In praise of alcohol….
When writing the book “Italian Liqueurs” I could only briefly dwell on the discovery and subsequent use of alcohol, essential steps in the formation of the civilization we know today. After all, the production of an alcoholic beverage requires a very simple fermentation, an organic process that transforms sugar, by the action of yeast, into ethanol, a clear, volatile and nutritive liquid. Natural sugars (glucose, fructose, maltose and lactose) found in honey, fruits, sprouting grains and milk, can easily and naturally ferment into mead, wine, beer and kumis, given the proper conditions.
Many archaeologists, after the discovery of late Stone Age beer jugs, believe that wines made from grapes have existed at least as early as the Neolithic period (10,000 BC.) and that drinks such as mead and beer were perhaps enjoyed even before. Archaeological botanical evidence indicates that the earliest wine productions must have taken place near the Caucasus Mountains around 9,000 BC, while the first ancient winery, consisting of fermentation vats made of clay stained by malvidin (a plant pigment primarily responsible for the color of red wine), a wine press, storage jars and pottery shards, all dating back over 6000 years, was discovered in the cave complex of Areni-1 in Armenia. An international team of researchers, including archaeo-chemist Dr. Patrick McGovern, even provided the first direct evidence for early fermented beverages in ancient China with chemical analyses of organics absorbed into pottery jars from the early Neolithic village of Jiahu (Henan province), which revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit was being produced as early as the 7th millennium BC. Wine also clearly appears as an important product in Egyptian pictographs around 4,000 BC. while, in Europe, alcohol was also found in residual samples of the characteristic ceramics of the Beaker Culture of the 3rd millennium BC. and, in Asia, mead is described in the hymns of the Rigveda, one of the sacred books of the historical Vedic religion dated around 1700–1100 BC.
Humanity probably stumbled by chance upon the alcoholic beverage, as has been the case for many discoveries. Perhaps someone found a cache of honey, sitting in the hollow of a tree bathed by rainwater and mixed with natural yeasts, and the first sip was a pleasure. Once familiar with the effect, these hunter-gatherers learned to replicate the natural process and enjoyed their pursuit of frequent intoxication, to the point that an important supply of alcohol appears to have been part of the basic requirements of any human community. Alcohol started serving as a social lubricant, with a major role in the enhancement of the enjoyment and quality of life, a facilitator of relaxation, providing relief from fatigue and the pains of hard labor, a major mental and physical analgesic.
This desire for drink may even have laid the ground for the domestication of certain crops, which, in turn, led to permanent human settlements, a fascinating “beer before bread” theory already put forth by different scholars. Was grain grown primarily for bread with beer a simple by-product, or was beer the major reason for a shift to a stable agriculture and therefore crucial to the development of civilization? Trying to answer this question may also help us understand why the consumption of alcohol, in clearly defined social contexts, quickly permeated not only all cultures in what is the Near East, but almost everywhere else in the world.
In Neolithic times, estimating from carbonized plant remains, wild grains and pulses were quite different from what we have today and only formed a very small component, not essential to survival, of the human diet, so it is unlikely that domestication of wild cereals was driven by the need for nutritional gain. Water and its sources also have to be considered, as pollution is far from new and in many places, in antiquity, water supplies were generally unhealthy or quite questionable. Since ancient beer making started with boiling cereals, this would have automatically sanitized the water, eliminating any bacteria that would normally develop in stagnant liquids. The subsequent fermentation, probably aided by fruit sugars and honey, which produced alcohol, would then have further prevented bacteria from developing in the drink. These earliest beer seems also to have been a mildly alcoholic, thick brew, full of un-germinated grains and small amounts of natural residual sugars, a very palatable and highly nutritious beverage that could also be socially enjoyed. The low alcohol content was an actual advantage for workers, who could sip it frequently without too much intoxication, yet one of the reasons it did not preserve well and had to be drunk within a short period of time.
