thing theory (2008)

anth g6085


chase cohen (columbia university)

"He was a wise man who invented beer." -Plato


Beer is perhaps the most popular alcoholic beverage.  It is popular with all ages and across a multitude of countries.  But what does Beer mean?  In this object study I want to present some ideas and theories around the materiality of beer.  To this end we will start by looking the physical side of beer.  What is beer made of and how is it made?  As part of this I will also look at some of the history of beer, focusing on the archaeological evidence for early beer consumption.  After that we will shift to the meaning side of things and try to gain an understanding of what beer means. 

The theoretical framework of this study is the idea of materiality.  Materiality is split into two sides, the rather inaptly named ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial.’ The materiality I intend to use in this is a bit different; it is a two-fold approach.  When we speak of the two-foldness of objects we refer to the idea that the concept of materiality relies on the presence of people to apply meaning to the thing.  We can look at objects in singularity, that is to say that in the absence of a person to apply the meaning objects have physical materiality.  All objects have this physicality.  It consists of that which exists without people.  In the current example of Beer the physicality is the fact that it is a drink, that it can be consumed, or touched, that it consists of a variety of ingredients, but also that it comes in a keg or a can or a bottle.  The physical side of beer is that which is post-human.  It exists outside and independent from people.  The singular fold is that of the physical, while two-fold is both physical and meaning together.  Humans are, almost by definition, ‘meaning-makers.’  This is to say, we attach meaning and ideas to objects.  These meanings can be both individual and community-wide.  It is in our, human, nature to attach meaning to things.  If the beer sitting alone exists in singularity, then when in a human presence we can think of the beer as having a physical side as well as the meaning and ideas together.  Thus the beer exists in two folds.  It is through this that I am attempting to examine beer.

“Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.” -Dave Barry

history of beer

Beer is one of the world's oldest beverages, with textual references in some of the earliest known writings.  The consumption and production of beer possibly dates back to the 6th millennium BCE, and is recorded in the written history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia[1].  The earliest known chemical evidence of beer dates to circa 3500–3100 BC.   As almost any substance containing carbohydrates, namely sugars or starches, can naturally undergo fermentation, it is likely that beer-like beverages were independently invented among various cultures throughout the world.  Some recent archaeological finds have shown that, in China, villagers were brewing alcoholic drinks at least as far back as the 7th millenium BC.[2] However, these pre-historic brewing efforts were on a small, or individual, scale - not on the scale of a modern day brewery.  Beer is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the 'wild man' Enkidu is given beer to drink. "...he ate until he was full, drank seven pitchers of beer, his heart grew light, his face glowed and he sang out with joy."[3]  The Finnish epic Kalevala, collected in written form in the 19th century but based on oral traditions many centuries old, devotes more lines to the origin of beer and brewing than it does to the origin of mankind.[4]  Many cultures have deities and figures of legend dedicated to beer and to the production of alcohol, from Dionysus/Baachus of Greek and Roman Myth to the mythical Flemish king Gamrinus. 

Beer was important to early Romans, but during the Roman Republic wine displaced beer as the preferred alcoholic beverage.  It became a beverage considered fit only for barbarians; the historian Tacitus wrote disparagingly of the beer brewed by the Germanic peoples of his day, and indeed he created a list of the worlds greatest alcoholics, though his view is a bit skewed in that the Romans saw peoples who did not water their wine as they did to be alcoholics.[5]

In the Medieval period, it was consumed daily by all social classes in the northern and eastern parts of Europe where grape cultivation was difficult or impossible. Though wine of varying qualities was the most common drink in the south, beer was still popular among the lower classes. Since the purity of water could seldom be guaranteed, alcoholic drinks were a popular choice, having been boiled as part of the brewing process.  During this time beer was also being produced and sold by European monasteries.

Following significant improvements in the efficiency of the steam engine in 1765, industrialization of beer became a reality. Further innovations in the brewing process came about with the introduction of the thermometer in 1760 and hydrometer (used to determine the relative density of liquids) in 1770, which allowed brewers to increase efficiency and attenuation.  The industrial revolution implemented the mass production of beer throughout Europe and America.


“All right, brain, I don't like you and you don't like me - so let's just do this and I'll get back to killing you with beer.” – Homer Simpson


what is beer?

Starting this section is a brief discussion of the ingredients in beer as well as the process of producing it, following that will be a bit of an elaboration on these processes. 

Beer is produced by the fermentation of sugars derived from starch-based material, the most common being malted barley; however, wheat, corn, and rice are also widely used, usually in conjunction with barley. Less widely used starch sources include millet, sorghum and cassava root in Africa, potato in Brazil, and agave in Mexico, among others.

