“Ancient alcoholic beverages don’t always fit into neat, distinct categories”

Ancient alcoholic beverages don’t always fit into neat, distinct categories. Chemical evidence of ancient alcoholic drinks show that they were often mixed concoctions. It would be rare to find products composed solely of barley, wheat, dates or grapes. Dates (where and when available) were perhaps the most frequent additive to beer. But beers were often sweetened also with grapes, sycamore, figs, honey (fruit and bee) and spices. As a general rule, ancient alcoholic drinks are identified by the type of primary sugars used in the fermentation – fruits for wine, cereals for beer.

There is no doubt that ancient Israel loved wine and prized it highly. Wine is more difficult to produce than beer because, unlike growing cereals, which ripen in a few months, viniculture requires permanent fields and social complexity. Over the past 100 years, however, many scholars have inferred that beer drinking is uncivilized – even loutish and uncouth. Some scholars have gone so far as to translate classic ancient Akkadian texts that clearly reference beer (šikaru) with the terms “wine” or “strong drink,” apparently to avoid degrading the esteemed imbibers. This has led many Bible scholars actively to distance Biblical heroes from a beer-drinking world, much like some Christians prefer to believe that Jesus drank unfermented grape juice despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. William Foxwell Albright called the Philistines “carousers” because of their alcohol-orientated ceramic assemblage. This bad reputation for beer is unfounded in antiquity, and there is even good news lately for modern beer drinkers. The recent revolution of microbreweries, many of which produce brews that rival wine in complexity, means that beer drinkers need no longer feel inferior to wine connoisseurs.

Michael M. Homan, “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?”, Biblical Archaeology Review vol. 36, no. 5 (September/October 2010), 53-54.