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Substances, like people, may have contradictory aspects to their personality. Today, ethyl alcohol is a multifaceted entity; it may be a social lubricant, sophisticated dining companion, cardiovascular health benefactor, or agent of destruction. Throughout most of Western civilization’s history, however, alcohol had a far different role. For most of the past 10 millennia, alcoholic beverages may have been the most popular and common daily drink, an indispensable source of fluids and calories. In a world of contaminated and dangerous water supplies, alcohol truly earned the title granted it in the Middle Ages: aqua vitae, the “water of life.”

Alcohol versus Coffee

The earlier societal relationship with alcohol is simply unimaginable today. Consider this 1777 statement by Prussia’s Frederick the Great, whose economic strategy was threatened by the importation of coffee: “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects and the amount of money that goes out of the country as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.”

Surely a modern leader who urged alcohol consumption over coffee, especially in the military, would have his or her mental competence questioned. But only an eyeblink ago in historical time, a powerful head of government could describe beer in terms that make it sound like mother’s milk. Indeed, that nurturing role may be the one alcohol played from the infancy of the West to the advent of safe water supplies for the masses only within the past century.

Natural processes have no doubt produced foodstuffs containing alcohol for millions of years. Yeast, in metabolizing sugar to obtain energy, creates ethyl alcohol as a by-product of its efforts. Occasionally animals accidentally consume alcohol that came into being as fruit “spoiled” in the natural process of fermentation; inebriated birds and mammals have been reported. Humans have a gene for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase; the presence of this gene at least forces the conjecture that over evolutionary time animals have encountered alcohol enough to have evolved a way to metabolize it. Ingestion of alcohol, however, was unintentional or haphazard until some 10,000 years ago.

Fermentation Process and the Development of Agriculture

About that time, some Late Stone Age gourmand probably tasted the contents of a jar of honey that had been left unattended longer than usual. Natural fermentation had been given the opportunity to occur, and the taster, finding the effects of mild alcohol ingestion provocative, probably replicated the natural experiment. Comrades and students of this first oenologist then codified the method for creating such mead or wines from honey or dates or sap. The technique was fairly simple: leave the sweet substance alone to ferment.

Grow the ChurchBeer, which relies on large amounts of starchy grain, had to wait until the development of agriculture. The fertile river deltas of Egypt and Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) produced huge crops of wheat and barley; the diets of peasants, laborers, and soldiers of these ancient civilizations were cereal-based. It might be viewed as a historical inevitability that fermented grain would be discovered. As in the instance of wine, natural experiments probably produced alcoholic substances that excited those who sampled the results. Before the third millennium B.C., Egyptians and Babylonians were drinking beers made from barley and wheat.

Wine, too, would get a boost from agriculture. Most fruit juice, even wild grape juice, is naturally too low in sugar to produce wine, but the selection of sweeter grapes leading to the domestication of particular grape stock eventually led to viniculture. The practice of growing grape strains suitable for wine production has been credited to people living in what is now Armenia, at about 6000 B.C., although such dating is educated guesswork at best.

The creation of agriculture led to food surpluses, which in turn led to ever larger groups of people living in close quarters, in villages or cities. These municipalities faced a problem that still vexes, namely how to provide inhabitants with enough clean, pure water to sustain their constant need for physiological hydration. The solution, until the 19th century, was nonexistent. The water supply of any group of people rapidly became polluted with their waste products and thereby dangerous, even fatal, to drink. How many of our progenitors died attempting to quench their thirst with water can never be known. Based on current worldwide crises of dysentery and infectious disease wrought by unclean water supplies, a safe bet is that a remarkably large portion of our ancestry succumbed to tainted water.

In addition, the lack of liquids safe for human consumption played a part in preventing long-range ocean voyages until relatively recently. Christopher Columbus made his voyage with wine on board, and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock only because their beer stores had run out. An early order of business was luring brewmasters to the colonies.

Alcohol versus Water

Evidence arguing against a widespread use of water for drinking can be found in the Bible and ancient Greek texts. Both the Old and New Testaments are virtually devoid of references to water as a common beverage. Likewise, Greek writings make scant reference to water drinking, with the exception of positive statements regarding the quality of water from mountain springs. Hippocrates specifically cited water from springs and deep wells as safe, as was rainwater collected in cisterns. The ancients, through what must have been tragic experience, clearly understood that most of their water supply was unfit for human consumption.

In the context of contaminated water supply, ethyl alcohol may indeed have been mother’s milk to a nascent Western civilization. Beer and wine were free of pathogens. And the antiseptic power of alcohol, as well as the natural acidity of wine and beer, killed many pathogens when the alcoholic drinks were diluted with the sullied water supply. Dating from the taming and conscious application of the fermentation process, people of all ages in the West have therefore consumed beer and wine, not water, as their major daily thirst quenchers.

Babylonian clay tablets more than 6000 years old give beer recipes, complete with illustrations. The Greek term akratidzomai which came to mean “to breakfast,” literally translates as “to drink undiluted wine.” Breakfast apparently could include wine as a bread dip, and “bread and beer” connoted basic necessity much as does today’s expression “bread and butter.”

The experience in the East differed greatly. For at least the past 2000 years, the practice of boiling water, usually for tea, has created a potable supply of nonalcoholic beverages. In addition, genetics played an important role in making Asia avoid alcohol: approximately half of all Asian people lack an enzyme necessary for complete alcohol metabolism, making the experience of drinking quite unpleasant. Thus, beer and wine took their place as staples only in Western societies and remained there until the end of the last century.

The traditional production of beer and wine by fermentation of cereals and grapes or other fruits produced beverages with low alcohol content compared with those familiar to present-day consumers. The beverages also contained large amounts of acetic acid and other organic acids created during fermentation. Most wines of ancient times probably would turn a modern oenophile’s nose; these old-style wines in new bottles would more closely resemble today’s vinegar with some hints of cider, than a prizewinning Merlot.

As the alcohol content of daily staple drinks was low, consumers focused on issues of taste, thirst quenching, hunger satisfaction, and storage rather than on intoxication. Nevertheless, the “side effects” of this constant, low-level intake must have been almost universal. Indeed, throughout Western history, the normal state of mind may have been one of mild inebriation.

The caloric value of nonperishable alcoholic beverages may also have played a significant role in meeting the daily energy requirements of societies that might have faced food shortages. In addition, they provided essential micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.

Alcohol also served to distract from the fatigue and boredom of daily life in most cultures, while alleviating pain for which remedies were nonexistent. Today we have a plethora of handy choices for common aches and pain. But until this century, the only analgesic generally available in the West was alcohol. From the Book of Proverbs comes this prescription: “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto them that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” A Sumerian cuneiform tablet of pharmacopeia dated to about 2100 B.C. is generally cited as the oldest preserved record of medicinal alcohol, although Egyptian papyri may have preceded the tablet. Hippocrates’ therapeutic system featured wines as remedies for almost all known acute or chronic ailments, and the Alexandria School of Medicine supported the medical use of alcohol.