The starch source is steeped in water, along with certain enzymes, to produce a sugary wort which is then flavoured with herbs, fruit or most commonly hops.  Yeast is then used to cause fermentation, which produces alcohol and other waste products from anaerobic respiration of the sugars.  The process of beer production is called brewing.

The basic ingredients of beer are water; a fermentable starch source, such as malted barley; and yeast.  It is common for a flavoring agent to be added, the most popular being hops.  A mixture of starch sources may be used, with the secondary starch source, such as corn, rice and sugar, often being termed an adjunct, especially when used as a lower cost substitute for malted barley.

Beer is composed mostly of water, and the water used to make beer nearly always comes from a local source.  Like the argument that NYC bagels and pizza are so good because of NYC water, it is believed that the mineral components of water are equally important to beer as to the traditional foods of NY.  The degree of hardness or softness of the water can influence the character of the beer made from it. 

The starch source in a beer provides the fermentable material in a beer.  The most common starch source used in beer is malted grain.  Grain is malted by soaking it in water, allowing it to begin germination, and then drying the partially germinated grain in a kiln.  Malting grain produces enzymes that convert the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars.  Different roasting times and temperatures are used to produce different colors of malt from the same grain.  Darker malts will produce darker beers.

The flower of the hop vine is used as a flavoring and preservative agent in nearly all beer made today.  The hops help to contribute a bitterness that balances the sweetness of the malt; it also can contribute a floral, citrus, and/or herbal aroma and flavor to beer. The use of hops also is believed to aids in "head retention,"[6] the length of time that a foamy head created by carbonation will last.  The acidity of hops acts as a preservative that, after its introduction, gave brewers the ability to transport their product over longer distances, thereby allowing for the rise to commercial breweries. 

Yeast is the microorganism that is responsible for the fermentation of beer.  Yeast metabolizes the sugars extracted from grains, which produces alcohol and carbon dioxide, and thereby turns the wort into beer.  In addition to fermenting the beer, the yeast can also influence its character and flavor.  It is important to note, as well, that the different types of yeast lead to different beer, be it lager or ale.


“One beer is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.”  - James Thurber


how beer is made

Beer is made by brewing. The essential stages of brewing are mashing, sparging, boiling, fermentation, and packaging. Most of these stages can be accomplished in several different ways, but the purpose of each stage is the same regardless of the method used to achieve it.

Mashing manipulates the temperature of a mixture of water and a starch source, known as mash, in order to convert the starches into fermentable sugars.  The mash goes through one or more stages of being raised to a desired temperature and left at the temperature for a period of time.  During each of these stages, enzymes break down the mixture into simpler fermentable sugars, such as glucose.  The number of stages required in mashing depends on the starch source used to produce the beer. Most malted barley used today requires only a single stage.  This process takes roughly 1-2 hours.

Sparging extracts the fermentable liquid, known as wort, from the mash.  During sparging the mash is contained in a lauter-tun, which has a porous barrier through which wort but not grain can pass.  The brewer allows the wort to flow past the porous barrier and collects the wort.  The brewer also adds water to the lauter-tun and lets it flow through the mash and collects it as well.  This rinses fermentable liquid from the grain in the mash and allows the brewer to gather as much of the fermentable liquid from the mash as possible.  The leftover grain is not usually further used in making the beer.  However, in some cases second or even third mashes are performed with the not quite spent grains.  Each run would produce weaker wort and thus a weaker beer.

Boiling sterilizes the wort and increases the concentration of sugar in the wort. The wort collected from sparging is put in a kettle and boiled, usually for about one hour.  During this process the water in the wort evaporates but the sugars and other components of the wort remain which allows for a more efficient use of the starch.  Boiling also breaks down any remaining enzymes leftover from the mashing stage.  Hops are added during this phase and the boiling water extracts flavor from the hops. Hops are added at more than one point during the boil, as hops are boiled longer  they contribute more bitterness but less hop flavor and aroma to the beer.

Fermentation uses yeast to turn the sugars in wort to alcohol and carbon dioxide. During fermentation, the wort becomes beer.  Once the boiled wort is cooled and in a fermenter, yeast is propagated in the wort and it is left to ferment, which requires a few weeks to a few months depending on the type of yeast and strength of the beer.  In addition to producing alcohol, fine particulate matter suspended in the wort settles during fermentation.  Once fermentation is complete, the yeast also settles, leaving the beer clear.  Fermentation is sometimes carried out in two stages, primary and secondary.  Once most of the alcohol has been produced during primary fermentation, the beer is transferred to a new vessel and allowed a period of secondary fermentation. Secondary fermentation is used when the beer requires long storage before packaging or greater clarity.