The first documented pictographs of beer seals are found in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, the outline of a clay vessel marked with short, diagonal lines. Sumerian tablets also contain the world’s first records and details for the production of beer and reference the Mesopotamian myth of Enki, an important God of the Sumerian pantheon, preparing a feast for his father, Enhil, which featured beer. These discoveries indicate that beer was already not only common but also a sacred drink, fully integrated in the mythology and religion of these populations, with dedicated priestesses in charge of the brewing process. Other recovered artifacts of the time include clay inscription urging good mothers to supply their sons with beer and bread to ensure their healthy development, and various goblets and drinking straws (also amply featured in the frescoes of Egyptian burial chambers) which were used to drink the unfiltered brew. Beer was very often a communal drink shared by many people, so jars with wide mouths and long straws were used for easier sharing and for helping penetrate the floating dregs and yeasty foam on the surface of the brew. We also find ample evidence, throughout history, of beer “rations” been given to either workers in the Sumerian palaces, each receiving about a liter per day, or to the builders of the Egyptian pyramids being provided with about 1 gallon daily. Nearly everywhere wine was drunk primarily by the upper class of the population, while beer was drunk by the workers.
Alcohol, especially beer and mead, had already reached Europe with different migrations while wine really spread with the Phoenician and Greek civilizations in the 2nd millennium. Wine drinking became an integral part of many religious rituals, was used for medicinal purposes and surged to be essential in hospitality. The Romans definitely preferred wine to beer, called cerevisia from the Celtic word for it, as beer was considered barbaric and mostly brewed in the outer areas of the Roman Empire, where wine was difficult to obtain. Even Tacitus wrote: "the Teutons have this horrible drink, fermented from barley or wheat that only has a very far removed similarity to wine". During the Roman Empire, wine consumption spread throughout Europe and wine became available to the common citizens. By the first century AD, wine was being exported from Italy to every corner of the empire and it was not long before these regions began to fully develop their own vineyards. Mead and rustic beers, made with wild fruit, though, were and continued to be increasingly popular among Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Germans and Scandinavians.
The fall of the Roman Empire, saw a sharp decline in urbanisation with numerous changes in life in general and in drinking in particular. Monasteries and other religious institutions became the repositories of the brewing and winemaking techniques and the art of brewing essentially became the realm of monks. Monasteries also maintained viticulture, slowly improving the quality of their vines over time, and monks also had the education and time necessary to continue and enhance the art of distillation, started to create medicinal remedies by the Schola Medica Salernitana.
Consumption of alcohol, in its various forms, had a dramatic increase by the mid-14th C., with the arrival of the Black Death and subsequent plagues, with a population trying to find protection from the mysterious disease and shunning water for “healthier” beer. By the end of the Middle Ages drinking large amounts of beer was normal, so much so that brewers started to be recognized officially as a guild and the adulteration of beer or wine even became punishable by death in some countries. By the 16th C., alcohol beverage consumption was incredibly high with English sailors receiving a gallon of beer per day and even soldiers being given a daily ration of two-thirds of a gallon. Even the voyage of the Mayflower, interestingly enough a claret ship from the Bordeaux wine trade, was not devoid of alcohol. Ongoing research suggests that the Pilgrims and the group of settlers who joined them brought on board 20,000 gallons of beer and wine but only 3,000 gallons of water as they departed for the New World. Again, we need to remember that drinking wine and beer at that time was safer than drinking water and people, both in Europe and in the New World, typically drank beer or wine with their meals while alcohol also provided energy for the daily hard work.
It is evident then, that from the earliest times alcoholic beverages have been an important source of nutrients for humans, providing high levels of protein, amino acids, vitamins, fat and carbohydrates but also had a pivotal role in human life, being widely used for their medicinal, antiseptic and analgesic properties while also playing an important role in religion, seen as a gift of deities and closely associated with their worship. They have also vastly enhanced the enjoyment and quality of daily life, facilitating relaxation, and definitely increasing the pleasure of eating.
Text by Renato Vicario
In collaboration with: www.abocamuseum.it