Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze

Alcohol isn’t just a mind-altering drink: It has been a prime mover of human culture from the beginning, fueling the development of arts, language, and religion.

If you’re a beermaker in Germany, Martin Zarnkow is a guy you want to know. Students come to his department at the Technical University of Munich because it’s one of the few places in this nation of beer drinkers to get a degree in brewing science. Some of Germany’s biggest breweries come to Zarnkow to troubleshoot funky tastes, develop new beers, or just purchase one of his hundreds of strains of yeast. His lab is secured with coded door locks and filled with sophisticated chemical equipment and gene sequencers. But today he’s using none of that.

Instead I find him down the hall, hunched over an oven in the employee kitchen, poking what looks like a pan of mushy granola cookies with a black plastic spatula. The cookies are made from brewer’s malt—sprouted, toasted barley grains—mixed with wheat flour and a few spoonfuls of sourdough starter. Pouring a coffee, Zarnkow tells me that his plan today is to re-create beer from a 4,000-year-old Sumerian recipe.

Zarnkow, who started his career as a brewer’s apprentice, is also an eminent beer historian. He’s a big man with a full salt-and-pepper beard, ruddy cheeks, a booming voice, and a belly that strains the buttons on his short-sleeved plaid shirt. Put him in a brown habit and he’d be well cast as a medieval monk, the one in charge of stocking the abbey with barrels of ale. The former abbey next door, for example: Zarnkow’s building shares a hilltop, overlooking the Munich airport, with the Weihenstephan brewery, which was founded by Benedictine monks in A.D. 1040 and is the oldest continually functioning brewery in the world.

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