The Why Files The Why Files --

Brewing: Just doing what comes naturally...
little jar

Ancient ale, weathered wine

Did we catch you lifting a glass? We expect a certain amount of beer, wine and liquor to be drunk during the twin celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s.

This fermentation is carried out by yeast that converts sugar into ethyl alcohol. Although they are now cultured, these yeasts were common in the natural world. It’s likely that many brewers saved some of the fermenting goop and used it to infect their next batch with a high concentration of yeast.

Before we slurp the science of ancient alcohol, a drop of definition:

Beer: beverages made by fermented grains, bread or roots.

Wine: drinks made from fermented fruit.

Liquor: drinks with a higher proportion of alcohol, made by distilling something that was already fermented.

Three small faded brown and red figurines on a wood platform work with ancient cooking tools
Photo: 2050-1800 BC, Andreas Praefcke
The ancient Egyptian god Osiris supposedly introduced beer; workers brew beer in a kitchen.

But when and where did people start brewing beer and fermenting wine?

Long ago, in many places:

Brewer’s timeline

little world with china highlighted
7000 BC

chemical analysis shows remains of fermented drink made from rice, honey and fruit.

little world with Georgia highlighted
5000+ BC

Oldest traces of grape wine.

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5000 BC (approximate)

traces of wine and barley beer.

little world
2000 BC
Middle East

Evidence for wine and beer widespread in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Assyria.

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2000 BC

The elite drinks wine while the proles drink beer from barley and wheat.

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2000 BC

wine has arrived.

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1100 BC

Signs of fermented cacao may signify early brewing in the Americas.

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800 BC

The Greeks bring wine across the sea to the seat of a growing empire.

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700 BC

wine arrives and starts to displace beer.

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600 BC

Wine completes its sweep through the Mediterranean. Mon dieu!

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1400 AD
North America and the Pacific

these places remain alcohol-free until European expansion.

(All data from #1 in the bibliography).
Three light brown ceramic jars with large round bottoms and spouting tops, cracked and chipped with age
Courtesy Patrick McGovern,   University of Pennsylvania Museum
These jars, discovered in Jiahu, Henan Province, China, dating to about 9,000 years ago, are the earliest solid evidence of deliberate fermentation. Traces of the contents, extracted from the pottery, show residues of a mixed fermented drink containing rice, honey and fruit

A hybrid brew

Although we talk about wine and beer as distinct categories, the first fermenters may have been catholic in their tastes, says Patrick McGovern, author of Uncorking the Past," a new book on ancient production of alcohol."In the Neolithic period, when people were experimenting with domesticating plants, they tended to throw into the pot whatever could be fermented. Rather than just using one fruit, why not use fruit, honey, or whatever cereal could break down into sugar and get the fermentation going?"

Early on, he says,"You got these mixed beverages containing of all these ingredients."

McGovern, who has traveled the world investigating the archeology of ancient alcohol, says,"It seemed to get more specialized later on; people began making just wine, especially in grape-growing areas, or beer." In Mesopotamia, an important center of early fermenting, barley and wheat grew in the irrigated lowlands, while grapes grew in the highlands, and so geography determined whether beer or wine comprised the potent potable.

"Each culture developed over time its own specialties," says McGovern."Even though the Greeks and Romans looked down their noses at the barbarians of Europe as beer-drinking louts, the people in those areas were doing the best they could with what they had, and were probably attached to the beer or mixed beverages they were able to make."

Dark brown stone tablet with rounded human figures shown making wine
Han dynasty, 206 BC - 220 AD, Sichuan Province, China, Editor at Large
In ancient China, a man stirs a cauldron of wine at right, an assistant tends the fire at center, and at left, a man sells the goods from a cart.

Case closed?

We asked McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, what exactly constitutes ironclad archeological evidence for wine or beer, and he mentioned three lines of analysis:

The container:"When we get samples out of pottery vessels, we look at the vessel. Was it intended for a liquid? If it has a narrow mouth and a high neck, does it have some residue where we would expect the liquid to gather, such as a precipitate on the bottom?"

The contents: Does chemical analysis show the presence of certain high-sugar fruits, or grain or honey?"We look for natural products that are fermented today," says McGovern, a pioneer in efforts to detect ancient fermentation."We know fermentation can occur fairly readily, especially in a warm climate. If we detect a high-sugar fruit that would naturally have yeast associated with it, or honey, which when diluted would start to ferment naturally, then there’s a high likelihood we are dealing with a fermented beverage."

The treatment:"If an obvious attempt has been made to try preserve the liquid, with a clay stopper, or tree resin, then it’s likely that they had some fermented beverage that they were trying to keep from going to vinegar," McGovern says.

The overall analysis, McGovern concludes, rests on"a combination of biomolecular, archaeological, and pottery arguments, and what we know about fermentation today."

What does history tell us about alcohol.

Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2022, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.