Exactly when humans first encountered alcohol is not known. Like so many beginnings it is lost in the ambiguous deep of time. All we can say about this first encounter is that it probably occurred in humanity's earliest infancy, ant that the meeting was entirely fortuitous. Alcohol comes to us owing nothing to the human creative hand but, like fore, stumbled upon, and bent to our use.


The origin of alcohol probably goes back 200 million years or so (late Paleozoic), when the materials that its generation requires had all appeared on earth; namely, water, plant sugars (or starches), and yeast.

a.       Yeast is a ubiquitously prolific microorganism with a voracious appetite for sweets.

b.       Like all fungi, yeasts lack chlorophyll and cannot manufacture their own food.

c.       Yeast is a single-celled ascomycete (fungus) and, in an anaerobic environment, yeast will forego aerobic respiration in favor of fermentation.

i.                     Fermentation is a form of combustion, resulting in the breakdown of carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

ii.                   In metabolizing sugar to obtain energy for itself, it creates ethyl alcohol as a by-product of its efforts.

iii.                  Alcoholic fermentation is the result of anaerobic respiration by yeast.

iv.                 Fermentation, the breakdown of carbohydrates to alcohol and CO2 - is not a total combustion. Yeast has only a limited tolerance for alcohol: when the alcohol content of the anaerobic environment reaches above 14%m the yeast organism dies.

v.                   Yeast used for the preparation of products for consumption (beer and wine) is chiefly of the genus Saccharomyces

vi.                 Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a brewer’s yeast, is a representative of budding yeasts that occur in nature on various fruits


Natural products have no doubt produced foodstuffs containing alcohol for millions of years. Occasionally, animals accidentally consume alcohol that came into being as spoiled fruit in the natural process of fermentation.

a. (mockingbirds and fermented pyracantha fruits).


Humans have a gene for the enzyme, alcohol-dehydrogenase (necessary for the metabolism of alcohol).

The presence of this gene forces us to consider that over evolutionary time animals have encountered alcohol enough times to have evolved a way to metabolize it.

a. Incidentally, about ˝ of all Asian people lack an enzyme - alcohol dehydrogenase -   necessary  for the complete metabolism of alcohol, making the experience of drinking very unpleasant.

b. There is some conjecture that the first human encounter with alcohol was as fermented honey, or mead (collected honey which had been left unattended longer than usual).

i. Natural fermentation would have created a mild alcohol out of the honey, and if the taster fond the slightly intoxicating effects agreeable, (s)he may have replicated the experiment.

ii. The technique was fairly simple: just leave the sweet substance alone to ferment.

iii. Actually, the sugar in pure honey is so concentrated that Saccharomyces and other fungi and bacteria cannot live on it (hence its long shelf life) If honey is diluted with water, it provides an excellent medium for yeasts because it consists of simple sugars. Consequently, before humans could have consciously made mead, they would have had to gather wild honey and dilute it (by washing the combs or sweetening water).




Virtually all beverage alcohol is produced by various species of the genus Saccharomyces. This genus belongs to a group of fungi known as yeasts. Like all fungi, yeasts lack chlorophyll and cannot manufacture their own food.

            Although many fungi can carry out fermentation, species of Saccharomyces are generally used because they are comparatively efficient at alcohol production and can tolerate higher levels of ethanol than can most fungi. Also during fermentation they produce compounds other than alcohol that are believed to influence the final flavor of the fermented liquid.

            The species of Saccharomyces that are used for alcohol production, primarily S. cerevisiae and S. uuvarum are able to ferment sugar into ethanol under anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions, usually in a solution.

Species of Saccharomyces live by ingesting sugar produced by other organisms. Only simple sugars (monosaccharides or disaccharides) can be used by these yeasts. (Monosaccharides are the most common type of sugar found in nature; disaccharides include sucrose, table sugar, and maltose, a sugar important in the making of beer).

            Yeast cannot effectively metabolize starch even though starch is composed of units of sugar molecules. Consequently, in the production of all fermented beverages, the material that is to be fermented must contain natural mono- and disaccharides that have been produced by enzymatic degradation of starches. So, enzymes in some form must be added to almost anything that is fermented except honey and some fruit juices.

