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.)