Barbarian's beverage max nelson beer book review

The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe is a published version of Max Nelson’s university thesis (which is available for free online). He obviously passed – he is now Assistant Professor of Classics at Canada’s Windsor University and he was asked to extend it slightly for publication.

In The Barbarian’s Beverage, Max Nelson has summarised 3000 years of complex history in 116 pages. It’s chock full of interesting sources and further reading on a wide variety of subjects in the wider history of beer in Europe.

A quick flick through the book gives you a glimpse of how the whole book reads – it is dry, dense and packed full of information, written concisely and consistently rigid. Just what I expected from a university thesis really.

That’s not a bad thing though. It is remarkably well written for an essay, with each and every paragraph superbly structured offering a point, convincing the reader by backing it up with tons of evidence and then explaining the importance and wider implications of this argument.

Well structured throughout, with chapters on prehistoric, Greek, Celtic, Roman and Germanic attitudes to beer and one analysing two opposite attitudes to drinking, it is very easy to find relevant information. If you don’t want to read the entire relevant chapter, or are looking for something very specific, the 18 page index is totally comprehensive.

The 116 pages of text is packed with thousands of years of history. A difficult task, which has drawn the only real criticisms of Nelson’s work – that it doesn’t go into detail on any particular points. Nelson acknowledges this in his conclusion though, explaining that his goal is to provide a firm and fruitful starting point for others to go into deeper study of the many different cultures, times and attitudes covered in his work spanning thousands of years of rich beer history.

In many ways this has been a preliminary investigation and I have considered of prime importance the presentation of a large amount of primary material, something which has not previously been attempted. Certainly much of this material deserves far more careful analysis than I have been able to provide here and I hope that it will stimulate others on this path.

Each chapter could easily have been a book on it’s own, but Nelson’s intention was simply to provide a rich vein of material for many others to get to grips with and show that Europe saw the development of beer as we know it today. On the first point he has succeeded triumphantly. No less than 50 pages of notes follow the text, offering interesting perspectives on ancient evidence, very well reasoned criticisms of secondary sources and, crucially, where to find all of the information he has based his work on. A 26 page bibliography offers more than enough for other readers or writers will need to delve deeper into specific aspects.

Something I feel was glossed over slightly was the rich evidence for Neolithic and Bronze Age brews, specifically in Scotland. These are perhaps closer to our modern conception of beer than those of Ancient Egypt, with local plants used as both bittering agents and preservatives (like we use hops). The analysis of this evidence is barely a page long, and concludes with the tantilising line “For now it seems quite certain from the early date of the finds and the general paucity of evidence for such mixed beverages in the east that the fabrication of these sorts of beverages was not passed on from the east but developed independently in Europe.” First published in 2005, perhaps this work was too early to include the in-depth study of the finds which Nelson says are “being published all the time”, so hopefully somebody will expand this point sufficiently enough to have a firm confirmation.

As a book, this is a difficult read, and so it should be – this isn’t a coffee table book or light bedtime reading. This is a thorough and extensive academic essay that simultaneously offers abundant evidence for ancient European beer over 3000 years and manages to pose more questions than it answers. That said, it is written so clearly and with such brilliant structure that it is remarkably accessible.

One for the more serious beer nerd. Essential reading for anyone writing about beer history.

The Barbarian’s Beverage by Max Nelson is available on Amazon for £24.93.

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