A brief history of alcohol – Rod Phillips


This chimpanzee stumbles across a
windfall of overripe plums. Many of them have split open, drawing
him to their intoxicating fruity odor. He gorges himself and begins to
experience some… strange effects. This unwitting ape has
stumbled on a process that humans will eventually harness to create beer, wine,
and other alcoholic drinks. The sugars in overripe fruit attract
microscopic organisms known as yeasts. As the yeasts feed on the fruit sugars
they produce a compound called ethanol— the type of alcohol in
alcoholic beverages. This process is called fermentation. Nobody knows exactly when humans
began to create fermented beverages. The earliest known evidence comes
from 7,000 BCE in China, where residue in clay pots has revealed that people were
making an alcoholic beverage from fermented rice, millet,
grapes, and honey. Within a few thousand years, cultures all over the world were
fermenting their own drinks. Ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians
made beer throughout the year from stored cereal grains. This beer was available
to all social classes, and workers even received it
in their daily rations. They also made wine, but because the
climate wasn’t ideal for growing grapes, it was a rare and expensive delicacy. By contrast, in Greece and Rome,
where grapes grew more easily, wine was as readily available as
beer was in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Because yeasts will ferment
basically any plant sugars, ancient peoples made alcohol from whatever
crops and plants grew where they lived. In South America, people made
chicha from grains, sometimes adding hallucinogenic herbs. In what’s now Mexico, pulque, made from
cactus sap, was the drink of choice, while East Africans made banana
and palm beer. And in the area that’s now Japan,
people made sake from rice. Almost every region of the globe
had its own fermented drinks. As alcohol consumption became
part of everyday life, some authorities latched onto
effects they perceived as positive— Greek physicians considered wine
to be good for health, and poets testified to its
creative qualities. Others were more concerned about
alcohol’s potential for abuse. Greek philosophers promoted temperance. Early Jewish and Christian writers in
Europe integrated wine into rituals but considered excessive
intoxication a sin. And in the middle east,
Africa, and Spain, an Islamic rule against praying while
drunk gradually solidified into a general ban on alcohol. Ancient fermented beverages had
relatively low alcohol content. At about 13% alcohol, the by-products
wild yeasts generate during fermentation become toxic and kill them. When the yeasts die, fermentation stops
and the alcohol content levels off. So for thousands of years,
alcohol content was limited. That changed with the invention
of a process called distillation. 9th century Arabic writings describe
boiling fermented liquids to vaporize the alcohol in them. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature
than water, so it vaporizes first. Capture this vapor, cool it down,
and what’s left is liquid alcohol much more concentrated than
any fermented beverage. At first, these stronger spirits were
used for medicinal purposes. Then, spirits became an important
trade commodity because, unlike beer and wine, they didn’t spoil. Rum made from sugar harvested in
European colonies in the Caribbean became a staple for sailors
and was traded to North America. Europeans brought brandy
and gin to Africa and traded it for enslaved people,
land, and goods like palm oil and rubber. Spirits became a form of
money in these regions. During the Age of Exploration, spirits played a crucial role in
long distance sea voyages. Sailing from Europe to east Asia
and the Americas could take months, and keeping water fresh for the
crews was a challenge. Adding a bucket of brandy to a water
barrel kept water fresh longer because alcohol is a preservative
that kills harmful microbes. So by the 1600s, alcohol had gone from simply
giving animals a buzz to fueling global trade and exploration—
along with all their consequences. As time went on, its role in human
society would only get more complicated.

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