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A Toast To Alcohol

Since this is the time of year people feel compelled to be gratuitously thankful, I will follow suit. I know this is politically incorrect – but I’m most thankful for alcohol. I’m not thankful because booze makes me convivial, nor because I find aesthetic beauty in a well-crafted cocktail, nor because wine extends the culinary experience.

The fact is, controlled fermentation was responsible for the invention of written language, arithmetic, irrigation, the paved road, and urban planning – in short, the building blocks of modern society. So, the reason I’m thankful for alcohol, is because it’s the mother of civilization.

The distillation of alcohol also prompted mystical awe. Arab alchemists invented the process. In fact, the word “alcohol” is of Arabic derivation; one of few in the English language. They used this substance in primitive eye makeup. So it was Muslims, who don’t even drink wine, who are responsible for creating pure alcohol. I am thankful for alcohol-induced irony.

When distillation was introduced to European monks, the resulting “spirit” was called aqua vitae – the water of life, in Latin. Many other beverages have shared etymologies – eau de vie, akvavit, uisge (whisky) and wódka all mean “water of life” in their native languages. But the monks were not just impressed by the transformative experience of consuming this vital spirit; the world’s first flammable liquid held them in scientific awe. In fact, these proto-chemists speculated that distillation to 100% purity might yield a substance so volatile that it could spontaneously combust; creating a chain reaction that would engulf the entire universe in flames. And yet, they did it anyway. I am thankful for alcohol-induced audacity.

But, allow me to digress 8 or 10 millennia. Strictly speaking, alcohol was not really invented; it was discovered. Since fermentation occurs naturally on fruit, it’s not surprising wine was the first alcoholic beverage. The first evidence of winemaking dates to about 6,000 BCE in the Caucasus Mountains of what is now the nation of Georgia. Winemaking probably migrated from Mesopotamia, but the Georgians were the first folks to carelessly leave the aftermath of a big party behind for archeologists to clean up. I am thankful for alcohol-induced procrastination.

Brewing, on the other hand, requires human intervention to transform starch into sugar via malting. The earliest evidence of beer is found in Sumerian references, the people who produced the first written language. The Sumerians used their amazing new symbology for pedestrian commercial tasks like annual beer reviews for almost a thousand years before someone decided to scratch the Epic of Gilgamesh onto clay tablets so these Babylonian accountants finally had something literary to discuss over drinks. I am thankful for alcohol-induced creativity.

The very first Sumerian brew was probably created by accident. A forgetful baker might have left her dough out in the sun to rise and the bowl was filled with water by a brief shower. Thus immersed, the dough became a combination of mash tun and open fermenter (using brewer’s terms) allowing enzymes to convert the dough’s starch into sugars. These were met with airborne yeast spores that allowed fermentation to begin. I am thankful for alcohol-induced spontaneity.

In the days before agriculture, some tribe descended into the veritable Eden that was the flood plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. To turn this newfound wealth of grain into something more palatable and travel-worthy, they invented bread. Sumerian bread could be stored for long periods and was an ideal raw material for the year-round production of beer that could be stored even longer. We know from Sumerian records, by the fourth millennium BCE, this industrious society used almost half its annual grain harvest for brewing. Eventually, the Sumerians produced more grain than they could consume in either solid or liquid form. They began to trade with neighboring people, mostly Semitic tribes to the north. To keep the books in order, transactions had to be accounted for. So, the Sumerians invented the mathematics required to do so. I am thankful for alcohol-induced inspiration.

To organize their massive collective effort of irrigating, milling, baking, brewing, and trading, the Sumerians developed humanity’s first townships – not surprisingly each with a brewpub at its center. These anarchic proto-cities gradually structured themselves into hierarchical communities, ruled by the dynasties of prosperous large-scale city-states. With this growth and development came formal structure; and the efficiencies of this urban organization produced the free time needed for culture and art to flourish. So, the bright light of human civilization actually emanated from the many small fires that turned barley into malt.

So at this time of year, I am especially thankful for alcohol-induced humanity. Cheers!

Suggestion for further reading: Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries, by Gregg Smith

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