Helping to illuminate biblical context and background
Give beer to people who are dying and wine to those who are sad. Let them drink and forget their need and remember their misery no more.
Proverbs 31:7, 8
The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast (se’or), which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, until it was all leavened.
Matthew 13: 33
This reverie is about that indispensable ingredient to happy, healthy human life and human culture – yeast.
It is perhaps the most studied, best understood and most diverse microorganism we know. Humans have been using yeast for millennia, but have only been able to see it since the invention of the microscope in the 17th century and did not understand its role in fermentation until 1859 when that 19th century genius, Louis Pasteur, proved that it was one particular specie of this huge family of single celled fungi that actually ate sugar and made alcohol (and mead, wine, beer and bread). Since the ancients of bible lands and times did not know of this creature, per se, it was never mentioned or named in scripture, but its products were. The above quote from Matthew is a typical mistranslation; se’or is a word for leaven: in particular ‘sourdough starter’ as most of the leavened breads of that time were sourdoughs.
If you have brewed your own beer or wine, or baked your own bread, or stood by your mama whilst she baked bread, you have seen yeast in packages of grainy powder or yeasty cakes – the commercial yeasts: Saccharomyces cerevisiae (top fermenting yeast) and its closest cousin S. carlsbergensis (aka S. pastorianus bottom fermenting or lager yeast). Out of more than 1,500 yeast species, these two are the ones that yield the most pleasing flavored drink. Humans have worked to perfect different strains of these and other species according to the trait desired: flavor, ethanol production, carbon dioxide production and the production of other chemicals.
If you eat grapes, and who hasn’t, you have also seen this yeast (or one of its cousins) in its natural form. The light grey coating on the table grape is not a pesticide; it is the 'bloom' of the grape; it is yeast. Nature put it there and often it just happens to be the right kind of yeast to perform pleasing fermentation. A marriage made in heaven? Yep.
Long, long ago humans took note of what yeast could do and liked it. It very likely happened when humans tried to store grapes in them newfangled pottery vessels. The grapes spoiled but were eaten anyway and, lo, the people got a pleasant buzz. Our forebears then started the processes that would perfect fermentation. Through trial and error they found pleasing fermenters. They added water and other tasty stuff. To accommodate their new friends, they began inventing (It’s what we do). In time they invented special pottery, wooden pots, tools, structures and methods to capture the beverage that is yeast’s natural product. This first took place in the West some 6,000 years BCE between the newly enlarged and suddenly salty Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It was here, in the Caucasus that humankind first invented the tools and processes needed to purposefully make alcoholic drinks in quantity. First these were simple meads. It turns out that anything that holds sugar can go into a mead. All you need is a fired clay pot (preferably with a top), some sweet produce, a few grapes, water, a cool dark storage place and time. Archaeologists have found potsherds with residues on their internal surfaces that test out with chemical signatures of many different plant ingredients and sometimes honey.
Perhaps the idea arose that maybe this could be done better if only grapes were used and, lo, wine was born and with wine, the methods and processes of the vintner. Armenia claims it was first to do this as does Georgia. It was so close a thing as to be contemporaneous.
Here is the Armenian proof:
"This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production," said archaeologist Gregory Areshian of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years BCE," he said. (Related: "First Wine? Archaeologist Traces Drink to Stone Age.")
The prehistoric winemaking equipment was first detected in 2007, when excavations co-directed by Areshian and Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan began at the Areni-1 cave complex.
In September 2010 archaeologists completed excavations of a large, 2-foot-deep (60-centimeter-deep) vat buried next to a shallow, 3.5-foot-long (1-meter-long) basin made of hard-packed clay with elevated edges.
The installation suggests the Copper Age vintners pressed their wine the old-fashioned way, using their feet, Areshian said.
Juice from the trampled grapes drained into the vat, where it was left to ferment, he explained.
The wine was then stored in jars—the cool, dry conditions of the cave would have made a perfect wine cellar, according to Areshian, who co-authored the new study, published Tuesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
In Georgia they still make wine the old way using huge, hand-made, wood fired, wax lined clay pots (kvivli) buried in the ground into which mashed grapes are put to ferment. The Georgians use simple but clever tools of wood and reed and leather to mix the must and to move the fermented product out of its ‘home’ and into smaller vessels for consumption accompanied by much singing. UNESCO has made a film of Georgians making wine this old way.
View this thoroughly enjoyable and instructive, nine minute video here: http://www.unesco.org/archives/multimedia/?s=films_details&pg=3...
This region became part of the Sumerian Empire. Sumerian expansion and trade transmitted the precious knowledge west and south. Sumer got the method and tried it with grains and, behold, beer! To the Sumerian, beer was a thoroughly enjoyable gift from the gods.
The Scientific American recently addressed this.
“Beer was first produced crudely, but it got better through experimentation. … By 5,500 years ago, the Sumerians had more than fifty words for beer and were recording recipes for their favorite beers on clay tablets, one of which, a hymn for the goddess Ninkasa, The hymn includes the recipe, which is simultaneously an ode, “You are the one who soaks the malt in the jar, the one who makes waves rise, the one who makes waves fall. ””
Little did the Sumerian poet know that he was singing to yeast.
They drank it with straws. “The Cuniform symbol for Kash, a sort of early beer, was a jug with two men sipping at it with straws.”
