University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus



New book traces how beer influenced the world over time

Beer: A Journey through Past and Present

Anthropology professor sheds light on the drink's historical impact while showing readers how the innovation of ancient brewers inspires today’s booming craft beer industry

A new book written by a USF anthropology professor traces the deep history of beer and its start in ancient civilizations.

A staple of modern society, the refreshing, intoxicating beverage has roots going back 13,000 years. In many cultures, it was and still is, used as food.

In his book, “Beer: A Global Journey through the Past and Present,” John Arthur sheds light on the drinks historical impact while showing readers how the innovation of ancient brewers inspires today’s booming craft beer industry. The book, which is published by Oxford University Press, presents beer through archaeological and historical contexts, documenting how beer factors into societies’ health, economy, religion and technological development.

Professor John Arthur

Professor John W. Arthur during a research trip to Gamo, Ethiopia

Arthur’s inspiration came from his own travels around the world. He saw evidence of beer production during a two-year-long research trip to Southern Ethiopia to study the relationship between pottery and food. He noticed the pots were eroded on the inside.

“I asked them what was going on; why was the pot completely eroded on the inside? They would always say that the beer was eating the pot. The lactic acids in the beer were eroding the ceramic material, which became a tell-tale sign of beer production in the archaeological record. We can go to archaeological sites and see the same use-wear and erosion on these ancient pots,” said Arthur, who teaches at the USF St. Petersburg campus.

It is believed that Indigenous societies used grains to produce beer long before making bread. As a result, beer is considered the key motivation for the domestication of grains worldwide.

“It’s going to make you feel good, and the alcohol is going to kill the bacteria in the water if it’s coming from a source that’s not very clean,” Arthur said. “So, it’s going to be tasty, it will make you feel good and it will fill you up.”

Arthur uses the archaeological lens to show readers exciting new perspectives on the types of ingredients ancient brewers used to flavor their beers. The varieties through the ages have sustained cultures in their quest to build state-level societies, such as Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, Europe and the Americas, by keeping people healthy and fueling ancient economies.

And at a different scale and cultural context, the modern craft beer industry in the U.S., including Florida and the greater Tampa Bay region, has also been inspired by the innovation of ancient brewers, including how to make current beer production more sustainable.

In addition to his anthropology classes, Arthur teaches an archaeology and Indigenous knowledge of brewing course for aspiring students in USF’s Brewing Arts Program. The online certificate provides participants with the foundational knowledge and hands-on training for a career in the industry of craft brewing.

Arthur will be discussing some of the key themes from his book during a talk titled “Beer, Archaeology, and Sustainability from the Old World to Florida’s Craft Beer Industry” on Thursday, April 21, at 5 p.m. in the Student Life Center, Room 2100.

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