During the process of fermentation simple sugars are broken down via a number of intermediate steps into ethanol and carbon dioxide. From the yeast's point of view, these are waste products.

            As the yeast culture grows and metabolizes more and more of the sugars in the liquid, carbon dioxide builds up and causes the solution to become bubbly. This gas is often allowed to escape from the solution. With unlimited sugar, the alcohol level increases during fermentation until it reaches a concentration between 12 and 18%. Levels of alcohol above 18 or 19% are usually toxic to the yeast and leads to the death of the cells. This tolerance limit laces an upper value on the % of alcohol produced solely by fermentation. Achieving a higher percentage of alcohol requires that the solution be fortified by adding more concentrated alcohol or by distillation.

Role of Alcohol

I'd like now to turn to the role alcohol may have played throughout most of Western civilization's history. Because for the past few millennia, alcoholic beverages may have been the most popular and common daily drink, indispensable sources of fluid and calories.

1.      In a world of contaminated and dangerous water supplies, alcohol truly earned the title granted it in the Middle Ages - aqua vitae - water of life.

2.      We know that the development of agriculture led to food surpluses, which in turn, led to larger groups of people living in close quarters - in cities of villages. How do you provide inhabitants with enough clean water to sustain their constant need for physiological hydration? Water supply of any group of people living in close proximity rapidly became polluted with their own waste products.

a.       How many died from quenching their own thirst with water cannot be known.

b.      Based on current worldwide crises of dysentery and infectious disease wrought by unclean water supplies, a safe bet is that a remarkably large portion of our ancestry succumbed to tainted water (cholera, typhus).

3.      Beer and wine are free of pathogens. The antiseptic power of alcohol, the natural acidity of wine and beer, killed many pathogens when alcoholic drinks were diluted with the sullied water supply.

4.      Since the conscious application of the fermentation process, people of all ages in the West have consumed beer and wine, not water, as their major daily thirst quencher.

5.      The experience in the East differed considerably because for the past 2,000 years the practice of boiling water, usually for tea, has created potable water supply of nonalcoholic beverages.

a.       Additionally, genetics play a role in Asia's avoidance of alcohol. Approximately 50% of all Asian people lack an enzyme necessary for complete alcohol metabolism, making the experience of drinking very unpleasant.

6.      The beer and wine Westerners relied on for their daily beverage had a much lower alcohol content than the beer and wine familiar to today's consumers. Beverages also contained large amounts of acetic acid and other organic acids created during fermentation.

a.       As the alcohol content was low, consumers focused on taste, thirst, and hunger satisfaction rather than intoxication.

b.      These alcoholic beverages provided necessary caloric value and essential micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.

7.      Until recently, the only analgesic generally available in the West was alcohol.

a.       Hippocrates' therapeutic system featured wines as remedies for almost all acute and chronic ailments known in his time.





  1. By definition, wine is fermented fruit juice. In practice, however, the term is usually reserved for the fermented juice of grapes, Vitis vinifera (Vitaceae).
  2. Wine is produced in nature.
    1. The yeasts responsible for the fermentation of the fruit sugars are usually present on fruit skins, and fermentation can occur naturally if the skin of a ripe fruit is punctured.
    2. (Human production of wine would merely involve collecting fruits, bruising or crushing them, and letting them ferment. No one knows when wine making began, and estimates vary from 8,000 to 3,000 BCE.
  3. Fermented fruit juice may well have preceded the advent of agriculture, but the development of viniculture (wine culture) was surely boosted by the development of agriculture.
    1. Most fruit juice, even wild grape juice, is naturally too low in sugar to produce decent wine.
    2. Selection for sweeter grapes would eventually lead to viniculture.
    3. (The practice of growing grape strains suitable for wine production has been credited to people living in what is now Armenia, just north of Iran, south of the former USSR, about 6,000 years ago).
    4. Some have even made the claim that formal agriculture (which characterizes the New Stone Age), may have sprung from a desire to assure a regular supply of alcohol. The assumption here is that the use of grain for the preparation of fermented liquor is perhaps as early as its use as food. Edgar Anderson writes, in a study of domesticated plants - "Man may well have been a brewer before he was a baker." At any rate, alcohol has been found among pre-agricultural peoples, and there are no recorded instances of agricultural


Wine making

Since grapes are naturally equipped with everything necessary for fermentation, the process of wine-making is basically very simple.

