Since the beginnings of civilization, people have created alcoholic beverages from the fermentation of food found nearby. While some of these beverages have familiar origins, such as grapes for wine and grains for beer, others are more unusual, but all reflect how people constantly make use of their environment.
Good for What Ails You: How did alcohol become the widely accepted part of life that it is today? Drinking alcoholic beverages has distinct advantages over drinking water, especially for early man. Alcohol kills pathogenic microbes, which is quite important when other available water sources might be contaminated. In further support of this justification, it’s been found that some ancient beer had significant amounts of tetracycline, a naturally occurring antibiotic made by some bacteria. Alcohol is also a psychoactive drug, which may have helped it gain the central role in social interactions that it maintains to this day.
Way Back When: The oldest alcoholic beverages, dating as far back as 6000 BC, were made from fermented grains, grapes, honey, or milk. Fermentation is a naturally occurring process by which yeast converts sugar into ethanol (ethyl alcohol); food with a lot of sugar ferments into alcohol readily, often by simply exposing the food to air. Different alcoholic beverages arose in different places around the world based largely on the foods commonly on hand to people living there.
Despite its widespread popularity today, beer was most likely not the first alcoholic beverage developed; a very involved process is required to produce beer. More likely (although the topic is hotly debated) wine, mead, and kvass were the first alcoholic drinks created by people. They are made from grapes, honey, and milk, respectively, using a simpler fermentation process.
Wine: In Southern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia, and North America, wild grapes were used for creating alcohol because they grow well in those regions—although some theorize that date palms were actually the first fruits used to make wine. For climatic reasons, the best areas for growing wine grapes are between 30 and 50 degrees North and South latitude. This is indeed where the first wines were developed. In the Middle East, people were cultivating grape vines by 4000 BC, in Georgia this went on as far back as 6000 BC. Using the fruit to make alcoholic beverages was a natural step.
In brief, to create wine, the ripe grapes are quickly picked, crushed, fermented, and then aged. For white wines, the skins and seeds are removed when crushed, while for red wines the skins and seeds are left in. Most early wines were reds. Because the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae naturally lives on grapes, there is no need to add yeast to start the fermentation process. However, most wine makers today add yeast (often of a different species) to achieve predictability in their wine. At the end of the process, one metric ton of grapes is transformed into 140 to 160 gallons of wine.
Viniculture (wine-making technology) was passed on from civilization to civilization through trade and conquest. Around 3000 to 2500 BC, it found its way to the Egyptians, but because wine was four times as expensive as beer it was not as frequently consumed. From the Egyptians it spread to the Greeks, who developed locally made wines around 1700 BC. Like most of Greek culture, viniculture found its way to the Romans, where, nearly 2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder catalogued the technology: He classified grapes based on their ability to resist disease, their soil preferences, time to ripen, wines produced, and more. From the Romans, viniculture spread to cultures throughout southern Europe (modern-day Italy, Spain, France, and Germany).
When the Roman Empire collapsed, monasteries maintained brewing and wine-making techniques as an essential part of religious ceremonies, harboring viniculture for nearly 1,300 years. Medieval monks in France developed a variety of grapes and wines, from Burgundies and Bordeaux to Champagne, and more. Indeed, it was monks, of the Franciscan order, who established the first Californian missions in the 1700s, and with them the California wine industry.
Beer: While wine is generally considered easier to make than beer, beer has one big advantage: Beer’s main ingredient, cereal grains, are not so picky about where they grow. Consequently, beer is often made in places where wine cannot be, which is one reason beer is cheaper. Additionally, grain has been a primary component of peoples’ diets for thousands of years; barley and wheat were cultivated around 6000 BC in western and central Eurasia, East Asia, and Central America. Beer brewing most likely first took place in Mesopotamia (what is today Iraq), and, much like wine, spread throughout the trading cultures.
Beer can be made from a variety of cereal grains, including oats, rye, corn, millet, rice, and others, although barley has always been most commonly used. Nearly 150 million tons of barley are harvested every year, in more than 100 countries. These grains contain lots of starch that would normally feed the growing plant. The brewer’s job is to turn this starch into alcohol. Because yeast turn sugar into alcohol, the starch must first be converted into sugar that the yeast can eat (unlike with making wine, where grapes are basically bags of sugar).
