The Original Adjuncts
A little farther north are the Mongolian steppes—a harsh climate that isn’t good for growing barley. The nomadic people here herd yaks, sheep and horses. Yak butter is a staple and is stirred into milky tea. But an even tastier drink is airag, a cloudy, sour beer made with mare’s milk. You got that right, horse’s milk.
Not too far to the east, the aboriginal Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan, still practice an animist religion in which offerings of rice or millet beer are made from a special bowl called a tuki. A carved prayer stick, the ikupasuy, (literally “moustache lifter”) is used to shake drops of the beer onto the ground in four directions. Just like most other cultures making ceremonial brews, after expressing humility and reverence, those offering the prayers get to drink up what’s in the cup.
When the Chinese invaded Japan long ago, they brought with them rice-farming methods. Naturally this lead to the making of saké. When Buddhism arrived several hundred years later, the best of the earlier Shinto beliefs were rolled in. One of these was the annual harvest festival called Niiname-sai. Saké is essential to Niiname-sai and it is a common offering at temples even today.
There seems little doubt that early Asian or Siberian people migrated to the Americas over the Bering land bridge. Genetics are backing this up, but if you consider the ceremonial use of alcoholic drinks between both continents, the similarities are striking.
But if the First Americans brought fermentation with them, that would place early beer making somewhere around 120 centuries ago—a few thousand years earlier than any current archaeological evidence of brewing. And if they didn’t bring homebrewing with them, it is something of a coincidence that the first fermented drinks might have been made in Africa, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Western Asia and the Americas all more or less around the same time.
Some history buffs have speculated there was no existing brewing culture in North America prior to arrival of the Europeans. True, nobody we know of was malting barley and adding hops in big copper kettle. But the people who were already here knew how to brew with just about anything they could find and they had been doing so for centuries.