Understanding Alcohol: A Comprehensive Overview

Alcohol dates way back in history. People’s encounters with alcohol can be found in many civilizations and cultures including the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and the British. From ancient times, when beer recipes were recorded on tablets, to Prohibition in the United States, to the astonishing rates of alcohol consumerism in modern times. Alcohol has brought people closer but has also driven them apart. We will take a trip through the history of alcohol and explain how and when it was discovered.

People fermented fruits and grains to produce alcohol for thousands of years. The practice of fermenting fruits to produce alcohol likely dates back to prehistoric times. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been making alcohol from fermented fruits for thousands of years. The exact date when people first began fermenting fruits to produce alcohol is difficult to determine, but it is likely that it happened at some point in human history before the development of written records. The earliest findings of humans brewing alcohol date back to 7000 to 6600 BC in Northern China. There, residues of alcohol were found in pottery jars. Earlier in India, an alcoholic beverage called sura, distilled from the rice was used between 3000 and 2000 B.C.

Between 3,000 to 2,000 B.C., Sumerians in Mesopotamia made beer. Researchers have found over 20 different beer recipes recorded on clay tablets. 

It is said that Sumerians were drinking beer with straws because bits of mash and grain remained in the unfiltered alcohol mixture.1 In their civilization, alcohol was used in religious and sacrificial settings as an offering to their gods.

In ancient civilizations like Egypt and Greece, things are more or less the same. Beer can be found in their daily diet as well.2 Egyptian beer was drinkable, unlike water, and was high in nutritional value, making it an everyday drink and sometimes served as payment for public works projects. Both in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece alcohol was a key plot device in one of their most important myths and was used in nearly every offering to their gods.

The exact date when vineyards were first established in ancient Greece is not known. However, it is likely that grapevines were first cultivated in Greece for the production of wine during the Bronze Age, which lasted from around 3200 BC to 1200 BC. Wine-making was an important part of ancient Greek culture, and the ancient Greeks developed many different varieties of grapes for wine-making.

Vineyards were an important part of the Greek landscape, and many wealthy Greeks owned their own vineyards. The ancient Greeks also had a robust trade in wine, exporting it to other parts of the ancient world. Both ancient Greeks, and Egyptians were using alcohol as a medicine. Greek texts frequently reference wine consumption for medical ailments, such as lethargy, diarrhea, childbirth pains, and keeping wounds clean and sterile.

Wine was so important in ancient Greece that it had its own god in Greek society: Dionysus. He was also considered the god of fertility and of ritual madness and ecstasy, and he represented the medium between the living and the dead.

Ancient Greeks had symposia. A symposium was a type of social gathering in ancient Greece, typically involving a group of men who would gather to drink wine and discuss a particular topic. The word “symposium” comes from the Greek language and means “drinking together.” Symposia were an important part of ancient Greek culture and were often held in the home of a wealthy host.

At a symposium, guests would recline on couches and listen to music and poetry, as well as engage in philosophical discussions. The symposium was considered an essential part of a well-rounded education in ancient Greece, and it was seen as a way to cultivate intellectual and social skills. we can find many references to symposia in Plato’s Symposium and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey where it is described utterly the ancient relationship between alcohol and celebration.

The Romans adopted wine production from the Greeks. The Greek poet Euripides wrote the play Bacchaedepicting how the followers of the god Bacchus drank to excess and committed murder while under the influence. The wine was often given to soldiers as a reward for their service, and it was sometimes used to boost morale on the battlefield. The ancient Romans also had a tradition of celebrating military victories with feasts and drinking parties. However, excessive drinking was discouraged in the Roman military, and soldiers who were drunk on duty could face punishment. Nonetheless, wine became a standard ratio for military personnel.

As mentioned in the beginning, China was the country where residues of alcohol were first found. Ancient China is referred to as the first country that distills spirits with yeast-fermented bases. Similar to other cultures, alcohol was also considered sacred. People frequently drank during important rituals and celebrations, such as family meals, weddings, and holidays like the New Year.4 Drinking was accompanied by music, dancing, and reading literature. The ancient Chinese believed that alcohol had medicinal properties and could help to improve health and prevent disease, reduce degeneration from old age, and maintain overall health. An old Chinese proverb refers to alcohol as the best of all medicines.4

In the early 1600s, a new type of alcohol was invented in England. This drink was made from distilled grain and was called gin. Gin quickly became very popular in England and was soon being exported to other countries.

During the eighteenth century, the English parliament passed a law encouraging grain use to distill spirits. Consequently, this led to a peak, and the British market flooded with affordable alcoholic spirits. Gin consumption reached 18 million gallons and alcoholism became widespread.

When the nineteenth century came, a change in mentality occurred that promoted the moderate use of alcohol, which eventually led to a push for prohibition.

It was in the United States that a nationwide ban was implemented on the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol, known as Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933. The ban came to force through the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and was intended to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America. Of course, things did not go as intended not to mention that around this period the illegal alcohol trade skyrocketed. By 1933, there was a recession in the economy which led to many believing that legalizing alcohol would help, therefore they passed the 21st Amendment and ended prohibition.

The term “alcoholism” was first introduced in 1849 by a Swedish doctor named Magnus Huss. He used the term to describe people who were unable to control their drinking habits, and the term has been in use ever since. Alcoholism is a chronic and often progressive disease that is characterized by a physical and emotional dependence on alcohol. People suffering from alcoholism have an increased tolerance for alcohol, meaning that they need to consume larger amounts to feel the effects, and they may experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking.

In recent years, more specifically in 1952, the American Medical Association acknowledged and made use of the term as well. Alcohol addiction is also known as alcohol abuse disorder (AUD) and alcohol dependency. How does it start? When alcohol alternates brain chemistry and creates a more enjoyable response to drinking. For example, while intoxicated will begin to feel better, which causes the individual to consume alcohol more regularly in order to maintain basic happiness. At this stage, if a person quits drinking it will lead to hazardous withdrawal symptoms.

Some of the withdrawal symptoms can be considered stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, relationship problems, drinking too frequently, and mixing alcohol with other substances. Alcoholism will physically damage the body and lead to significant health issues like liver damage, fatigue, and even dehydration. People that frequently drink can also end up in hospitals for liver failure, stomach ulcers, and other advanced medical conditions.

Read more on “The State of Alcohol Consumption Today”…

  1. Rosso, A. (2012). Beer And Wine In Antiquity: Beneficial Remedy Or Punishment Imposed By The Gods?Acta Medical History, 10(2);237—262.
  2. Mark, J. (2017). Beer in Ancient Egypt. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  3. Murcia, F. (2017). Wine, Women, and Wisdom: The Symposia of Ancient Greece.National Geographic.
  4. Ohio State University. (N.D.). The Origins of Chicha.