1.      Grapes are harvested when sugar content reaches a critical level.

2.      Grapes are crushed and the juice is allowed to ferment. (Juice can be expressed by stomping on them barefoot or with hand-operated or electric or fuel-powered presses.

3.      Sulfur dioxide is mixed in with the expressed juice to kill any bacteria.

4.      White wine - If the expressed juice is to be made into white wine, the free juice is run into fermentation tanks and the skins and stems are repressed (taken out).

5.      Red wine - For red wine, the skins go into the fermentation vat with the juice.

a.       The red color of red or rose wine (from which the skins are removed after a short time) is due to pigments in the skins that dissolve in the juice.

b.      White wine can be made from red grapes if the skins are removed right after pressing.

c.       Red wine cannot be naturally made from white grapes: red wine from White Thompson Seedless grapes have the color added.

6.      Once juice is in the fermentation vats, the preferred yeast is added (although fermentation could take place without additional yeast added).

7.      Fermentation continues for about 8-10 days.

8.      After the initial fermentation, there is a second fermentation for about 1-month.

9.      Fermentation is complete when there is no more fermentable sugar, or the alcohol levels reach levels toxic to yeasts.

a.       Sweet wine - Fermentation is stopped before all the sugar has been converted to ethanol or sugar must remain after the yeast has died for a wine to be sweet.

10.  The time of aging varies.

a.       White wines are usually aged from 1 year to 18 months.

b.      Red wines are aged for up to 5 years.


11.  When wine is ready, after the tank aging is complete, it is bottled.

a.       Some white wines benefit by aging in the bottle for up to 5 years.

b.      Red wines can improve from 30-40 years after bottled.



1.      Some anthropologists have correlated the brewing of beer with the establishment of permanent human settlements. Certainly the practice was established by the beginning of recorded history.

2.      Beer, which relies on large amounts of starchy grains, probably waited until the origin and development of agriculture (We know that the area of the Near East produced large grain crops - wheat and barley - and it was probably an historical inevitability that fermented grain would be discovered there.

a.       Babylonian clay tablets, > 6,000 years old give beer recipes, complete with illustrations.

b.      The earliest known brewery is dated to 3,500 BCE in a Sumerian trading post on the Silk Road in the Zagros Mountains (near Tehran, Iran).

c.       Early brewing is usually linked with bread making.

1.      One of the early ways of making grains digestible was to sprout them.

2.      Barley breads were initially made from sprouted grains that had been dried and ground into flour.

3.      A soft dough of sprouted barley would be a good place for yeasts to live.

4.      Egyptian beers in fact were made from a solution of water and pieces of dough made of sprouted barley that was subsequently allowed to ferment.

d.      Early beer was easy to make but the liquid to be fermented was initially left exposed to the air so wild yeasts, like Saccharomyces, and other microbes would fall into it.

3.      The 3 basic ingredients used in making beer are barley malt, hops, and water.

4.      Malt - any sprouted grain that has been subsequently dried. In practice, it usually refers to barley grain, Hordeum vulgare (Poaceae).

a.      Barley contains the largest amount of enzymes necessary for converting starches to fermentable sugars.

b.      At the beginning of germination, the embryo produces enzymes that break down the starch into sugars that can be readily absorbed by the developing seedling, and used as a source of energy.

5.      Hops (Humulus lupulus. Cannabaceae). Dioecious vines that produce clusters of flowers; the clusters of pistillate flowers resemble a pinecone because of the subtending bracts.

 Hops is used in beer for a number of purposes:

a.       It imparts a pleasant taste and aroma to beer. Both the flowers and bracts of the female hops plant have glands that produce the characteristic hop flavors.

b.      Hops contributes to the production of a clear, sparkling beer (clarification) by coagulating unwanted proteins in the solution.

c.       Compounds leached from the hops appear to have antibacterial properties that help prevent spoilage of beer.




