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Beer in the Caucasus

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(Kazbegi is one of Georgia's largest brewers, but their beer is — in my Belgian opinion — terrible...)

The Role of Beer in the Life of Mountain People

All important festivities or cult rituals were connected with beer in Georgia. It played an important role under many different circumstances: it was drunk to toast to a new arrival in a family or even to hostile families when being reconciled. It was thought that by drinking beer they would get rid of any impurities. It is interesting, that when it was impossible to reconcile the enemies by help of mediators, the enemies would be brought to the holy place. The offender would be offered a mug of beer that would mean that the culprit had to make the first step towards the reconciliation and utter the following words: "Here is to your respect" and that would mean that the person admitted his guilt. Therefore, beer played a major role in this process, which obviously proves its significance.

One more tradition was spread in Khevsureti: in village Akhieli, they put up a show depicting "kidnapping". They formed two groups, one of them would kidnap a woman, and the other would be "fighting" them. In this theatrical show, one man had to be "wounded" and as a treatment, he had to take beer. As for the "kidnapped woman", she would also be offered some beer to drink. Even women who were mourning were involved in this cheerful game and the beer they drank would symbolize respect towards them and the relief of their grief. One oldest tradition was initiation, i.e. declaration of maturity of an adolescent. In Khevsureti the youngster at the age of fourteen was allowed to drink beer. It meant that this person would belong to the list of beer drinkers so that during the brewing process he would be taken into account. Small children were also given a little mug of beer during festivities and they would be marked with coal on the forehead, so that they did not drink a second mug.

One oldest tradition was initiation, i.e. declaration of maturity of an adolescent. In Khevsureti the youngster at the age of fourteen was allowed to drink beer. It meant that this person would belong to the list of beer drinkers so that during the brewing process he would be taken into account. Small children were also given a little mug of beer during festivities and they would be marked with coal on the forehead, so that they did not drink a second mug.

Vessels for drinking Beer

The ritual and cult function of beer is closely connected with beer drinking vessels, the most important of which is a specially adorned silver bowl, the so-called chalice, decorated with different jewelry: silver coins, chains and some other accessories coming from a Georgian national costume.

It is only allowed to draw beer from the cask with the silver chalice, since it is a sacred vessel, but if a man has sinned, he will never allow himself to drink beer from it. In prayers, the bowl is referred to as a holy chalice. Its sacral meaning is seen from the following ritual: once a year it is brought out in front of the congregation and the whole community welcomes it by paying homage to it. The chalice is thought to be coming from heaven, being directly connected with the origin of the cult, it bears the sign of the God's children and the cross emerges from it. "This heavenly chalice" (or the sign of a cross) appears in front of the community in the image of a dove. When the chieftain holds the chalice, it acquires a special power. To express veneration towards the chalice it is adorned with jewels. The empty chalice is filled with beer and the folks receive communion, then everybody drinks from it, which symbolizes the idea of the unity of the community. Drinking from the chalice also has its rules: the folks have to kneel and drink so, without touching the chalice with hands.

The flag of the holy image occupies an important place in the ritual of mountains and is considered the greatest sanctity. The flag is adorned by silver coins, chains, beads, bells and crosses that had been sacrificed by people. Sometimes its handle is crowned by the spearhead of a lance or sometimes by a cross. In Khevsureti they disassemble the flag and keep it so. Before its use, the chieftain or a master assembles it and during the process he has to keep silence, i.e. he has no right to speak to someone. When ready, the flag is brought out and the chieftain starts the ceremonial service.

The Khevsurians believe that the flag has been snatched from the demons' world and that it bodes victory. Generally, it is a symbol of bravery and is a sacred relic that accompanies the folks in battles. At the same time, the power of holy image is embodied in it. It is the main attribute and the symbol of unity and eternity. No festivity is held without the flag. The jingling sounds coming from it arouse respect and joy in believers' hearts and bode that the secret power of the holy image and grace go to each of them.

