Beer in Europe and the Bell-Beaker cultures (2800-1900 BCE)



These first beers dated on European territory at the end of the second millennium have ruined the hypothesis of a transmission of brewing techniques to the European peoples from the Near East through the Greco-Roman world of classical antiquity. Beer was born on European territory much earlier, 7500 years ago, according to the latest discoveries done in Switzerland and Germany (Neolithic Europe).

The Celtic, Germanic and Nordic peoples were great beer drinkers, but their history does not begin until the middle of the 1st millennium. The site of Hallstatt in Austria (Hallstatt B period, 1100-800) is contemporary to the site of Genó in Catalonia. He provided many chariots-graves with drink services probably intended for beer or some mixed grain-based drink. Unfortunately, no chemical analysis of the earthenware has been made.


In 1929, traces of mead, grains and berries were analysed inside a birch bark bucket deposited in the grave of a 16-18 year old girl. She lived in the age of the bronze at Egtved, Denmark around 1370 BCE, according to the dendochronology of the wood of the tomb (Thomsen 1929). The botanist B. Gram identifies the remains of blueberries and cranberries, wheat grains, remains of bog myrtle and a series of pollens of lime and other plants. The drink was a combination of beer, fruit wine with the addition of honey (Koch 2003, 129).

The typical pottery of the Bell-Beaker cultures[1] - inverted bell-shaped cups/vases - have since been interpreted as drinking cups for combined fermented drinks: beer-hydromel-wine blend[2]. The quick widespread use of these typical cups throughout Europe is said to be linked to the collective consumption of alcoholic beverages and drinking rituals.

Genó in Catalonia and Hallstatt in Austria confirm that brewing techniques are thriving in Europe within hierarchical and strongly agrarian societies. Beer serves there as a powerful social marker for both the living and the dead (funeral rites of the warlords of Hallstatt, cemetery of Genó). Analyses of pollens associated with campaniform pottery in the archaeological sites of the roads of Atlantic Europe show that the average grain size of cultivated barley is increasing. The exchanges linked to the production and consumption of beer could explain this phenomenon.

The sites of Genó, Ciempozuelos, Hallstatt or Egtved are still too late to follow the European transition to the Neolithic, which has already taken place almost 3 millennia earlier, depending on the region. The investigation on the origin of brewing in Europe must go back to the people of the 4th and 3th millennia, contemporaries and bearers of the first agricultural techniques. Europe is not a primary focus of domestication for the main starchy brewing plants (with the exception of oats domesticated in Central and Eastern Europe), which undoubtedly implies a particular pattern for the birth of brewing on this continent.

The relationship between the emergence of brewing and the birth of agriculture is nevertheless strengthened in Europe, even if we are far from breaking through all its mechanisms.


[1] Campaniforme Culture in French, Glockenbecherkultur in German.

[2] Sherratt A. G. 1987, Cups that cheered. The Introduction of Alcohol to Prehistoric Europe. In Waldren & Kennard (eds) Bell Beakers of the Western Mediterrranan. Definition, Interpretation, Theory and New Site Data. The Oxford International Conference 1986, 81-114. Sherratt 1991.

06/09/2018  Christian Berger