1.      In Central and South America, Indians commonly used corn to make a beer called chicha.

2.      Since barley malt wasn't available, they used a different source for amylases to break down the starch.

3.      Kernels of corn were chewed for a short period to mix them with the salivary amylases, and the chewed mass was spit into a container of ground corn and water and allowed to ferment.

4.      Chicha is still produced this way in remote regions of Peru and Bolivia.



1.      In arid and semiarid regions of central Mexico the inhabitants tap the stems of various species of Agave and collect the exuded sweet sap, which is fermented into a beverage called pulque.

2.      The sap is allowed to ferment for about 14 days.

3.      In Mexico, pulque is more widely consumed than tequila, a distilled beverage more familiar to Americans.


Siberians ferment koumiss from mare’s milk.

India and Africa use millet and sorghum to brew beer.

In Japan, sake is made from rice.




1.       Beer is basically fermented grain.

2.       Beer can be made from any starchy carbohydrate source, but barley, used by the ancients, is the basis of most modern beers.

3.       Since beer making begins with starches - and not with sugars like wine -  there are several preliminary steps in brewing before the yeast is introduced and fermentation can begin. Starch must first be converted to sugar to feed the yeast.

4.       Step 1 : Preparation of the malt: barley grains are moistened with water and then allowed to germinate. Barley germinants produce enzymes that catalyze the breakdown of starch.

5.       Step 2: the germinated grains are then dried in a kiln and crushed to make malt powder.

a.       The color of beer is determined by how the malt was roasted: pale malts are dried at lower temps.; specialty malts are roasted at higher temps for a longer period of time to carmelize the sugars and so impart a darker color.

6.       Step 3: The malt is added to the grain starch and heated in a mash tun. This mixture is the mash. Here the malt enzymes break down the starch to sugars. (The starch can be of any grain: wheat, corn , rice, or barley. In U.S. we use rice; beers made with barley malt and barley grain are known as malt liquors. German wiessbeir uses wheat for both the malt and the carbohydrate source).

7.       Step 4:The mash is strained producing a clear liquid called a wort.

8.       Step 5:The wort is boiled with hops (Humulus lupulus: Cannabaceae), a vine in the hemp family. The yellow-green pistillate flowers are used. Hops adds both a desirably bitter flavor to the brew to counteract the sweetness of the malt, and has antibacterial properties, keeping the beer from spoiling. Hopped beers are said to retain the foamy head longer.

9.       Step 6:Yeast is introduced after the wort is strained and cooled. The main action of yeast is to convert sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

a.       Lager beers are fermented by yeast that settle to the bottom of the fermentation tank.

b.       Ale is produced by top-fermenting yeast that ferments at higher temperatures than the colder fermenting lager yeasts.

Fermentation continues for up to a week, at which time the wort is now a beer.

10.    Step 7:Beer is then aged. Flavor often developed by adding beechwood chips to the tank.

11.    Step 8:A second fermentation (kraeusening) produces the natural carbonation of the beer, altho most mass-produced beer are carbonated at bottling by adding CO2 recovered from earlier fermentations.

12.    Step 9: Beer is then clarified and bottled, canned or put into kegs.



Almost all the numerous Stone Age cultures that have survived into modern times have demonstrated an indigenous familiarity with alcohol. (Exceptions include the polar peoples and the Aboriginal people of Australia

a.       Polynesians drank a kava beer

b.       Mandigo people of Sudan drank a beer made from a millet-like grain, Holcus spicatus.

c.       Natives of Mexico drank a pulque, the fermented sap of the Agave. Distillation of pulque gives us tequila.

d.       Mayans and Incas of South America drank chicha, a beer prepared from maize.

e.       Native Americans were drinking an alcoholic beverage - fermented birch and sugar maple sap - when the English colonists first arrived here.

f.        The Masai of Kenya drink a brew of honey wine.