To first help convert the barley’s starch into sugar that can be fermented, the barley undergoes a process called “malting.” This involves soaking the barley in water, which stimulates the seeds to start growing. They become softer and even sprout rootlets. More to the point, during germination the seeds make enzymes that will be needed to break the starch down to sugar. So germination is started. But then it is abruptly stopped, by drying and heating the seeds. (The more the malt is heated, the darker its color. This is why ales are usually darker than lagers.)
After the malting, water as hot as 149 degrees Fahrenheit is added (in a process called “mashing”) to melt the starch. At this point, about 80 percent of the liquid, now called “wort,” is ready to be fermented.
While the leftover, solid grain material (now mostly hulls) is turned into cattle feed, the wort is typically boiled with hops, for flavor and other benefits. In many European countries, the adding of hops did not become popular until the early 1300s.
Yeast is then finally added to ferment the cooled wort.
Ales and lagers use different yeast species (S. cerevisiae and S. pastorianus, respectively). The selection of a particular yeast strain is more important with blander beers, because the yeast flavor will not be tasted much over the flavor of a bitter beer. And because cereal grains do not normally harbor yeast, early on, people found that the fermentation of grains could be stimulated by adding fruit or by putting the boiled grains in a container that previously held fermented grains.
Milk and Honey: Before cereal grains were even cultivated, it’s thought that in northern and western Europe honey was used to create the first alcoholic beverages; namely mead, also called honey wine. There’s evidence that honey-based alcoholic beverages were also anciently produced in Africa and Asia. It was the first popular Greek drink. While honey is basically fermented to create honey wine, many variations have developed, which include adding spices, herbs, even hops.
Kvass, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rye bread or milk, is also thought to be one of the oldest alcoholic drinks, possibly predating beer.
Apple Cider: Mild alcoholic cider is created by fermenting apple juice, and so it has been historically popular where apples are abundant. During the Early Middle Ages (500 to 1000 AD), cider became a popular local drink with the Germans and Celts. In the United States, cider was by far the most popular drink until the early 1800s. Fruitful apple orchards across New England and New York turned out “apple wine” that was often drunk with every meal, and even between them.
The European Alcoholic Explosion of the 1600s: Brandy, Whiskey, Gin, and Rum In the 1600s, a variety of alcoholic beverages emerged in Europe and were embraced to varying degrees and for different uses. Scottish and Irish whiskey, created from fermented grain mash, made its way around Europe, but its harsh taste prevented it from being widely accepted. Instead, the drink of choice for the rest of Europe became gin, which was introduced by the Dutch in 1672. The Dutch created gin by taking Scottish grain alcohol and adding juniper berries. Brandy, made by distilling wine, also surfaced at this time, although it was only used medicinally.
Shortly after 1650, a new alcoholic drink was refined that would dominate trade routes for over a century: rum. To make rum, molasses, a byproduct of sugar cane refinement, is fermented, then distilled (a relatively recent invention) and concentrated. West Indian molasses was imported to New England where distillation turned it into rum.
The rum was then exchanged for African slaves, who were sold for molasses, as part of the Atlantic trade triangle.
More Latin American Drink-Making, from Agave Cactus to Communal Corn Chewing: Aside from rum, other alcoholic beverages produced in Latin America include mescal, pulque (a drink of the Aztecs), and tequila, which are from the juice of the agave cactus. Mescal can also be distilled from the peyote cactus, which can cause mild hallucinogenic effects. Chichi is often made from fermenting apples, strawberries, yucca, and oats—and, more interestingly, can also be made from chewing corn in groups. Chewing the corn introduces salivary enzymes that can help create sugars for fermentation, and so several people chew the corn and then deposit it in a communal bucket to ferment.
Sake: Though agave cacti have never been very common in Japan, rice is omnipresent. Sake, a wine made from rice, is prepared more like a beer than a wine, as the starchy seeds must first be converted to sugar in order for fermentation to take place.
While this history barely touches on the multitude of alcoholic beverages that humans have developed, it highlights how flexible the fermentation process is for turning food into alcohol and how resourceful people have been in taking advantage of it.
For more on the history and biology of alcoholic beverages, see Charles Bamforth’s book Grape vs. Grain: A Historical, Technological, and Social Comparison of Wine and Beer, Thomas Babor’s book The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Drugs: Alcohol, Customs and Rituals, or Wikipedia’s article on “Alcoholic Beverage.”
Biology Bytes author Teisha Rowland is a science writer, blogger at All Things Stem Cell, and graduate student in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at UCSB, where she studies stem cells. Send any ideas for future columns to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.