A Holy Trinity of a Different Kind...

Consider that two signal pieces of archeological evidence of the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian society are these: bread and beer. Amazingly, both composed of the same ingredients: grain, water, and yeast.

Many years ago I got my first introduction to the art of bread baking using natural yeast while canoeing through the wilds of Maine along the Allagash waterway for six weeks.  This bubbly fermentation produced bread called 'sourdough,' because of its aromatic and enticing sour flavor. A friend gave me and my partner in this venture a cup of sourdough ‘starter’ that she got from her grandmother. It was reputedly one-hundred years old. Whether it was really that old or not I don’t know. But it did provide us with wonderful bread, pancakes and biscuits for five of the six weeks, until one day it accidentally got knocked over in the canoe – discovered by us belatedly and too late for reviving. I also carried along a book about sourdough written by a Portland, Oregon news writer named Don Holm along with his wife Myrtle, called The Complete Sourdough Cookbook (everything back then was being called 'complete' for some reason, though usually with a slightly weird spelling – like ‘compleat’ for example).

I think what was most delightful and continually entertaining about this starter was that all it required was occasional feedings of flour and water. Like a pet, but oh so much easier. In return, with the addition of some simple ingredients – a little salt, a little sugar – it presented us with a variety of breadstuffs that were like delicacies in the midst of the Maine wilderness. How could something so simple bring about so much pleasure?

That, of course, is one of bread’s secrets. Its simplicity and the comfort it brings. For most of us, being able to make bread is a wonder, relegated to the very skilled or those who’ve been initiated into some secret society. Somehow we manage to overlook that bread’s been around as long as recorded civilization, meaning that if it was rocket science we’d all be eating stalks of wheat.

I continued my experiments with sourdough bread on and off over the next few years while living part-time in the Canadian wilderness in British Columbia, helping a friend build a log home. Having a woodstove instead of a camp stove, I could bake real loaves of bread, along with deep-fried doughnuts (we were all blissfully unawares of healthy living back then, although living pretty damned healthfully in the woods).

And then I just sort of got my directions changed in life and fell out of sourdough, even though I continued to bake bread over the years.

Interestingly, shortly after I had first gotten involved in sourdough, I got initiated into beer brewing while living in England, along the east coast in what is known as the Norfolk Broadlands, or East Anglia. This is where Jimmy Stewart and American bomber crews flew from during the Second World War in sorties over Europe. A chance meeting with a fellow Friend's World College student who was from Canada – and with whom I’d later build that house in B.C. – introduced me to my first beer-making experiences. They were pretty lame, to be honest. We’d use old plastic wine casks (the kind that held five gallons of really cheap wine) that had spigots about 3 inches above the bottom, so we could forego a lot of the work and transfer from containers involved in the brewing process. For grain we used malt extract, and added to it water, special beer yeast (that varied with the type of beer being brewed), and sugar. The result wasn’t pretty, and it certainly didn’t match what we could get at the local pub, but the price couldn’t be beat.

Later, back in the U.S., I found myself living in the Midwest in Omaha. There I continued my education and found myself continuing my brewing education with a philosophy professor who became a mentor. Down in the basement of his house, we’d sit, smoke cigarettes, and create garbage-can sized volumes of beer: lager at first, and then ales. We still used malt extracts, but we had gotten more sophisticated, adding real hops and using a device called a Hydrometer to measure the alcoholic content. We even went to the considerable trouble (and it is considerable) of cleaning bottles and bottling the beer when the final fermentation was complete. The product was noticeably improved over my first results in Britain, although we had some batches that were best drunk when you were already half in the bag.

Again, life took me in different directions and I never went back to beer brewing.

Recently, I got reacquainted with sourdough, after finally diving into a bread-baking book that I had gotten as a present from my sister and brother-in-law. It’s a wonderful book called The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart. But at first read it’s really daunting, calling for all sorts of precise measurements and weighing of ingredients – things that were unnatural to my background of 'by guess and by God.' Nevertheless, as I kept reading and re-reading his section on sourdough, the old memories in me came alive again. So one day, I placed a cup of flour and a cup of water in a broad-mouthed ball jar and let it sit on my kitchen counter for a couple days. Sure enough, bubbles started appearing, and as I continued the process of throwing a little of the mixture out and adding back equal parts water and flour, pretty soon I had the wonderful bubbly aromatic smell of a real sourdough bread starter.

Since then I’ve been baking baguettes and loaves once or twice a week, as much as I can eat my way though, then sharing what I can’t with friends. The experience led to an epiphany of sorts when one day I suddenly realized that bread and beer are really just the same thing in different forms: one we bake and the other we brew.

And this led me to ponder, for no particular reason, so, which came first: bread or beer?

Follow the links below for a fascinating exploration of that question.

The consensus from the above seems to be that beer created bread (or at least justified its existence).

I'm neutral on the subject: bottom line is that three ingredients - grain, water and wild yeast - created civilization and kept it fed and happy. So much for the relative importance of Great Ideas in the history of our species.

Recently, however, I came across the following which casts significant doubt upon the previous consensus:

In it the author, who is both anthropologist and home brewer, provides an in-depth examination of the arguments as to which most likely came first. His own conclusion is that without the (relatively) modern appearance of non-porous pottery, it's unlikely that earlier civilizations would have had the apparatus to support the manufacture of beer.

So he votes for bread as the precursor to beer.

My own conclusion is that the natural affinity between beer and pretzels is not likely pure coincidence!

Copyright © 2009 by Larry Kilbourne