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Beer: NOT the oldest drink in the world

Finding factual errors in Wikipedia is, of course, easier than machine-gunning a cask full of cod, and I’ve done it here before. I can’t stand reading Wikipedia’s pages on beer, since I constantly think: “No, that’s wrong … no, that’s not quite right … no, that’s a misinterpretation …”. What particularly gets me shouting at the computer screen is statements that two seconds’ critical thought would show can’t possibly be true: like the assertion in the opening words in Wikipedia’s main article on beer that “Beer is the world’s oldest … alcoholic beverage”, a claim that is repeated in the “alcoholic beverage” article.

The “beer” article justifies this claim by citing in a footnote the book by the German-American author John Arnold with the lengthy title Origin and History of Beer and Brewing: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science and Technology, written in 1911. Arnold wrote one of my favourite beer quotations, about the study of the history of beer, “the people’s beverage”, being the study of the history of the people. My copy of the reprint of his book by the guys at Beerbooks.com is a long way from where I’m writing this, so I can’t currently check exactly what he said. But if Arnold did say beer is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, he was writing (excuse the Britishism) bollocks.

Think. Beer is not a simple drink to make. To get the sugars that the yeast will turn into alcohol, the starches in grain must be converted by enzymic reactions to sugar. If this is done by malting, that is, soaking grains and then letting them begin to grow, the malting process must be controlled and growth halted before the sprouting grains consume all the sugars they are making from their starch. Human intervention and control is effectively essential. Beer – alcohol derived from grains – does not happen in the wild, because the conditions to make beer do not occur in the wild.

However, alcohol is most certainly produced in the wild using other sources of natural sugar: this is what yeast, opportunistic scavengers of sources of energy, evolved to do. Ripe fruit can, and will, ferment spontaneously as yeast arrive to grab the sugar in the fruit and flood the surroundings with alcohol to keep their rivals away. The story of elephants getting drunk on over-ripe and fermenting fruit may be a jungle myth. But if you walk through an untended apple orchard in the autumn, after the apples have fallen from the trees and been lying on the ground, the scent of cider will envelop you, as yeasts attack the rotting fruit. Right now, I’m in a Middle Eastern city where thousands of date palms line every road, and in the evening the strong smell of vinegar is on the warm air: this is because dates that have fallen to the ground have fermented, and then gone on to the next stage, where alcohol is converted by specialist bacteria into acetic acid.

We can thus trump Arnold’s claim about the antiquity of beer with a quotation from a book called Fermented food beverages in nutrition, by Gastineau, Darby and Turner, written in 1979, that “Fruit wines were probably discovered as soon as man tried to collect and store sweet fruits and berries.” Fermentation of the juice that runs free from grapes simply piled on top of each other is the basis of the Hungarian wine Tokay Eszencia. Ripe dates soaked in water were used to make a sweet drink in Arabia, and if left for even a day the sugary date water would ferment to make a drink called fadikh, which an Arabian traveller called Yūsuf ibn Ya’qūb Ibn al Mujāwir found still being made in the 13th century.

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