Packaging, the fifth and final stage of the brewing process, prepares the beer for distribution and consumption.  During packaging, beer is put into the vessel from which it will be served: a keg, cask, can or bottle. Beer is carbonated in its package, either by forcing carbon dioxide into the beer or by "natural carbonation".  Naturally carbonated beers may have a small amount of fresh wort/sugar and/or yeast added to them during packaging.  This causes a short period of additional fermentation which produces carbon dioxide.


"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." -Benjamin Franklin


what does beer mean?

From here I want to turn to the meaning side of Beer.  Several weeks ago I sent out a request to a large number of friends asking for them to respond with what comes to mind when they see ‘Beer,’ in other words what does Beer mean for them.  The responses seemed to fit into what can only be described as two categories, one category focuses on the collective or community view of beer, while the other side of it is more individual. 

What follows is a collection of some of the responses divided into the two categories.

So as some of you might know, I am currently taking a class on Thing Theory. For this class we have to do presentations of object studies. The object I am examining is BEER. As a favor I would like you all to reply to this message and present 3-5 things that you think of when you see BEER. I am looking for what BEER means to you or to the collective community, or both...really whatever pops into your mind is great!
- Chase


Collective Meanings of Beer

Individual Meanings of Beer


Rather drink Beer than water when traveling


Archaeology and Dig Season (this is an group view among archaeologists, but not quite as prevalent among non-archaeologists)


The beer song (by they might be giants)

Sports (football, baseball, soccer)



Ocean Foam


15th century sailors

Homer Simpson and Duff Beer

Fields of Grain in the  sun

Red (“solo”) cups

Violence (be it domestic violence or just drunken debauchery that results in fights)


Beer as escape


Beer as a relation to other drinks.  Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.  It stands in a complicated socio-material web…




Sexy, salacious, scantily-clad women. The ones taking up more ad space than the beer.


Rise of early complex societies

Beer bellies

Beer hats

Pizza/Fast Food

Colors: Amber, foam-colored, brown, yellow-gold

Various specific beer brands come to mind from PBR to Guiness to Natural Light to Milwaukee’s Best (Beast) to Sam Adams to Hoegarten, etc.

An inability to not analyze a survey request and respond spontaneously


The Shakespeare quote, "adds much to the desire, but takes away from the performance."


Canoes and Campfires




Clydsdale horses


After much consideration of these responses I have considered the idea that the two-fold approach to materiality is really better described as consisting of physicality and then a differentiation between community wide and individual meanings.  Materiality is physicality and meaning (c) and meaning (i).  The ‘c’ stands for collective or community, and the ‘i’ standing for individual.  Perhaps this means we are not actually dealing with two-foldness as we are infinite-foldness.  By this I mean that beer can have a different meaning for each individual.  The meanings we attach to things are split between the ideas and meanings generated from our own personal experiences with that thing, and the ideas and meanings that are attached to the thing by the community and culture at large.

There are two major questions that are of further pertinence to this discussion and are interesting to discuss and consider.  The questions are:           

1.    Does beer have agency? (It does make you drunk)

2.    After you drink enough of it does beer return to singular materiality?

I might argue that beer does have agency, it does, after all, do things to your body, and it is the beer that makes you drunk.  But the beer only has this power if we choose to imbibe.  However, that being said, the beer acts on you this way whether you choose to be drunk or not.  I think everyone has, at some time or another, heard people say that it was the drink that made them do it (whatever they did).  Does this ascription of action and agency to the beer grant it agency?  Or are we looking at a sort of Gellian secondary or reflected agency?  In one sense through the consumption of alcohol we take it into our bodies and it begins to affect and transform us.  In this sense it is almost a form of possession, the beer literally becoming part of your body and affecting its actions and choices.   In this way beer can be said to have agency, though an argument can easily be made that the choice to get drunk resides not in the beer, which will affect you regardless of your choice, but in the human. 

The second question also revolves around what beer does to us when we consume it in large quantities.  If one consumes enough alcohol the meaning side of our mind shuts down.  This isn’t the most elegant or scientific of ways to describe what happens when we cross a certain line in our drunkenness, but it is an apt description.  When we have reached a certain level of drunkenness the focus of the mind lies not on what the beer means or, indeed, on what anything means, but it instead focuses on the physical characteristics of the beer, is it cold or warm, bitter or sweet, is there enough left in the keg for another cup.  The beer has gone from being a singularity when no one is around it, to being loaded with meaning and ideas when people see it, right back to being a singularity because we are no longer in a state of mind to attach meaning to things.  

"Work is the curse of the drinking class." - Oscar Wilde

[1] Origin and History of Beer and Brewing: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science and Technology, John P. Arnold

[2] Benn, Charles. 2002. China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty

[3] - The Epic of Gilgamesh

[5] De Origine et situ Germanorum - Tacitus