Alcoholic consumption in these indigenous populations was invariably a communal rite, clearly circumscribed ceremonially, by ritual and obligations.

a.                         Across cultures, there are often very clear protocols regarding the preparation and use of alcohol.

b.                        The individual inebriate - the lone drinker - is conspicuous by his absence from most of preliterate communities. The casual use of alcohol, like the individual inebriate, is a product of civilization.

After about 9,000 years of experience drinking relatively low alcohol beer, wine, and mead, the West was confronted with alcohol of a highly concentrated form - thanks to distillation.

Human use of alcohol in the form of fermented grains, juices, and mead is extremely ancient. Distilled spirits, in contrast, were not known to the ancients.


1.      Legend ascribes the discovery of distillation to the alchemist Geber (whose proper Arabic name was Jabir ibn Hayyan), born in the year 702. He was a Mesopotamian or Greek, who converted to Islam.

a.       The word alcohol is derived from the Arabic word for the distilled scents and fine antimony salts (or kohl) women used to stain their eyes (like eye shadow). It also represented “essence”.

b.      In general, early uses were medicinal or the liquid obtained was used as a solvent.

2.      Although yeasts produce alcohol, they can tolerate concentrations of only 15-19%. Fermented beverages had a natural proof:  proof = twice the % of alcohol; 80 proof = 40% alcohol.

3.      Fermented beverages had a natural ceiling of, at most, 30-40 proof (15-20%).

4.      Distillation circumvents nature's limit by taking advantage of the differential boiling points of alcohol and water.

a.       Alcohol boils at 78 degrees C (172 degrees F).

b.      Water boils at 100 degrees C (212 degrees F).

c.       Boiling a mixture of alcohol and water at a temperature above 78 c and below 100 C, puts more of the mixture's volatile alcohol than water into vapor.

d.      Condensing that vapor - say, through water-cooled coils - yields a liquid with a much higher alcohol level than that of the starting mixture.




1.      All whiskeys are basically made by fermenting malted barley (or malted barley mixed with another grain), and distilling the product.

2.      The differences lie in the kinds of grain used, the places and lengths of time of aging, and presence or absence of blending.

3.      Scotch is made only from barley malt.

a.       The characteristic taste is caused by the kilning of the malt over fires fueled by peat moss.

b.      The aging takes place in new or used casks that have been charred.

4.      Bourbon is an American invention, originally developed in Kentucky, and named after Bourbon County.

a.       By law, bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn (Zea maize), and distilled to produce a solution of less than 95% alcohol.

b.      It must be aged for at least 2 years in new, charred oak barrels. Barrels cannot be reused, adding to the expense of bourbon.

5.      Rye is made from at least 51% rye grain (Secale sp.), and distilled to no higher than 80 proof.

a.       It must be aged for 2 years in new barrels.

b.      It differs from scotch in that the malt is not dried over peat.

6.      Gin, vodka, and rum differ from whiskeys in that they are distilled to a very high % of alcohol and, therefore, lack many of the flavoring agents that are carried across with the ethanol in other whiskeys.

a.       None of these spirits are aged.


7.      Gin is traditionally made from a distillate of fermented mash made from malt and other grains.

a.      It is flavored with juniper (Juniperus communis: Cupressaceae) berries (actually fleshy cones).

8.      Vodka is made from malt and grains or from potatoes, whichever is cheaper.

a.       Made in Russia, means “little water”.


9.      Rum is the distillate of fermented molasses or sugar cane juice (Saccharum officinale), harvested in the West Indies.

1.      Rum is the first spirituous liquor to be manufactured in the U.S.

2.      It was manufactured on Staten Island, NY in the 1660s, and was originally known as rum-bullion. (From saccharum, meaning sugar, and bullion, meaning gold).

3.      Within a generation, the manufacture of rum had become New England's largest and most profitable industry. It was also its most unsavory.

4.      The New England distillers were the bankers of the slave trade. Slavers of all nations used New England rum as a means of filling their holds from slave pens on the Guinea coast in Africa.