The Sumerian Empire traded with and greatly influenced the rise of Egypt, and the secrets were transmitted to that land of farmers and gardeners, and the Egyptians improved on the work. The Egyptians kept great records. Here are some.
(Menna el-Dorry: Wine Making in Ancient Egypt)
Indeed every people and culture that got the secret improved on it: better stomping floors or trenches, elevated stomping vats, wine presses, better fermenting vessels, wine cellars; better farming methods, grape handling methods, wine handling methods , better grapes, barrels, glass bottles, air-locks (yeast ferments better with little oxygen and no interference from other microbes). But in no picture from Egypt or any other ancient culture do we see vessels used for pure yeast.
Fermenting made the beverages that would protect humankind from the host of diseases infesting the waters near human habitations. If drawn from lake or stream, local waters could be deadly. The alcohol the yeast made and that killed itself thus stopping fermentation, also killed the many other deadly microbes that preyed on humans. So, everyone drank beer. The nobility got the wine (and owned all the wine making gear & properties). The nobility shared their drink with the priestly classes and with the gods and on festive days with the lower classes. Yeast fermentation also made some hard to get vitamins humans needed. In that long human age before sanitation, purification, disinfectant and understanding, when microbe mastered human, drinking beer was one of the healthiest of practices. Roman Legions marched with the capability to set up breweries in their camps. It was they who introduced beer into Northern Europe (CE 55). If going anywhere at sea, until disinfectants were used in water, sailors wanted beer on board as shipboard water soon turned green.
But alcoholic beverages was not yeast’s only useful product; there was also CO2.Somewhere on its way to Egypt, some unknown cook (probably a housewife anxious to make her unleavened bread or porridge tastier) mixed some of the fermenting grape stuff into her cooked wheat paste and thus took the first step along the path that would lead to the first modern, leavened bread. Introduced into the relatively airless dough, the yeast produces less ethanol and more CO2, and it fills the dough with pockets of gas that expand with the heat of baking. It has been suggested and is possible that the leavening yeast floated into a batch of bread paste by chance, but there are more microbes in the air that simply cause rot. A human acting purposefully gives us a recipe (sourdough) that subsequent bakers could reproduce. We know that much later Pliny the Elder (died CE 67) observed Gallic bakers scooping the foam (yeast rich barm) from the top of beer brewing vats to add to their dough thus producing a lighter bread than all others. Thus one of the tricks humans learned sometime between two and three thousand years ago was that of using wine must and beer barm* as dough starters – the trick of the sourdough – bake up most of the dough but save a bit of the starter for making more dough and more tasty bread.
Understanding grew with practice and experience. The High Middle Ages pushed the secrets of brewing out of the monastery, and the Renaissance saw the secrets of the guild move into the world. In 1680, the inventor of the first microscope Anton van Leeuwenhoek first looked at yeast, but did not see them as living organisms, just globular structures. By the late 18th century, the two yeast strains named above had been identified. S. cerevisiae has been sold commercially by the Dutch for bread-making since 1780; while, around 1800, the Germans started producing S. cerevisiae in the form of cream. In 1825, a method was developed to remove the liquid so the yeast could be prepared as solid blocks.
While scripture is silent regarding yeast, the Talmud is not. (When is Talmud ever silent?) Oddly enough the sages of the Talmud evince a distrust of yeast. They repeatedly use it as a potential evil: something to make one puff up: something to make one rot from within. Again, since much of the Talmud predates seeing, separating and purifying yeast, these similes and metaphors are hard to understand.
Here are two typical Talmudic thoughts on the matter:
Rabbi Alexander, after he prayed, would say the following: "Master of the Universe, it is known and revealed before You that it is our will to do Your Will. What prevents us? The yeast in the dough and the subjugation to the non-Jewish nations. May it be Your Will that You save us from their hand and that we return to do the laws of Your Will with a perfect heart."
– Talmud Brachot 17a
Yeast in the dough - the yetzer hara (evil inclination) in our heart, which causes us to "puff up" (machmitzeinu).
– Rashi on Talmud Brachot 17a
And yet, the thought on yeast today is that pure yeast is generically kosher. Thus beer is kosher, but wine has other laws to obey as does leavened bread which may not even be owned during the Passover.
So here in a long, brief space, a history of this essential non-plant. If you are growing grapes or any soft fruit, you are also growing yeast. Though not directly named in scripture, we find it indirectly named as 'the lees of the wine', 'the dregs of the beer', and 'leaven', as the Peoples of the Word knew this God given creature.
It was our own tame, friendly, useful microbe. Long before we even had a clue about disease causing bacteria, God given yeast was there protecting us from them and making us feel a bit better about life as it worked its magic.
So drink up! Enjoy this wonderful gift. But never lose sight of this wisdom from Proverbs:
Wine and beer make people loud and uncontrolled;
it is not wise to get drunk on them.
Proverbs 20: 1
*barm is the foam on top of fermenting beer; must is the same stuff atop wine. Both are best used as dough starters when still active.
This is wine must while still ‘working’.
This is what one sees when one smashes grapes, adds a bit of sugar and lets them sit in a jar for four days. The bloom on the grapes is converting the juice of the grapes into wine and bubbling up carbon dioxide.
Here is beer barm, the foam Pliny saw being scooped into dough.