Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Discovery of Alcohol

12,051 BC
Happy Hour

The smallish man has been out under the sun since it rose, tending his herd of scraggly goats. It’s about a gazillion degrees out, give or take a digit or two, and the water in his goat-bladder pouch tastes like…well…a hot wet goat. Flicking some sweat from his forehead with his fingers, he meanders over to a patch of grass in the shade of a fig tree and plops down with a sigh. He nibbles a bit of flat bread and has a sip or two of the hateful goat-water. Both activities prove to be unsatisfactory.

His attention is drawn to the cheeping antics of several tiny birds hopping and fluttering among the wide dark leaves of a grape vine, squabbling over the plumpest of the season’s last few remaining grapes.

Mmmm…he thinks, licking his dry lips. Grapes.

He rises to his feet, one hand on the trunk of the fig tree, and shuffles over, stomach rumbling, to collect his juicy bounty. The little birds peep and gabble shrilly, letting the man know he is not welcome. He grins at their protests until, quite surprisingly, one takes flight, describes an erratic flapping course through the air and, like a feathery bolt of electricity, careens solidly into the man’s nose.

Stupid bird! He bats at the little beast with one hand, squinting away a tear. The bird, by all appearances unfazed by the collision, darts skyward, reaches a sort of sloppy apogee, and dives at an alarming angle back into the shadowy recesses of the grape vine. The man eyes the spot where it disappeared in anticipation of further mayhem, slowly shaking his head at the inexplicable actions of Nature. But after a time it becomes obvious the bird has no more silliness up its wing, so the man plucks a grape from its cluster and pops it into his mouth.

The fruit is beyond ripe. Its thick cloying juice slides unpleasantly down his throat. Feh. He grimaces. This late in the season, he should have known better. He hoists his water pouch to his lips, but stops short of squeezing it. His eyes dart from bladder to grape cluster and back again, as he weighs his options. Neither one strikes him as especially appealing. He—

Well, whatever he was about to do immediately becomes moot when another bird (or perhaps the first, it’s hard to tell the little fuckers apart) bursts from the grape vine and explodes against the man’s forehead in a cloud of dust and downy feathers.

Gah! The man squawks, as the bird plummets to the earth between his feet and lays there, concussed.

Gah! What is up with these birds!?

Massaging his various abrasions, and with his weather-eye open for yet another avian menace, the man walks around the grape vine, checking it out from all angles. On the back side of its thick central stalk is an arrangement of sun-bleached rocks. They form a natural bowl about the size of a water jug, in which lay the soggy remains of hundreds of grapes, fallen there as they ripened off the vine. At least three of the little birds splash about in the shallow puddle, their movements awkward and off-center. The man studies them for a few minutes as they repeatedly lurch free of the gunk, wings beating madly, trying to get air-born. Their efforts come up lacking, though, and one by one, they plunk back into the sticky liquid.

Realization slowly comes upon the man. Brows knitted, he kneels and dips a cupped palm into the stone basin, lifting out pulpy bits of decomposing grape and oozing juice. He sniffs the stuff, and finds it not altogether unappealing. Closing his eyes he brings his hand to his lips and slurps up the contents. Still a bit too sweet and way to chunky, but better, ultimately, than the goat-water. He helps himself to another handful. And another. And again, and again until the basin is empty.

Sometime later the man returns to the shade of the fig tree. He is smiling, a pleasant feeling of warmth and good cheer alive in his stomach. He sings a few notes of a song from his village. It has never sounded so good. He sings to his scraggly goats. They keep their opinions to themselves. But that’s okay. Who in his right mind would trust the opinion of a goat?

Tomorrow. Yes. Tomorrow will be a big day. Tomorrow the man will bring the village elders here and show them his discovery. And when he does, they will lift him high and make up songs in his honor. Glorious.

He goes to sleep in the shade, still smiling lopsidedly, and dreams of grape juice and dancing girls.

He does not wake up when wolves come along and eat his goats.


Humans have been drinking, and getting drunk, for many thousands of years. Archeological evidence points to a fully formed viniculture in existence by 7,000 BC. Just to put it in perspective, that predates written language. Alcoholic intoxication is as important to human history as art, philosophy, even religion. It’s also a gonzo whopper of a good time.

The ancient Egyptians understood intoxication (didn’t even have a word for alcoholism), as did the Medieval Scottish Highlanders, Pre-Colombian Cliff Dwellers, Japanese Ronin, Romantic English poets, nineteenth-century Crowlyite mystics, Al Capone and his merry rum runners, and today’s post-millennial ginhounds as glimpsed in sports bars, dark lounges, spilling from the beds of pick-up trucks, and, bottle in hand, gamely trying to redirect a world that has lost its way. Sensible groups of men and women, and even the odd culture, have tirelessly worked to counteract the Dictatorial Army of Quotidian Belief—they’ve kept their eyes on the prize, their feet on the floor, and their breath Binaca-fresh, ready at the drop of a shot glass for fisticuffs or a bacchanal, whichever. They have, to paraphrase Shakespeare, screwed their courage to the sipping place.

How did our ancient ancestors first discover (or, more likely, stumble upon) the intoxicating properties of various fermented fruits and grains? It’s doubtful we will ever know exactly how it happened. The story I’ve just told is but one of many possibilities.

All that matters is that some long-ago individual was the first human being to ever get loaded, setting the stage for the centuries of tippling and good times that followed.

We owe that brave, clever man or woman a heartfelt thank-you.



  1. Beginning of Cheers? A witty giggle and a history lesson

  2. I sort of fancied Sumerian maidens mulching grains with yeast-riddled feet... today, I just steep about 20 lbs of Great American 2-Row, Cara-pils, and Vienna Malt at 155 degrees for about an hour; I sparge about 7 gallons out of that and bring to a boil for about an hour; all-the-while, I repeatedly toss in fist-fulls of Northwestern hops with especially high alpha acids... Willamette hops here, Zeus hops there, everywhere some Chinook... bring down to under 80 degrees, pitch some yeast, and in about a month, I'm bottling some hop crunchy, double IPA with an ABV score North of 10% and an IBU well over a buck!
    Sorry Wine God, I couldn't resist but your ode to the fermentation science blows up my skirt sumpin' fierce!