How alcohol was introduced?

Alcohol, We started drinking it even before we knew how to write. It’s one of the universally available, commonly abused chemical substances in human history.

A chimpanzee stumbled across a windfall of overripe plums. Many of them were split open drawing him to their intoxicating fruity odor. He gorged himself and began to experience some strange effects.

He had stumbled on a process that humans eventually harnessed to create beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks. The sugars in overripe fruits attract microscopic organisms known as yeasts.

 As the yeast feed on the fruit sugars they produce a compound called ethanol-the type of alcohol in alcoholic beverages. This process is called fermentation.

The process of fermentation.
Fermentation by Yeast

Nobody knows exactly when the human began to create fermented beverages. The earliest known evidence comes from 7,000 B.C.E. from China, where residue in clay pots in Jihau has revealed that people were making alcoholic beverages from fermented rice, millets, 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 yeast will ferment basically any plant sugars, ancient people made alcohols from whatever crops and plants grew where they lived.

In South America, people made chicha (a fermented or non-fermented drink that is usually made with maize. The two most well-known types of chicha are called chicha de jora, a fermented type made with a special type of yellow maize called jora, and chicha morada, a non-fermented type made with purple maize) from grains sometimes adding  hallucinogenic herbs.

In what’s now Mexico, pulque, made from cactus sap (an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey (agave) plant. It is traditional to central Mexico, where it has been produced for millennia. It has the color of milk, somewhat viscous consistency and a sour yeast-like taste) was the drink of choice, while East Africans made banana and palm beer.

And in the area that’s now Japan, people made sake (a fermented-grain beverage akin to beer, and unlike wine made from grapes it does not age well) 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 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 dies, fermentation stops and the alcohol content levels off. So for thousands of years, alcohol content was limited.

That changed with the invention of the process called distillation. 9th Century Arabic writings describe boiling fermented liquids to vaporize the alcohol in them. Alcohol boils at a temperature lower 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.

alcohol distillation apparatus
alcohol distillation apparatus

At first, these stronger spirits were used for medicinal purpose. Then spirits became an important trade commodity because unlike beer and wine, they don’t spoil.

Rum made from sugar harvested in European colonies in the Carribean 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 was a preservative that kill harmful microbes.

So by the 1600’s 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.

Tracing the history of our industry and agriculture, gives us a fascinating looks at what we value as a species and how we ended up where we are today.

Almost anything can be preserved in alcohol except health, happiness and money”

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