5.      A diabolically lucrative trade developed:

a.       Slaves from Africa to the West Indies (where they did the backbreaking work in the sugar cane plantations)

b.      Molasses from the West Indies to the colonies (where it was distilled).

c.       Rum from the Colonies to England (where it was bought and sold).

d.      Guns from England to Africa (where they were traded for slaves).

Alcohol and Metabolism  (metabolism = oxidation = combustion)


1.      Almost all the alcohol ingested is metabolized.

2.      Alcohol is metabolized at a constant rate, independent of the amount of alcohol ingested.

3.      Human body burns about 1/3 - 1/2 oz. of alcohol per hour. That's little less than 1 average drink per hour.

a.        If you drink more than that, alcohol accumulates in your bloodstream, and you become intoxicated.

b.      Exercising or drinking coffee doesn't appreciably affect the rate of combustion; nor do any known drugs.

c.       The combustion rate of alcohol in the body seems to be a constant in human physiology. In other words, once you are drunk (alcohol in bloodstream in excess of its rate of metabolism), all coffee will do at this point is keep you awake while you are drunk. Won't be any less drunk. Awake or asleep, you're still drunk.

4.      Once in the bloodstream, alcohol persists until it has been burned and banished from the body by the process of oxidation.

a.       Alcohol is oxidized in the liver.

b.      It is a continuous process

c.       Whereas excess food is stored away as fat for future use, alcohol is not set aside and circulates with blood flow until fully metabolized. The only way for alcohol to leave the system is by metabolic breakdown, a process that is linear over time.


5.      The quickness of alcohol's metabolism distinguishes it from other foods, including fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Their molecular structure is too complex for immediate metabolism. (They first have to e broken down by various digestive acids and enzyme catalysts that are secreted in the mouth, stomach, and small intestines). Only then can their essential elements be assimilated into the body.

6.      Alcohol needs no such preparation; it is as assimilable as water. It is soluble in both water and fats, and so easily moves across membranes.


Rate of alcohol absorption

1.      Chief deterrent to prompt absorption of alcohol is food.

a.       Larger the meal, the slower the absorption.

b.      Complex foods more effective in slowing the rate of alcohol absorption thru the stomach: protein (milk, butter, meat, eggs).

c.       Proteins linger in stomach longer than other foods.

d.      Story: drinking bout in neighborhood bar in LA between 2 alcoholics. Wager: whoever became unable to stand would pay the bill. One fellow ordered the bartender to put a raw egg in each of his drinks. The other took his straight.

e.       Egg nog, hot-buttered rum, bloody mary.


2.      Water can delay alcohol absorption by dilution.

3.      Soda water – quickens the absorption rate because CO2 (effervescence) sweeps thru the stomach pushing the alcohol into the small intestines and on into the blood stream.


Head ache – marked dilation of sensitive cranial arteries.

Thirst – alcohol consumption shifts cellular fluid balance: it increases extracellular fluid at expense of intracellular fluid, resulting in the scratch of thirst.

Physiological effects

1.      fatigue (depressed Central Nervous System)

2.      lower body temperature – dilates peripheral blood vessels, giving illusion of warmth, but actually accelerates the loss of body heat (don’t drink when cold)

3.      lowers blood pressure (don’t use in instance of shock)



1.      Drinking alcohol is ethyl alcohol or ethanol.

2.      Methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol (methylated spirits)

a.       burns very slowly (takes long time to metabolize)

b.      metabolites include formic acid, the  protective venom found in ants, spiders, and nettles.

c.       Formic acid can destroy the optic nerve, leading to blindness.


Fermented Foods

  1. Fungi, as well as, bacteria have been utilized to modify foods through fermentation.
  2. Examples: yoghurt, cheese, pickles, sauerkraut, soy sauce, tofu, and bread.
  3. Fermentation is a way of preserving foods (less subject to spoilage):
    1. Cheese and yoghurt are ways of preserving milk.
    2. Pickles and sauerkraut are ways of preserving vegetables.
  4. Fermentation is a way of improving flavors: soy sauce
  5. Increasing the digestibility of certain foods.
  6. Destroying undesirable components of unfermented foods.
  7. Protein values may be enhanced thru the enzymatic release of amino acids.