The Indiana Jones of beer, he traced its history in the Amazon and Egyptian tombs
Friday March 23, 2007
It is due to the work and travels of the indefatigable writer and anthropologist Alan D Eames that we know that a Sumerian poet, writing around the year 3000 BC, said, "I feel wonderful, drinking beer in a blissful mood, with joy in my heart and a happy liver." Eames, who has died aged 59, was known as the Indiana Jones of beer. His travels took him not only to Egypt to unravel the origins of brewing in the Old World but also to remote regions of South America to discover how the ancients there also concocted a life-enhancing drink made from grain.
He visited 44 countries in his search for beer and its roots. He crawled through Egyptian tombs to translate hieroglyphics about beer. Back in the United States he would startle male-dominated groups of drinkers at his lectures with his view that beer is the most feminine of drinks and that most ancient societies considered it was a gift from a goddess rather than a god, as with Ama-Gestin and Ninkasis in the old world.
Eames, who was born in Gardner, Massachusetts, was the son of Warren Baker Eames, a Harvard-trained anthropologist. Eames graduated from Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro, Vermont, and moved to New York City in 1968, where he opened an art gallery. In his spare time he researched beer in New York Public Library.
Following in his father's anthropological footsteps, Eames delved deep into the origins of beer and, along with Professor Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania, developed the theory that beer, even more than bread, played a key role in creating settled, civilised societies.
Eames wrote: "Protected by alcohol, beer had a palatability lasting far longer than any other food stuff. A vitamin-rich porridge, daily beer drinking increased both health and longevity, reducing diseases and malnutrition... Ten thousand years ago...barley was domesticated and worshipped as a god in the highlands of the southern Levant. Thus was beer the driving force that led nomadic mankind into village life."
Eames ran several bars in New England that sold a wide range of beers from many countries. He was the founding director of the American Museum of Brewing History in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, and was a regular lecturer at beer camps held in the premises of the new wave of small craft breweries that began to transform beer appreciation in the US from the 1970s. He broadcast regularly and was an adviser to film-makers in Hollywood on beer-related themes. He was the author of many books on the subject, including his major work, The Secret Life of Beer (1995) and the delightful A Beer Drinker's Companion (1986), which had quotations, writings, songs and poems about beer going back 5000 years.
Eames made extensive forays into the Amazon in search of a legendary black beer made by tribes in the region. He declared that centuries ago beer was fermented as a result of young virgins chewing grain and then spitting their saliva into brewing vessels. The result of his travels resulted in a black beer called Xingu being brewed commercially in Brazil and exported to North America.
Xingu raised eyebrows and hackles. It was a "bottom-fermented beer" - that is, a lager - and was brewed with hops. Neither lager brewing nor hops were available to the ancients whom Eames claimed had developed black beer. But he was used to controversy. He stood outside the small clan of professional beer writers and criticised those who tasted beer in the comfort of their homes rather than paddling up the Amazon or visiting Egyptian tombs.
Some doubted the authenticity of certain aspects of his work and his description of himself as "the King of Beer" did little to quieten the critics. He claimed he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the leading American magazine All About Beer, though the publishers say no such award has ever been made. Julie Johnson Bradford, the editor, says discreetly that Eames was "a colourful man".
Controversy aside, he was passionate about his subject and a trenchant critic. One of his favourite beers was the legendary Ballantine's India Pale Ale. It was a victim of takeovers, mergers and consolidation, passing from one brewery to another like a parcel of old socks. Eames said of it in Ale Dreams (1986): "Ballantine's India Pale Ale. Jesus, this beer is a holy sacrament! Dangerous, high-test, 44 magnum ale, its bitter, woody suds, reeking of spruce sap, overwhelm the nose and palate - God, this is fabulous ale ... Years later, as a saloon keeper, I'm selling the same wonderful ale. Now fallen ale, exiled to a new, ugly, stubby bottle with some stupid adman's nonsense label. The American beer industry - take the best ale in America and use all our advertising and packaging skill to render it such that no one in their right mind would ever venture to try it."
In recent years, Eames stopped travelling and declared he was happy to stay at home in Vermont with his family and dig the garden. He was married four times and died in his sleep of a respiratory problem. He is survived by his fourth wife, Sheila, his sons Adrian and Andrew, and his daughter Elena.
· Alan Duane Eames, author and beer expert, born April 16 1947; died February 10 2007