History of alcohol

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.

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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.

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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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