It is well known, that the ritual vessels and religious attributes were sacred and had a great value. That is why the treasurer had a great responsibility for guarding them. As the treasure was sacred, it had to be hidden secretly and could only be exposed during festivities to perform rituals. The treasure of some of the churches was quite valuable. The more valuable the treasure they possessed the more powerful and influential the church would be. According to Vakhushti Batonishvili, Pshavi Lashari church had a rich treasury. Together with beer drinking vessels, they possessed silver and gold crosses, books and icons. All this treasure had been sacrificed by individual people and this way the church gained more and more wealth. The treasure was so sacred that it was not allowed to sell or give away any of the items. The study of materials connected with beer production in Georgian mountains clearly proves the fact, that the role of beer and its use in cult rituals has distinctly established traditional forms. It undoubtedly indicates that the drink has been consumed in Georgia from immemorial times.

The Role of Beer in Rituals

The chief of clan carried out all the rituals connected with beer. Chieftain's position was the most responsible and sacred. He carried out the mission on people's order and in the first place, the chieftain was entrusted with being a mediator between holy cross and people. The chieftain had to be purified before the religious festivals, which in terms of Christianity meant observing the Lent. This is why the chieftain had to stay in the monk's cloister in seclusion, and could consume only little food, appropriate for fasting.

During the festival, the beer was brewed inside the house of worship and then, after it had been blessed, it would be taken out for everybody to drink. If the holy place was well protected against wind and rain where people would feel comfortable, the feast would take place there , if not, then the beer would be taken to the attic of one of the houses, the table would be laid and all the village folks would gather there by evening. The young boys would bring beer to the holy place. On their return, everybody would greet them and offer the drink, fill the tuns, which later would be taken to the village. The people in the village would be standing to welcome the arrival of the beer, chanting some welcoming words in chorus. The brewers would be seated in front of the fire. Then all kinds of drinking pots would be brought out and everybody would start toasting. The first toast would go to the perished.

The role of beer is clearly seen in the rituals of Tusheti and Pshav – Khevsureti dedicated to the perished during such ceremonies as wakes, last rites, funeral repasts. The most interesting one among them is in Tusheti called Ludi-aludebi. The main idea of this ritual is to express the reverence towards the perished. In such events, they lay the table, bemoan (remembering all the good deeds of the deceased person) and then hold the horse race. In the house of the deceased person a big repast was held, the guests arrived, drank beer and when all was over, the hosts would see the guests off until the end of the village. There they once again filled the beer mugs and toasted to the beer brewers.

The fact that beer has such a wide context, once again proves that it had been the oldest cult drink in the mountains of Georgia, which was closely connected with the earliest form of religious faith — animism.

Traditions connected with Beer

The initial concept of the alcoholic drink is to perform a religious act, which ethnographic science interprets as communion with Gods, through the sacred, divine drink, which was considered the most consecrated offering. As well as that, for the prehistoric animist man, for whom the nature was personified, the arousal with the alcoholic drink meant the conception of the deity, thus intensifying its importance as of the religious-cult drink. This is clearly felt in all festivities. The predestination of such gatherings is much broader than that of a feast; they played a big role in the establishment of steadfast traditions of hospitality, in strengthening bravery and heroism, building relative links and generally, enhancing spirituality. Such was the predestination of festivals in the mountains of Georgia, the traditions of which had been strictly followed and over a long time resulted in the establishment of a uniform system of celebrations in the mountains, abundantly featuring archaic ritual cult customs and practical economic activities, among which beer brewing is the central one.

History of the Georgian Beer

Beer industry has reached the highest stage of development in the contemporary world. In the food ration of millions of people, beer occupies an indispensable place and has become a national drink. Thousands of sorts of beer are bottled all over the world. This greatest industry takes its origin from ancient Eastern civilizations.

What were the preconditions of beer consumption in Georgia, what is its genesis and how did the Georgians contribute to the development of this important culture.

Successful development of beer production requires having wheat culture and the developed agricultural tools connected with it, as well as the establishment of cultural-genetic links with those centers, where beer industry emerged.

Ages and ages ago, the Greeks had noticed the Georgians' aptitude for agriculture. Having seen wine fountains in Aeetes's palace and a plough, which was so perfectly forged from hardened steel aroused an ardent interest in the Argonauts who arrived in Colkhis. Perhaps this was not the only reason, that later they called the Georgians "Georgias", which means a farmer or a land cultivator in Greek.

