which many believe:


Medieval People Drank Beer because the Water Was Too Dirty



Beer wasn’t even the intoxicant of choice for the mud-caked serfs of feudal Europe. They preferred wine, and considered it essential to a healthy diet. They did have plenty of access to clean drinking water, though. Sources like Paulus Aeginata insisted that water, not beer, “is most pleasant to drink, and pure to the sight…” Medieval people certainly did drink a lot of weakly fermented beverages like mead, but this was mainly because fermentation was the only preservative process available before refrigeration. Which isn’t to say that medieval people didn’t like having a pint or two — a 10th century Saxon colloquy probably summed up the average person’s feelings best: “Beer if I have it, or water if I have no beer.” Medieval folks just liked to get drunk whenever possible, no matter how clean the water was.


Modern humans are a bit more discerning, as societies become increasingly health-conscious. Some people have even abandoned beer entirely due to the erroneous belief that:


Drinking Beer Will Give You a Big Belly


The infamous beer belly is the scourge of first-year university students and portly grandfathers alike. It’s also a lucrative godsend for the makers of novelty T-shirts (‘This isn’t a beer belly / It’s a gas tank for a sex machine’). Millions of fat oafs have patted their pendulous tummies and blamed beer for their enormous girths. “Guess I better cut back on the brewskis,” they say, chuckling as they admire the avalanches of flesh where their waists used to be. If only it was that simple.


A study by the Journal of Medicine examined the body-mass index (BMI) and abdominal height (how far your gut sticks out) of 2,300 drinkers and non-drinkers. Researchers found that beer drinkers had no more ‘belly fat’ than non-drinkers, which is bad news for anyone who thought that cutting out the beer from his diet meant he could keep eating handfuls of deep-fried Mars Bars for lunch.


People sure do seem to be getting fatter and dumber these days, though. Why else would they think that:


A Beer Has as Much Alcohol as a Glass of Wine or a Shot of Liquor


If you’ve ever taken a mandatory alcohol awareness class after being busted for underage drinking (and who are we kidding, of course you have), then you’ve probably heard this myth. It’s usually accompanied by a colourful infographic, though, so who’s going to disagree? The myth can be debunked in three easy steps.


1) Assume average serving sizes and potencies, which are: 40ml shot of 40 percent alcohol-by-volume spirit, 500ml of 5 percent ABV beer, and 150ml glass of 14 percent ABV wine.


2) Multiply the mililitres by the percent to find the total mililitres of alcohol per drink. The shot has 16ml of alcohol. The beer has 25ml. The wine has 21ml.


3) See how the numbers are different.


Of course, you could argue with these figures. You might say that a normal can of beer does indeed have the same amount of alcohol as a shot of 120-proof liquor, or that a double-slug of Everclear gets you way more twisted than a glass of Pinot Grigio. And you’d be right, which segues nicely to our final misconception that:


Beer Myths are Interesting to Talk About


Think about what you’ve just read. It was roughly 800 words about health, science and ancient history. Sure, beer was involved tangentially, but was that really worth it? There may be some beer myths that can be enjoyed without any need to think too hard (like the one about employees of a certain Mexican beer peeing in every batch), but these are always so obviously made-up that debunking them is like telling a toddler that Santa Claus died. It’s easy and fun, but eventually unsatisfying.


Don’t people drink beer to forget about stuff like this — all the pointless little quarrels that normally occupy our minds like a gaggle of unwashed hippies? If the cute stranger at the bar says a pint of stout is stronger than a pint of lager, are you really going to argue?


Don’t be that person. Nobody likes that person.

More in this category: « A Home Brew Beer Fridge Taste Test »

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