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Bread and beer, the wonder of yeast

food for thought

Early mankind gathered grains, pounded the kernels to flour with stones, mixed it with water, sometimes adding other ingredients such as fat and salt, and baked it on a rock in the heat of the sun. The Egyptians were the first to bake leavened bread, and that was probably more or less by accident. We speculate that some Egyptian housewife left her bowl of bread dough sitting too long before baking it, and it collected wild yeast from the air, causing it to form bubbles and swell up a bit. When her husband finally showed up for supper, she didn’t have time to pound more grain into flour and start over again, so she baked the ruined dough (possibly thinking that if it made him sick he deserved it for being late– he’d probably been off with his cronies, up to no good, inventing beer.) The yeast, of course, caused the bread to be softer and lighter than what they were accustomed to, and the yeast had given it a new dimension of flavor.
It wasn’t long before other housewives discovered that, if they saved a little of the dough to mix with the next day’s bread dough, the yeast grew even faster. Some of the mixtures worked better and produced more flavorful bread than others, so housewives traded daubs of starter dough, passing the best ones on to friends and relatives, and down to the next generations. It wasn’t long before someone had the idea of developing a better method of baking the dough. What if it could be baked more quickly, at a higher temperature than what was achieved by a rock in the hot sun? Couldn’t the loaves then be thicker and softer with a nicely browned crust? It might have been the potter’s wife who experimented with baking her bread in her husband’s kiln; at a much lower temperature, of course, than was required for clay bowls and jugs.
The Egyptian men had a more complicated process to refine before they successfully produced an acceptable beer. This process was possibly going on at about the same time in China and Babylonia and would later be passed on, by the Egyptians, to the Greeks who taught the Romans their secrets. Turning grain into beer has many more steps than the relatively simple process of bread-making, and took much longer to perfect.
Fermenting, or brewing, is the converting of starch in grain into sugar, then breaking down the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The grain must first be soaked, but because moisture causes the grain to ferment, causing heat, the soaking grain must be kept cool. The sprouting process develops enzymes that help turn the starch to sugar. Once that is achieved, the grain is heated to stop the sprouting at the proper stage, then crushed to release the starch. Water is added and carefully cooked to turn the starch to sugar. The mixture is then flavored with hops and additional sugars and molasses are added. As the mixture cools, yeast is added, which converts the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast, a living fungus, is skimmed off and the liquid is stored in casks for aging. We now have beer. Is it any wonder those guys were late for supper so often? It must have taken ages, and a whole lot of failed experiments to figure out that complicated process. And no doubt, a few humdinger headaches as well.
Even though the Greeks and Romans learned the process from the Egyptians, they preferred wine, which is a much simpler process. In fact, grapes know how to make wine all by themselves with no help at all from people. Grapes left on the vine will ferment into tiny globules of wine under the right conditions, as witnessed by the number of drunken robins I’ve seen some springs when the robins return while the ground is still frozen and there are few grubs or insects for the birds. Busy staking out territory, building nests, and selecting mates, the robins are forced to eat whatever is available at the time. Since the males usually return first, I tend to think of their antics among the grape vines as a sort of bachelor party.
I’ve noticed that the grain fermentation process can occur accidentally in bird feeders and have a similar affect on feeding birds. A friend of mine was in the habit of filling one of his bird feeders with cracked corn which is enjoyed by many of the ground-feeding birds. A long spell of mild, wet weather caused the corn to become damp and begin to ferment. Before long, my friend’s bird-feeder guests were exhibiting signs of inebriation and crashing into the side of his garage, missing branches on which they attempted to perch, stumbling drunkenly across the lawn. The grain hadn’t yet come near to being beer, though. It was probably a lot closer to moonshine.