Historically stupefying: A cursory history of alcohol

Photo by Thomas Martinsen

Humans like alcohol. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s more of a philosophical question than a scientific one, in which case, we should save it for a different day. What I do know is that we’ve liked alcohol for a very long time.

Brewing began in ancient Egypt around 3400 BC in the city of Heirakonopolis. The brewery there produced up to 300 gallons of beer per day. Beer was used for recreational purposes, medicinal purposes, and even as offerings to the gods. Vases of beer were even entombed with deceased royalty so they could enjoy it in the afterlife.

Photo by Bhavyesh Acharya

Archeologists from University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with researchers from China and Germany, recently performed chemical analyses on pottery from the prehistoric Jiahu village of the Hena province of China. Trace amounts of a fermented beverage that was likely composed of rice, honey, and fruit was found in pots from as early as 7000 BC. This drink paved the way for cereal based alcohols in centuries to come.

Somehow, humans all over this planet all converged upon the idea of fermentation and fashioned alcohols with the resources they had on hand. The aforementioned, prehistoric wine used hawthorne as a main component, a common plant in that region of China. Barley beer and grape wine emerged from the Middle East at about the same time as the hawthorne wine. Wine was consumed in Greece between the 4th and 5th centuries BC as a part of breakfast or symposiums. Symposiums were just drinking parties. They were an aristocratic institution where men were free to debate, discuss, and revel in their wealth.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, beer was quite common, along with ciders, pomace, and grape wines. Cider is the fermented juice of apples and pomace wine is made by fermenting the solid remains of grapes and olives. It’s mostly the seeds, pulp, and stems that remain after juicing has occurred. Pomace can also be used for making brandy, but, today, it’s mostly used as fertilizer.

Thanks to plants (and also yeast) for making all this possible. Where would we be today without the stupefying effects of fermented liquids?


Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_alcoholic_beverages?oldformat=true>.

McGovern, Patrick E., et al. “Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101.51 (2004): 17593–17598.

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