New Worlds: Alcohol

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Alcohol: fun diversion, highly sophisticated art form, disgusting vice, or sensible health precaution?

It’s a trick question. The answer is, all of the above.

Humans aren’t the only ones who like booze. There are documented instances in nature of various animals seeking out overripe fruit and eating it in order to get tipsy, and we can probably assume our hominid ancestors did the same thing. Once we began fermenting things deliberately, we made alcohol out of pretty much anything that could yield a non-lethal result. (Don’t drink wood alcohol.)

We aren’t very consistent in the vocabulary we use for that result, though. On a basic level, wine is made from fruit and beer from grain — but that doesn’t stop us from talking about rice wine instead of rice beer, and fermented apples (and sometimes pears) get referred to as “cider” and grouped with beer, though there’s also such a thing as apple wine, which appears to be just a regulatory difference in some jurisdictions based on the alcohol level. Distill your wine and you get a brandy; distill your beer and you get a whiskey. Then you also have things made directly from sugar sources, like mead from honey, rum from molasses, and pulque (non-distilled) and mezcal and tequila (distilled) from agave. We’ve even made kumis out of milk. But we use a dizzying array of terms for specific types of alcohol, and like I said, we’re rarely consistent about how we apply them.

Islamic law is commonly interpreted as prohibiting the consumption of alcohol entirely, although — as one might expect in a religion that large — there is a great deal of variation, including debate over whether it’s permitted to drink things with a very low alcoholic content, e.g. below three percent. Much of the rationale seems to focus less on the substance itself and more on the effect it has on the drinker: being intoxicated is bad (many Islamic scholars say the prohibition also extends to other types of intoxicants), and saying “well, I’ll only drink a little and stop before I’m drunk” is courting failure. The early temperance movement also focused on high-proof drinks, but later expanded to ban all alcohol consumption.

I’m not sure it’s an accident that teetotalism coincided with improving sanitation in the West, or that Islamic cities were, so far as I know, often cleaner than their Christian counterparts. In a town where your drinking water was contaminated with raw sewage, total abstinence wasn’t a good idea. Even a few percentage points of alcohol, though, could be enough to kill off germs, without much risk of getting you drunk.

Because weak ale was safer than water, the production of it was a household industry in medieval England, with much of the work being done by women, either for their own families or making enough to sell locally. The family name “Brewster” memorializes this, that being the feminine form of “Brewer.” In fact, brewing has often been associated with women in many societies, because of its logical connection with either gathering or baking. This began to change with the introduction of hops, which both made brewing more expensive and extended its shelf life — the latter making it possible to ship it farther from the source and therefore carry out brewing on a more industrial scale. With larger sums of money involved, men began to take a more dominant role in production, until your average hipster dudebro these days probably believes it’s always been a masculine job.

There’s also nutrition to consider. Advertising posters for Guinness used to say “Guinness is good for you;” they weren’t entirely wrong. Isotope analysis of human remains from places like Egypt and the Andes has shown that a non-trivial percentage of their calories probably came from beer. It isn’t just a source of carbohydrates, but also — depending on how it’s made — other nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and some of your B vitamins.

Of course alcohol can rise far above a practical necessity for health. The communion wine used in some Christian ritual is deeply holy, to the point where even at the height of Prohibition in the United States its use was still permitted. Pulque, the fermented maguey sap I mentioned above, was sacred to ancient Mesoamericans, and only some of their people were allowed to drink it; “The Hymn to Ninkasi” from ancient Sumer is a prayer that also doubles as a recipe for how to brew beer.

But the danger feared by Islamic scholars and temperance leaders is real. Probably all of us know one or more alcoholics, or at least people who have done stupid, dangerous, or cruel things while under the influence. A drunk society is frequently a violent society. Low-proof beer may not pose much danger, but stronger brews (and anything distilled) can get you hammered quite fast.

How fast that goes depends in part on who you are. The reputation of certain populations for being particularly susceptible to drink has a genetic basis: East Asians, Native Americans, and some Africans tend to produce slightly different types of the enzymes used to break down alcohol, which means they get drunk more easily on average than Europeans. When stronger European alcohol comes in, bad things result.

Drinks aren’t going away any time soon, though. We may not drink as much as our ancestors did (college binging aside), but we still use alcohol as a social bonding mechanism. In Japan, many behaviors that would be considered indiscreet or rude when sober receive a “get out of jail free” card” if they happen when you’re drunk, which means that going out to a bar with your business associates can operate as a much-needed release valve for the stresses of work. Sharing a cup of sake is even part of the Shintō wedding ritual. Bonding has its dark side when people who abstain get excluded, but the milder form of drink-as-connection can serve a genuine positive purpose.

