This chimpanzee stumbles
across a windfall of overripe plums.
Many of them have split open,
to their intoxicating fruity odor.
He gorges himself
and begins to experience some…
This unwitting ape
has stumbled on a process
that humans will eventually harness
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
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.
was available to all social classes,
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.
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—
considered wine to be good for health,
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
And in the middle east,
Africa, and Spain,
an Islamic rule
against praying while drunk
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,
and the alcohol content levels off.
So for thousands of years,
alcohol content was limited.
with the invention of a process
9th century Arabic writings
describe boiling fermented liquids
to vaporize the alcohol in them.
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.
brandy and gin to Africa
and traded it
for enslaved people, land,
and goods like palm oil and rubber.
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.