I get asked with surprising frequency which alcoholic beverage first passed our greedy lips – was it 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 mulling over the question has made me think about a number of ways in which viniculture and brewing differ and how these differences affect how we use and think about them.
The main distinction is in the durability of the raw materials. Grapes are supremely perishable. Once ripe, their sugars ferment spontaneously, and they can’t really be kept for long without deteriorating. Although drying can extend the life of grapes 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 out, its sugar content may be so high that fermentation can’t get started.
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.
The main distinction is in the durability of the raw materials.
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—amounting to a serious capital outlay. The initiative grapes show in doing their own winemaking can only be described as admirable.
Grains need a lot of help to become beer, but the process, once understood, can be carried out on a domestic scale in quite small batches, using very simple tools and 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 bread making.
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 today.
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.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org