Ponzi: an excerpt from “An Alternative History of Beer”

Although beer has been around since hunter-gatherers started farming, the story of beer began an explosive new chapter five thousand years ago, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively because bottle pressure often shattered the amphoras, which is the reason that ancient pottery shards are the most common antiquities in Egypt. And literally because of the building of the pyramids. I’ll explain.

Beer was popular in ancient Egypt, although they didn’t call it “ancient Egypt” at the time. (That wouldn’t happen for several thousand additional years.) Micro breweries were popular, but these were mostly small operations. What spurred the mass production of beer was the building of the pyramids. Jimmy Rameses or JR was Pharaoh of Dynasty back in the day when it was still being filmed in black and white. (Color wouldn’t be invented until 1939 and The Wizard of Oz.) After an unremarkable reign, JR moved into a retirement community at Geezer south of present-day Cairo and decided to build a tall pointy thing as a monument to himself. The words “pyramid” and “narcissist,” both Greek in origin, also hadn’t been invented. Soon, however, JR discovered that tall pointy things were expensive. They couldn’t be built with slaves alone, but required engineers and skilled laborers, which he couldn’t afford. After considerable research, he came up with a clever plan to pay workers with beer instead of cash. Beer was cheap and easy to brew. It was a great idea in theory, but JR was unimpressed with Egyptian suds, so he sent emissaries abroad. After traipsing through the known world, JR’s emissaries found in what is now southern Italy a minor Etruscan brewer named Carlo Ponzi. He was a “minor brewer”  because he brewed beer for children. It turned out that Etruscan adults only drank wine and were snobbish when it came to beer, not unlike modern Italians. The beer that Carlo Ponzi brewed in his home country is believed to have been the original IPA. (Unlike today, however, the letters stood for Italian Pale Ale and the word “pale” referred not to the color of the beverage but the pallor of one’s skin after drinking a quaff.)

Ponzi was desperate to expand his operation, and it would seem that JR’s discovery of him was fortuitous for them both. Clearly, the hieroglyphics were on the wall, literally. (Papyrus hadn’t been invented and Egyptians were into graffiti.) JR and Ponzi struck a deal, and Ponzi left for Egypt to brew wages for the workers on the big pointy thing. It would become Ponzi’s first pyramid scheme, but would not be his last.

It must be said that not all the pyramid workers appreciated getting paid in beer, particularly foreign workers who found it difficult to ship their earnings back home to the wife and kids. A common expression among both domestic and foreign workers was a variant of “I was gypped.” As you may have guessed, the word “gypped” is the origin of the modern name of the country.

After financing the pyramids at Geezer, later to be known as Giza, Ponzi opened a taproom known as “Philistino’s” in downtown Memphis, which was the Egyptian capital at the time. Several years later he emigrated to America and was eventually convicted of fraud for attempting to replicate his old scheme but without the pyramids.

Jim Woessner works as a visual artist and writer living on the water in Sausalito, California. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. His publishing credits include The Daily DrunkFlash Fiction MagazineClose to the BoneAdelaide MagazinePotato Soup JournalThe Sea Letter, and others. 

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