WINDSOR–Max Nelson earned his PhD in classical studies through pioneering scholarship and 10 litres of the oldest beer ever produced in Canada.
"The beer recipe reflected what they were doing in Egypt millennia ago," says Nelson, a University of Windsor professor and beer history guru.
He describes the ancient beer, called bouza in Arabic, as intensely sweet-sour in taste and a beautiful ruby red in colour – once the heavy sediment settles.
Nelson served the bouza to the PhD examiners in 2001 to drive home the key finding from his exhaustive delving into old monastery records and classical literature – although the first beer was produced in Egypt or Mesopotamia 3,000 years ago, the suds consumed around the world today stem from much more recent European beer-making.
"And so does all the cultural baggage," Nelson adds. That cultural baggage is the lingering prejudice against beer as a second-class tipple in contrast to the snobbery, pretence and inflated prices surrounding wine.
"There appears to be no limit to what people will pay for a bottle of wine but you can't imagine handing over more than $10 for a bottle of beer in a store," Nelson says. "How can something possibly taste thousands of times better than something else?"
It doesn't, of course, but blame the ancient Greeks and Romans for a lingering anti-beer tilt in our culture (which we inherited from Europe). And credit the Germans for softening that stigma after the Roman Empire fell to beer-loving Goth invaders in the 5th century.
The Romans called the Goths barbarians and Nelson's detail-rich book tracing the history of beer in Europe up to 1000 is titled The Barbarian's Beverage (Routledge, 2005).
The 34-year-old scholar obviously lives and breathes classical studies. Nearly every surface in his office displays some ancient artifact, such as oil lamps, coins and vases.
A tall stand holds a replica breastplate and helmet of a Roman legionnaire and nearby are a shield and sword ("The proper term is actually legionary, if it matters"). For a photograph, Nelson volunteers to don a Roman toga and down pints in a campus pub.
"Why divorce pleasure and work? I flew through my PhD because I loved the topic," he says.
In scouting a doctoral topic at the University of British Columbia, Nelson discovered that no writer had seriously tackled the history of beer in ancient Europe. Yet he uncovered a wealth of revealing information from sources as varied as the writings of Aristotle to parchment records from monasteries in France.
"There were a lot of things that no one had ever looked at before because they hadn't been translated from the Latin. But if you see hops and barley listed together, it has to be for beer."
Such dogged detective work led to several key insights about Europe's contribution to modern beer culture and technology, including:
# Actual "brewing" of beer by adding malt to boiling water was born in Europe, around the 4th century, even through beers had already been produced by other means for millennia.
# Hops were used as a preservative and flavouring in beer at least by 822 in Europe, a full five centuries before the previously accepted date.
# The ancient Gauls of France introduced barrels to beer-making, which could be rolled for easy transportation and were less liable to break than the pottery jars used previously.
"The beer we drink today is a European drink even though the Pharaohs in Egypt also drank beer, and that would have been pretty good beer, too," Nelson says.
Yet, while beer was good enough for the rulers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Greeks dismissed it as fit only for foreigners, who were by definition inferiors. Nelson says this bias probably arose because the Greeks weren't very good scientists where booze was concerned.
"They understood that different drinks were intoxicating but they didn't understand that they were intoxicating because of alcohol."
Aristotle suggested that beer and wine must cause intoxication by different means because drunken beer-drinkers collapsed on their backs while drunken wine-imbibers fell in all directions.
Greek thinkers classed wine as a hot and dry substance and beer as a cold and wet one. And since they equated hot and dry with being manly and cold and wet with being effeminate, beer was shunned.
"The Greeks are the first people we know of who avoided making beer, even though they had an abundance of cereal and knew how to make it. It's very odd, because they were surrounded by people drinking beer," Nelson says.
Along with many other cultural influences, the Romans incorporated this anti-beer bias from the Greeks and spread it throughout their empire.
By the second century BC, the Gauls had come to regard beer as lower class and enriched the Roman economy by importing vast quantities of wine.
That wine arrived by sea in twin-handled pottery jars called amphora. Mounds of amphora shards at southern French cities like Toulouse are mute testimony to this cultural imperialism.
But then along came the barbarians, the Goths from Germany and farther north.
"The barbarian attitude was: it tastes good and makes you drunk, then you might as well drink it."
But while the German tribes rejected the notion of beer as unmanly, Nelson's research shows they still bought into the concept of wine as the elite drink.
Something worth considering as you order that next round.