Out of 17 varieties of wheat known in the world, 12 were grown in Georgia. Local varieties, Makha and Zanduri developed from wild sorts into cultural crop. It is a unique phenomenon, an established fact of selection, which gives an interesting picture of the development of a diversified economy over the long time. In archaeological materials of Georgia, there is the evidence that grain existed back in VII-VI millennium.

Scientists believe that one of the seven oldest centers where farming emerged and developed was in the Middle East, where Georgia belonged. In Georgian archaeological monuments on the hills of Amirani, Arkhalo, Urbnisi and Shulaveri, in the settlements of Neolithic period, were traced the ruins of oldest dwellings with wheat storage pits and farming tools. This indicates that those dwellers, the predecessors of oldest Georgian tribes, about nine thousand years ago were familiar with wheat culture and had their own ways of its growing and storage. The world science has no other data about any older grain-growing center. All this proves that, the people with grain-growing culture could have been closer to the cradle of beer making than any other people.

Beer culture in Georgia was introduced from the countries of ancient world. It is under no doubt today, that oriental beer counts the oldest age, and all the archaeological, historical, epigraphic and ethnographic materials clearly testify economic-social links of ancestral tribes of Georgians with these nations.

It is quite understandable why Georgian mountain has preserved the tradition of beer consumption to our days: Georgia had a classical grape-growing and winemaking culture in the plain. According to the established opinion in ethnography, the area where vineyards are spread is considered the plain, while other territories belong to a mountainous zone. That is why beer production originated in the mountain and occupied the major place in the routine life of the natives.

The Holy Lands

People in the mountains celebrated festivities with the harvest yielded in the fields on the holy territory within the house of worship. Part of the harvested crops was used in ritual bread baking and beer brewing. The first spring works in Khevsureti started by plowing cornfield. On a Friday, the chief of the community would stand on the flat deck roof of one of the houses and announce the beginning of plowing. It was an obligatory work for all, and once the people finished plowing the area, then they would start working on their own patches of land.

It is interesting to note, that as the process of harvest served the divine deeds, it acquired a ritual character. When it was the time to reap the fields, the chief of clan would announce so and appoint the day of reaping. By this time the beer would have been brewed, the parish would get together, select the sacrificial animals and would sacrifice to the deity. The chief would open the beer cask and fill the silver chalices, light the candles nearby the offerings, and chief say prayers. Everybody would toast with beer to the glory of the house of worship. Then the chief would go out into the field with the sickle, cut some barley, and then hand the sickle to the reapers. The latter were offered the drink by people carrying the tuns with beer. Reaping was accompanied with songs. After the process was finished, one of the reapers would start chanting, "God bless the Iakhsar and the Iakhsar bless your people" (Iakhsar is one of the pagan deities of the people of Tusheti, Khevsureti, Pshavi) and the people around would start echoing and this meant that the reaping was over.

The crop harvested in the holy field was considered sacred. If the house of worship had its own barn, the harvest would be stored there. If not, then it would be taken to the cleanest attic of one of the houses, which was strictly guarded. It was such a sacred product that its theft, appropriation or wasting in any way was strictly precluded. The most of the wheat crop was used in beer brewery, which was the main ritual drink and no blessings and toasting would be possible without this drink at the feasts.

Text & photographs © Kazbegi JSC

The culture (cult?) and rituals which surround the consumption of alcohol in Georgia and in the wider Caucasus have spawned a wealth of studies, most of them undertaken by academics not immune to the attractions of a little "informal" research (ahem), and some of whom style themselves "supraologists" (from the Georgian word სუფრა, supra, meaning "a meal" in the sense of "a feast").

Most are available online, such as Georgian Drinking Culture, written by Prof. Manning (Associate Professor of Anthropology at Trent University in the U.S., and editor of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology), The Autocrat of the Banquet Table, written by Prof. Tuite (Professor of Ethnolinguistics at the University of Montreal in Canada), and various articles written by Florian Muehlfried (Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology), some of which are available here.