- Published on Amazon.com
Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages
Our world is awash in alcohol. In 2003, some 150 billion liters of beer, 27 billion liters of wine, and 2 billion liters of distilled spirits (mainly vodka) were produced worldwide. (That’s the official total and does not take into account any illegal production or that which was produced by the increasingly popular production by home brewers and vintners, for which I am one.) This would equal about 8 billion liters of pure alcohol and is around 20% of the world’s total ethanol production. The other 10% and 70%, respectively, constitute the industrial and burgeoning “biofuel” ethanol. So opens the latest massive work on fermentation history by Patrick E. McGovern.
McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Aside from the doubtless mountains of paperwork, incessant fundraising, and other administrative duties, this sounds like my dream job. Additionally, Dr. McGovern is known worldwide as the authority on the history of fermentation.
Historically, peoples of nearly every ethnic group and in every region, save the coldest climes where plants do not produce enough sugars to ferment, have produced fermented beverages. Naturally fermented beverages are quite healthy, especially if unfiltered as the yeast present provides a tremendous amount of protein in addition to the other vitamins and nutrients. Indeed, the alcohol itself is a ready source of carbohydrates and our the human liver is specially equipped to metabolize alcohol, with about 10 percent of its enzymes (including alcohol dehydrogenase) devoted to generating energy from alcohol.
Soon after arising, nearly every civilization in history has set about to come up with ways find something (fruits, grains, honey, even milk) with enough sugar in it to appease Saccharaomyces cerevisiae or some other fungus, and in return obtain alcoholic drink. Rice, hawthorn fruits, and longans in China and Japan. Palm tree sap in Southeast Asia and Africa. Wheat and barley in other parts of Asia. Millet and sorghum in Africa. Grapes … of course, grapes in the Levant, in Greece, in the Roman Empire. Honey in Africa and whenever the Vikings went. And corn in the New World. And of course, this is a very impartial list. McGovern’s book fills in all the gaps with textbook thoroughness.
So which came first: beer or bread? This is the age-old question. And one that the author seems to shed light on convincingly. Firstly, beer is actually more nutritious than bread, thanks again to our “fungal symbiont” (my words—I doubt that humanity would have made it this far without this fungus), which turns a food (grain) consisting of some protein and quite a lot of starch into that which is much higher in protein and all sorts of added B vitamins. Not to mention the added effects on the imbiber’s mind and spirit.
As the human population spread to new regions on the globe, strange new fruits and grain were discovered and utilized. For sustenance, sure, but ways to ferment them, doubtless, came shortly thereafter. In fact, a lack of fermentable plants was not seen as a deterrent, as the milk of livestock could be used. Mare’s milk—higher in sugar than that of other domesticated animals—has long been fermented into koumiss by Central and East Asian peoples. (Indeed, it is unlikely that they would have drank unfermented milk as Central and East Asians lack the enzymes needed to digest milk).
McGovern’s knowledge is so vast that on every topic (for example, grape wine) that he can take the reader on many side trips that, for me, provided the most enjoyment. Viticulture—grape domestication and cultivation—arose in eastern Turkey around 7,000 BC. From there the Eurasian grape has spread across the globe wherever humans have traveled. Indeed, the Eurasian grape now accounts for some ten thousand varieties and 99 percent of the world’s wine. This despite the fact that North America and East Asia have many more native grape species—some with very high sugar content—and yet there is no evidence that any were domesticated before modern times. Even more interesting is the fact that wild grapes are almost never hermaphroditic (male and female parts on the same flower, and thus self fertile). More than 95% of the time wild grape plants, the world over, are males or females. So, the ancients clearly were pretty knowledgeable about plant breeding and had an eye sharp enough to note the tiny floral parts on a rate mutant hermaphrodite plant.
To date, the oldest known fermented beverage comes from the Jiahu of China and dates back 9,000 years. This beverage, a sort of beer – wine combination was made from fermented rice (a grain, thus the beer part) and fruit (wild Chinese grape or hawthorn, or both, the wine part) plus honey. You can even taste this one for yourself! Dr. McGovern and the Dogfish Head Brewery of Delaware have combined forces to make this (and some other) famous ancient brew, calling it Chateau Jiahu, available in specialty beer and wine shops.
Beyond fermentation simply for the sake of making alcohol, fermentation is universally intertwined with humanity. Fermentation is a crucial step in the production of many of our foods from the preservation of meats and sausages, to vegetables (as “pickles”), to the production of chocolate. Fermentation contributes nutrients, flavors, and aromas to food and drink—whether lambic beer, Champagne, cheese, or tofu. It removes potentially harmful alkaloids, helps to preserve by making the pH inhospitable to some microbes and alcohol kills at high enough levels. Furthermore, fermentation makes foods more easily digestible and reduces food preparation times and fuel expenditure. Moreover, alcohol made humans a more social creature, no doubt played a role in the rise of religions and arts, and made possible many (if not all) of man’s greatest creations—the builders of Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids and temples were paid in bread and beer. In vino veritas!
(Review originally published in FUNGI, 2011, vol 4 no.4.)