Another Reason To Drink Beer: It Saved Civilization -- and Could Do It Again

04/15/2013 01:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Without beer, human civilization wouldn't exist. Twelve thousand years ago, the transition of the human race from nomadic hunter-gatherers to village-bound farmers relied on a secure source of liquid sustenance -- and water just wouldn't do. It was too easily contaminated, too hard to purify, and really good at spreading disease.

"The solution was to drink alcohol," writes author Steven Johnson in his book about London's 1854 cholera epidemic (spread by contaminated water, natch). The folks in the Fertile Crescent might not have understood that boiling water to make beer helped rid it of disease-carrying microbes, but they certainly figured out that falling down drunk was preferable to falling down dead.

Although beer might not have been the first alcoholic beverage to pass human lips (wine likely holds that distinction), journalist Tom Standage writes in his enlightening A History of the World in 6 Glasses that it was the easiest to make and store in large quantities, so it soon became ubiquitous wherever humans settled. And it inspired its share of love sonnets ("Beer is proof," goes the -- possibly apocryphal -- Ben Franklin quip, "that God loves us and wants us to be happy.")

So we can thank dysentery for something. Fortunately, over 12,000 years, beermaking became a bona fide art. By the 19th century, artisanal, small-scale breweries competed for the hearts and tastes of the swilling public; New York City alone boasted 48 distinct breweries by 1898. Prohibition wrecked havoc on the brewing enterprises, but during my lifetime (thank goodness), craft beers rebounded.

Nowadays, instead of providing a substitute for clean water, good beer depends on it. Ninety percent of the finished product is actually water, so brewers spend a lot of time thinking about the clarity and security of their water source. Because beer only has four main ingredients -- water, malt, hops, and yeast -- the flavor and characteristic of each one has a big impact on the final brew. The better the water, in other words, the better your beer.

Unlike their Mesopotamian brethren, today's brewmasters understand the importance of clean water, and they're willing to fight for it. A campaign launched this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) is rallying microbrewers to speak in support of the Clean Water Act. Passed in 1972, the act has been slowly curtailed via interpretations of Supreme Court decisions that limit the bodies of water it protects. Water quality is suffering as a result. Survey results published by the EPA last month show that 55 percent of U.S. streams and rivers are in bad shape, with excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Matt Greff, owner of Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says he only fully grasped the importance of clean water laws after opening a brewery in Bangalore, India. Trying to craft his beer in a place that doesn't have strictly enforced regulations muddled the process, he says. That's why he's speaking out now about the need to strengthen the U.S. Clean Water Act.

Beer isn't the only industry that relies on clean water, but as small businesses, microbrewers have a particular interest in protecting their local supplies. And in a way, the campaign has historical resonance: beer could, once again, save the day.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.