I’m often asked to weigh in on the question of which alcoholic beverage first passed our greedy lips – beer or wine. Since it’s not a case of needing to have one before you can have the other, the first-drink problem isn’t as daunting as the chicken/egg conundrum – but it does seem to linger.
I don’t think there’s actually much of a contest here (I’ll tell you what I think decides the issue in a moment), but noodling the question has made me think about the number of ways in which viniculture and brewing differ and how these differences affect how we use and think about these beverages.
The main distinction, it seems to me isn’t so much in the raw materials as in their relative durability. Grapes are supremely perishable. Once ripe, their sugars ferment spontaneously and they can’t be kept for long without deteriorating.
Although drying can extend their life for weeks or possibly months, the gradual diminution of water content means that it may become impossible to extract the juice needed to make wine, in which case you have to be satisfied to eat raisins. Even if some juice can be pressed from them, their sugar content may be so high that fermentation either can’t get started or cant be sustained.
In a sense, cereal grains present the opposite problem since they refuse to ferment on their own and must be driven to it. With a view to converting their starches to fermentable sugars they are first sprouted in a process called malting; once dried, the sprouted grain is cracked and soaked in water (mashed) to produce the wort, a sugar-rich liquid. At last, you’ve got something yeasts can work with.
While both cereal and fruit harvests must be accomplished in a single burst of hard (often communal) labor, grain, once dried a bit, can be stored for long periods of time without deteriorating. By contrast, all grapes destined for wine must be processed quickly. To do this you need the means to crush grapes, vats to ferment them in, a press to extract the must, casks to hold the finished product, and a building to house the casks — the lot amounting to a serious capital outlay. By contrast, the initiative grapes show in undertaking their own transition to wine can only be described as admirable.
The main distinction, it seems to me, isn’t so much in the raw materials as in their relative durability.
Grains need a lot of human help to become beer, but the process, once understood, can easily be carried out on a domestic scale, in quite small batches, with very simple tools, and by drawing only so much grain as is required in each instance. A not too sizeable stock of barley could easily provide a family with freshly brewed beer for a year, or it could be purchased in small lots from a merchant. In all these respects brewing has much in common with breadmaking.
In the ancient world both bread and beer were the homey, unpretentious, everyday output of households (in Pharaonic Egypt youngsters went off to school with a crock of Mom’s beer for their lunch), while along the banks of the Nile wine was already an expensive, exotic beverage consumed by elites and no one’s idea of a DIY project. Wine and beer have retained their original places in the social hierarchy of beverages with amazing persistence. To see how persistent, one has only to reflect on the ways each is marketed.
While the conclusion seems inescapable that the simpler-to-make wine must have preceded beer by some thousands of years, when we return to the question of which of the old rivals enjoys absolute historical priority, I’m afraid the answer has to be neither.
Work by Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory seems to prove that our first intentional encounter with alcohol came via a promiscuous mash-up of whatever we could induce to ferment (honey, berries, grapes, tree fruits) along with some flavorings in a single pot.
In other words, our first drink was . . . a cocktail.
First published on January 23, 2013.
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