A History of Booze

There’s no doubt that we, as a species, love booze. It’s an essential part of our lives. We use it to celebrate, to console ourselves and to fill in the long, lonely days between celebration and consolation.

It makes our friends interesting, it makes us repeat ourselves, it gets us pregnant and it makes us repeat ourselves. Some people even have it with dinner!

But where did it come from, this liquid that fends off reality, makes us feel good, look good and changes our notion of what a very good idea is, late at night?

Who invented boozes?

Gods often get the credit for inventing alcohol-based recreation. Like Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and copping off.

According to Slavic legend, it was the god Radegast who invented beer, in his role as god of hospitality. However, their religious beliefs have only been handed down orally as they were unable to write, which suggests an admirable devotion to Radegast’s alleged creation.

Flemish cultural hero, Gambrinus, is also credited with inventing beer, but then he is also renowned for drinking vast quantities of the stuff, so possibly the two stories became conflated over time.

Bacchus, minus tunic (again)
Bacchus, minus tunic (again)

‘What, that pisshead there?’

‘Yeah. Reckons he invented beer.’

‘Get out.’

‘Oh yeah. And chips.’

In fact, it was a happy accident. In certain conditions, yeast breaks down the natural sugars in fruit or grain to produces ethanol, a type of alcohol. The nice type. And yeast can be found in the air, so we didn’t even have to piss about with test tubes to discover the magic of fermentation. It’s a naturally occurring process that predates humans. We just noticed it and then harnessed it in order to make friends laugh at our jokes.

When did we first get on it?

For most of our existence we have been hunter-gatherers, chasing our food around the countryside and picking fruit, nuts and berries in small nomadic groups, like prehistoric herberts. Then, during the Neolithic Era, someone fancied a nice sit down. Yes, we have to thank history’s first Deserter.

We stopped running hither and thither. Especially thither. We paused, we grew stuff and instead of chasing animals, we put up fences to keep them in, which also gave us somewhere handy to lean when we mastered growing cereal and discovered beer.

We were off. Beer was soon being brewed in Egypt, Babylon, Mexico and Sudan. It became so ubiquitous and so popular that it formed part of labourers’ pay. Those who built the Giza Plateau in Egypt, for example, were provided with a daily ration of over ten pints of a beer that clocked in at around 5% ABV. Tell that to your boss next time you slip off your chair after lunch.

Booze in Britain

Possibly due to the lack of travel agents, the Neolithic Era occurred at different times around the globe, along with the domestication of the cereal crops that kicked off brewing. It took a few hundred years before it reached our forefathers on these islands. But when it did, boy, did we go for it.

Pottery fragments from the Orkneys show that tipplers drank a brew made from barley and oats that had been spiced up with deadly nightshade, henbane and hemlock. Though lethal in larger doses, they could get you completely out of your prehistoric box in the right quantities. These were hallucinogenic brews, delivering blurred vision, euphoria and the sensation of speeding off your nut, as if we needed another reason to keep the Union.

Fine foriegn butts
Fine foreign butts

In England, men, women and children had ale for breakfast as it was the only safe thing to drink. The average person drank a gallon of it a day. So important was it to the ‘common people’, that King Henry III passed a law in 1267 to set its retail price, quality and quantity. Producing poor ale could land you in the stocks or ducking pond. Yet despite this, Foster’s persists.

When hops were added to English ale in the 14th century (a bit earlier on the Continent) it was regarded by traditionalists as a suspicious drink for foreigners. Hops gave beer a more bitter, adult taste and a greater shelf-life. Ale brewers responded to the threat by making their brew stronger. Hopped beer brewers retaliated in kind. Everyone was a winner.

Pubs

England was littered with alehouses, taverns and inns. There were around three times as many bars per person in the Middle Ages as there are now and that didn’t include street sellers who would sell you ale by the mouthful.

Britain had moved on from the medieval boozing halls, to buildings with smaller rooms that were patronised according to rank and status. Drunks were down in the cellar, respectable merchants would be on the ground floor, while the better offs were upstairs with the whores. That’s organisation.

The Gin Craze

Hogarth's Gin Lane
Hogarth’s Gin Lane

Alchemists (like scientists, but madder) developed ways of distilling alcohol into the concentrated form we know as spirits, so hats off to the occult for once. By the 12th century Irish whiskey and German brandy were added to the world’s ever expanding booze portfolio. Spirits grew in popularity, especially as they were considered medicinal. In the 14th Century they were used as a cure for the Black Death, which went really well.

Each country has developed its favourite spirit and in the 18th century England – in particular, London – took to gin in a big way. William of Orange was instrumental in taking us from monarchic rule to a parliamentary democracy, but mostly we have to thank him for the gin.

With the arrival of ‘Dutch Courage’ London revelled in an epidemic of debauchery as the poor could get more drunk, more easily and more cheaply than ever before. Gin became known by colourful nicknames like ‘kill-me-quick’ and ‘strip-me-naked’. It heralded a new level of drunkenness and behaviour that saw the people become virtually ungovernable. Sadly, like all crazes, it came to an end, leaving people wondering what it was all about, just like the 1980s.

Drinking in wartime

The temperance movement hadn’t managed to spoil the fun in the run up to the First World War, but when the shit hit the Archduke Ferdinand, new laws came in to restrict drinking hours and strengthen the war effort. A further law came in to stop people buying rounds in 1915, a law that some of my friends seem to think is still on the books.

By 1918, British boozing had halved from pre-war levels and continued to decline as more people stayed at home to listen to the new-fangled radio and enjoy the Depression.

It only began to pick up again in the ’60s, when young people were invented. More women were working and drinking, wine was on the up and everyone was so busy being frisky, they didn’t notice that the beer was mass produced slop.

Then came the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) with a slow-burning movement to save our pubs, places that for hundreds of years have provided sanctuary from life’s eternal woes and the workplace. And, crucially, they helped revitalise the UK brewing industry into the sexy beast it is today.

The modern day today

Microbreweries, artisan brewers, craft brewers, whatever you call them, they have changed the face of boozing in the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and beyond, with their dedication to high quality, creative, fresh beer. They’ve attracted a younger, unisex crowd to nature’s bounty and given us all a better chance of happiness and kisses.

The little guy has biffed Golaith on the botty. The big breweries have taken a slap from hundreds of small, passionate, local, booze angels. It’s democracy in action, viewed from the bottom of a dimpled glass.

Meanwhile, wine flows from all corners for the earth; our shrinking world sees every nation’s delicacies travel the globe. After around 10,000 years of drinking, we are at the apex of boozing civilisation. These are the days, my friend. These are the days.

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Image credit: Bacchus by Marie-Lan Nguyen used under this licence.

Sources: Drink by Iain Gately; the Internet.

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