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Local expert distills the global importance of beer

Mark Parker

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The SPCWA hosted USF Anthropology Professor John W. Arthur (right) and Ren LaForme, author and managing editor at the Poynter Institute, for an informative discussion titled “Beer: 13,000 Years of World Influence." Photos by Mark Parker.

While the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (SPCWA) typically focuses on critical, timely international issues, Tuesday’s special event was decidedly lighthearted.

The SPCWA hosted University of South Florida Anthropology Professor John W. Arthur and Ren LaForme, author and managing editor at the Poynter Institute, for an informative discussion titled “Beer: 13,000 Years of World Influence.” In honor of the subject matter, the SPCWA held Tuesday night’s event at The Ale and the Witch in Downtown St. Petersburg.

Arthur and his wife Kathy made news earlier this year thanks to the groundbreaking DNA extraction from a 4,500-year-old skeleton they found buried deep in an African cave. In addition to anthropology classes, Arthur teaches an “archaeology and indigenous knowledge of brewing” course as part of USF’s Brewing Arts Program. His book, Beer: A Global Journey through the Past and Present, was published by Oxford University Press and released in March.

In addition to his work at Poynter, LaForme is also a beer aficionado and home brewer. He moderated the discussion and noted that Arthur “literally wrote the book on beer.”

“When we look at beer, it started 13,000 years ago in a cave in Israel,” said Arthur. “This was 4,000 years before the domestication of barley and wheat, and nobody thought that would have ever happened.”

The anthropologist relayed how his world travels led him to document how the malted beverage factors into societies’ health, economy, religion and technological development. While Arthur said scientists are unsure why prehistoric humans began drinking beer, he said there is overwhelming evidence that shows its relation to funerals.

About 5,500 years ago – even before the Great Pyramids of Giza, explained Arthur – Egyptians produced several thousands of gallons of beer when they buried Pharaohs. That increased to millions, he said, as they began constructing the pyramids.

“Because that’s how people were paid,” added Arthur. “They were paid about a gallon a day in beer.”

Tuesday night’s special event was held at The Ale and the Witch at 111 2nd Ave. NE in downtown St. Petersburg.

Although attendees at the Ale and the Witch were sipping pints as a relaxing refreshment, Arthur said indigenous societies drink beer – albeit thicker than American suds – as food. Most subsistence farmers, he said, make around $1.50 per day and lack the capital to pay workers. However, they do have the grains necessary for brewing.

Arthur called beer “the motivating force” for communities to plant and harvest crops and build critical infrastructure. He said it fueled the creation of roads that stretch 25,000 miles from Chile to Ecuador, even before the Inca rose to power.

Arthur also noted the importance beer plays in world health. Clean water remains out of reach for two billion people worldwide, said Arthur, which results in millions of annual deaths.

“Beer is not the cure-all for unsafe water,” he said. “But I can tell you that I’ve never gotten sick drinking indigenous beer. I’ve gotten sick a lot drinking filtered and boiled water.”

In many native societies, said Arthur, people give local brews to their children by the time they are eight months old. He said that is one focus of his book, and “once they’re weaned from the breast, they’re giving them beer.”

He did note that the thicker beverages often resemble liquid porridge and only contain about 2-3% alcohol by volume (ABV). Arthur said the beer feeds the children, keeps them safe from unclean water and helps to boost the population.

Arthur said the preponderance of small batch brews has come “full circle” in modern America. He explained there were over 8,000 craft breweries in the 1800s and, following Prohibition, just eight by 1980. There are now over 4,000 nationwide, and like those that came before them, Arthur said the focus is again on using local ingredients.

St. Petersburg is now known for its craft breweries. Part of that success is due to USFSP’s Brewing Arts program. The 23-week course, overseen by the College of Arts & Sciences, is recognized by the Master Brewers Association of the Americas.

Arthur was instrumental in the program gaining administrative approval. He explained the course is offered online, save for the last segment where students work in a brewery – anywhere in the world. That has allowed students from across the U.S. and the globe to participate in the course.

The professor teaches the first module, which he said involves much of the SPCWA discussion.

“So, the archeology of beer,” said Arthur. “And why beer really saved the world.”

Beginning Feb. 21, 2023, the SPCWA will again bring diplomats, military officials, academic experts and the media together in St. Petersburg to discuss critical international issues at its three-day conference. For more information, visit the website here.

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