Granaries, grains surplus, beer and political power.


The first centralized powers eager to administrate their resources wrote down their material life, sometimes in the form of very accurate accounting records in Mesopotamia.These documents form the oldest archives on the planet : Mesopotamia (cuneiform records on clay tablets), China (turtle shells / oracular scapulae of the Shang), Egypt (papyrii), India (script on bamboo), Central America (script of the Mayas), Anatolia (clay tablets of the Hittites), and so on[1].

Every time they have been retrieved and deciphered, they talk about beer. For which reasons?

Apart from the extent of its commercial networks, the power of a city-state depends on the fertility of the agricultural territory it controls[2].

A city-state is a social machine that converts agricultural wealth into military strength and political power. If this wealth is of a cereal nature - as is often the case - then beer plays a key role in a city-state. Its role is at once technical (brewing patterns), economic (management of grain processing) and social (distribution of beer/social classes).

Two jar stopings stamped with a seal showing a scene of grain storage into grain silos, discovered with an accounting clay tablet recording the operation. Susa, Period II (Uruk period), c. 3800-3100 BC. Tell of the Acropolis, excavations by the French archaeologist Mecquenem 1931-1933 .
Store the grains in silos

If the city-state "manufactures" power with cereal wealth, beer in return materialises this power in the form of liquid-fermented-bread i.e. beer, whose social apportionnement and economic use are under the city authorities control.

To whom is the beer distributed? Soldiers, men-at-arms, clergy, craftsmen and servants of the palace, merchants, workers and farm foremen of the estates, all these personnel receive rations of bread and beer. However according to precise rules.

The social and technical developments that are driving the enlarged agrarian communities towards centralised city-states can be seen through the following lines of the historical development of the brewery:


  • 1. The social map of beers :
    • A sort of beer for every social class. Create types of beer and specialise in their social usage.
    • The beer density reproduce the difference of social status. Beer density = quantity of grains brewed for a same volume of beer.
    • Some beers for men, others for gods. Beer becomes the main beverage for the offerings and religious rituals.
    • Beer becomes the beverage of the great dynastic rituals. Its consumption cements the great collective celebrations.


  • 2. Beer production and service in the palaces :
    • Male and female brewer working for the palaces, the new centres of political power.
    • The protection of beverages against poisoning. The relative complexity of the manufacturing circuits means that beer passes through many hands before being drunk by the empowered families in palaces or elsewhere.
    • Cupbearers and personal service for the king, the queen and their family. This derives from the latter point (protection against poisoned beers).


  • 3. The skilled craftsmen serving institutional powers (palaces, temples)
    • The palace: specialised male and female brewers. Brewing beer becomes a professional activity.
    • Religious institutions and the service of the gods. The brewery settles in the heart of religious shrines.
    • Merchants, great officers and overseers progressively control the networks of the "commercial brewery".


  • 4. The expansion of the brewery in urbanized context
    • The tavern and the female brewer : brew and sell beer on-site become a woman activity
    • The barter of grain against beer and the resale of beer dregs involve some synergy with breeders.
    • The tavern and the innkeeper : a gradualy male trade.
    • The beer trade outside the city walls. The beer becomes one item exchanged with populations which are not used to grow cereals.


  • 5. Technical impacts on the brewing methods
    • Semifinished and storable brewing ingredients to brew beer all year long.
    • Control of the brewing cycle and its many variants.
    • Be able to brew several sorts of beer of consistent quality.
    • Calculation of ratios "grains / brewing ingredients".
    • Calculation of ratios "brewing ingrédients / type of beer".
    • Brewing by-products recycling (beer dregs, ferments)
    • Differentiated distribution of different kinds of beer to different social groups.
    • Beer keeping : short or long ?


The political and social dynamics of a city-state push it to extend its power, its territory and become a kingdom, opening the time of conflicts against its neighbours with competing ambitions. Here again, the management of the granaries and the production of beer are strategic. Within the first complex political structures, the management of the grains and the products obtained from them, beer in particular, became an issue both economic (controlling stocks, accounting for input-output), social (distribution according to each social category, ration system, different qualities of beer according to social class, etc.) and religious (which share of beer and bread for offerings to the deities, which qualities and which redistribution of these beer offerings). Conversely, these new social constraints affect the brewing techniques. Beers of different qualities must be brewed every day and accurate brewing ratios must be observed.


Five major cultural areas around the world offer archives that are sufficiently extensive in time and space. The evolution of the brewery in each of the above-mentioned phases (agrarian community, city-state, kingdom, empire) can be traced. These five world regions are :

  1.  Ancient Near-East with the adjacent cultural areas : Elam, Sumer, Akkad and northern Mesopotamia.
  2.  Protodynastic in Egypt, Old and Middle Empires.
  3.  China in the bassin of Huang-He river : Shang, Zhou and Han chinese dynasties.
  4.  India from the Indus civilisation to the Maurya and Gupta empires.
  5.  Andean countries with the pre-incaïc kingdoms and the Inca empire.




Cereal basin



Kinds of beer



Sumerian, Akkadian

Tigre, Euphrate

Uruk, Obeid, Kish, Khafajeh, Ur, Nippur, Lagash

4th mil.

barley or emmer beers



Suse, Tepe-Yaya

4th mil.

barley or emmer beers

Northern Mesopotamia


Godin Tepe

3rd mil.

barley beers




Abydos, Nagada, Hierakonpolis

4th mil.

barley or wheat beers

Old empire



3rd mil.

barley or wheat beers

Middle empire



2rd mil.

wheat beers


Harappa, Mohenjo-daro

Indus basin

Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro

2nd mil.

barley or wheat beers

Vedic India

Ganges basin


1st mil.

rice or bean beers


Shang and Zhou periods

Huang-He basin

Erlitou, Erligang, Anyang,

2nd- 1er mil.

millet, wheat, barley beers

Zhou period

Yangtse basin


1st mil.

rice or bean beers


southern and central

Maya and Toltec Mesoamerica

Yucatan, central Mexico

Copán, Tikal, Palenque and Tula


maize beers

Andean pre-inca kingdoms

Andes (*)

Chavín, Tiwanaku, Huari, Chimú


maize, quinoa, potato, sweet potato beers

Inca empire


Cusco, Lima



(*) The Andes is a chain of dry plateau cut by high fertile valleys, not a river basin.


Some historical examples taken among these five cultural areas will shed light on these issues. If the general development of the brewery obeys a social and technical logic, it shows "regional" variants as well.


^                              >

[1] The Greek texts of classical antiquity are too late to bear witness to a transformation of brewing already accomplished in the 6th-5th centuries BC. The documents in Linear B are very incomplete. Texts written on bamboo or palm leaves in Southeast Asia are also too late. The quipus of the Andean civilizations were systematically destroyed by the Spaniards. The knowledge of ancient brewing in the world is largely in the hands of archaeologists.

[2] Some city-states have later on built their power on sea trade. They controlled an extensive networks of exchange, not a territory. Examples: Tyre, Byblos, Greek colonies, maritime cities of the Indian Ocean ...

14/11/2020  Christian Berger