(None of which is going to convert me into much of a drinker any time soon. I’ve found a few things I like, generally on the sweeter end, but a traumatic encounter with my father’s scotch when I was two seems to have left a permanent mark.)

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Alcohol — 14 Comments

  1. One aspect I feel is missing is that alcohol is an anxiolytic. I don’t have your gift to be able to develop upon this but it has interesting implications on my vision of drinking since I learned this from therapy

    • Yes, that’s part of its social bonding aspect; people are more relaxed and less anxious, which makes it easier to be gregarious. Though it depends on how much those people are drinking, and also reactions can be fairly idiosyncratic (e.g. friendly drunks vs angry or weepy ones). It’s also possible for booze to make people more anxious, or at least more paranoid and so forth, if they drink a lot of it.

  2. What’s the name of the mega stone structure found in Turkey? My memory is blurry at best these days. I want to say Gobleki Tepi but that’s probably wrong or misspelled.

    Anyway, the monument dates to about 12,000 years ago, right that the beginning of humanity’s transition from hunter gatherer to settled agriculture. Archeologists have found hints of ancestor worship, ritualized feasting, and 20 gallon stone troughs with beer residue.

    Speculation abounds that the need for that much beer at one time led to organized farming. One could not gather a few handsfull of wild grains to ferment on the go for that scale of drinking. One had to have fields of grain close by.

    Proof that once again beer saved the world.

    • Göbekli Tepe? (Lest you think I pulled that out of my ear, I started typing into Wikipedia until it offered me a suggestion that made me say, “yes, that one.” <g>)

      The early development of states, agriculture, and megalithic stone structures is a really fascinating time period, because we aren’t quite sure which lever was getting pulled that made the other levers go with it. Some people say agriculture led to state formation which led to building megalithic stone structures as a mechanism of social cohesion (which led to beer to reward people!). Others say social cohesion was needed because of changing conditions, therefore states and agriculture (and beer). Or whatever sequence. But it is unquestionable that beer has been there since the very, very, very beginning!

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Alcohol - Swan Tower

  4. I like some alcoholic beverages, but have never experienced “happy” drinking them. While most humans and other animals enjoy the feeling alcohol consumption creates, there are exceptions.

    • I’ve yet to be drunk in my life. Tipsy, yes, but having polled people to get an idea of what they consider to be the line of “drunkenness” (which they all have different definitions of anyway), I haven’t gotten that far.

      • High five!

        I don’t like the taste of most drinks, and my father was alcoholic, and I like my brain and intelligence. I did choose to have several drinks at one party where close friends were making different mixed drinks to try; I advanced to the point of speaking fluently without the pauses I was using at the time to avoid my stuttering problem. So, vaguely tipsy? Actually getting drunk seems like it’d be bad for my liver. Apart from that time I’ve never had more than two drinks in a night.

        On the safe beverage front, I’ve seen it said that the alcohol in small bear wouldn’t be enough to kill anything; the safety came from boiling the water before making the beer. No one knew to boil water on its own.

        • Yeah, I’ve got alcoholics on both sides of my family. I don’t want to find out the hard way if I have that predisposition as well. I do think I should get drunk at some point, though, if only for research as a writer. 😛

          As for the small beer thing, that’s possible! I don’t know enough about brewing or microbiology to be sure.

  5. There was also distilling alcohol to use to preserve herbs, food, and medicines. So a gift for fermenting and distilling was something a woman could use both for her own homestead and as a trade item.

  6. In the Catholic Church, it is permissible to use new wine for Communion: that is, grape juice that has had nothing done to it to prevent its fermenting. Which is pretty new.

    One reason there are so many fermented beverages is that just about any beverage, left on its own, will ferment.

  7. Dietary alcohol leads to two additional important side tracks:

    Distillation itself, and in particular the concept of “fractional distillation” (whether by ice — eiswein, or at the extreme these Scottish nutcases — or heat). “Purification through mass intentional process and not manual sorting” is (pun intended) sort of critical to so much of civilization, ranging from the obvious (alchemy and, later, chemistry) to the not so obvious (cement, and therefore large-scale construction not depending upon wood — silly things like walls and stone bridges and the Parthenon and…).

    Solvation, because different substances are carried differently in oils, in water, and in alcohol. Especially medically interesting substances — not just vitamins, but other fun things. There are darned good reasons that so many folk and early-modern medicines are “steeped in brandy” (ironically, “steeped in vodka” would have been a better choice in most instances, but then the recipes that were preserved tended to come from the lettered upper classes who eschewed the peasantry’s beverage of choice).