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The Production of Alcohol: From the Fields of Ancient Civilization to Your Local Supermarket

Author: Joanna Xu

Editors: Hwi-On Lee, Maria Flores

Artist: Olivia Yuan

Could you ever imagine beer being advertised as healthy and good for the body? Probably not, but its nutritional value may have been one of the major factors that led to its popularity in the first place. When beer was first introduced to societies worldwide, it was considered better for the body than water due to the reduced survival and longevity of bacteria in alcohol than in water. For this reason, alcohol was viewed as the more favorable option and was thought to be less risky for people to consume. This intriguing fact is just the beginning of the historical journey of alcohol, which has integrated itself into the lives, cultures, and religions of people across the world. 

These days, if you walk into any restaurant establishment, they will likely offer an alcohol menu where you might find soju, sake, beer, wine, rum, and other varieties of alcohol. Although they have all been placed into the same category, there is a long history behind every type. The history of beer-making dates back to 10,000 - 4,500 B.C., otherwise known as the Neolithic Age. At the time, Mesopotamians had just settled and started to farm barley, which they used to brew beer. This wasn't just a beverage but a cultural symbol, flavored with spices such as coriander, cardamom, and juniper, making Mesopotamian beer more sour and tart than modern beers. At about the same time, alcohol brewed from fermented grapes and other fruits was being made in Asia and Eurasia. The observation of natural fermentation, the process of breaking a substance into its smaller chemical components by bacteria or yeast, was at the core of alcohol production worldwide.  In Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, top-quality ingredients were a sign of prestige and wealth and would be offered to the gods for good luck and harvest, further emphasizing the cultural significance of alcohol production. 

Based on the geographical location of each country, there were different resources available for alcohol brewing, which meant that while one country might have alcohol made from barley, another would make their alcohol from rice, and another from fruits. There were also different methods for making these beverages, resulting in three distinct categories of alcohol: beer, wine, and distilled spirits. In the beer-making process, the barley is turned to malt through a series of boiling and flavoring procedures using hops, the ingredient that gives modern beer its bitter flavor and allows for fermentation. After the grains are collected, they are soaked in water and allowed to germinate or sprout. Then, the grains are roasted and crushed into what is called mash before being boiled, breaking the barley down into two starches, a disaccharide called maltose, and dextrin, a well-known carbohydrate. Only then can the barley undergo fermentation, which can also be initiated through the addition of added yeast. Along with fermentation, hops are added to enhance the flavor and removed after boiling. Finally, the beer is stored at low temperatures and allowed to mature before entering the market. This detailed process is just a glimpse into the intricate world of alcohol production, revealing that there is more to the production of the popular drink than meets the eye. 

The next category of alcohol, wine, also requires much attention to detail to produce alcohol of the best quality possible. To start, wine is alcohol made from the fermentation of grapes. More expensive wines will use certain grapes to ensure the perfect balance of sweet, tart, and bitter. Once the best grapes have been picked, the grapes are pressed. When making white wine, the skins are separated from the juice; meanwhile, in red wine, they are left together. From there on, the grape juice is ready for fermentation. Similar to the beer-making process, yeasts break down the sugars present in the grape juice, making alcohol and carbon dioxide. Depending on how sweet the wine is meant to be, fermentation is later stopped through the addition of sulfites, the removal of yeast, or the addition of alcohol. Then, there is a second round of fermentation during which malic acid is converted to lactic acid for better taste. Afterward, different steps depend on whether the end product will be a sparkling, red, white, or some other variety of wine. During this process, manufacturers have to consider each step, from each grape to the amount of time that the wine is left to ferment as those precious sugars are turned into alcohol. 

The last type of alcohol, spirits, typically contains the highest alcohol percentage of all three types. Some of the more well-known spirits include soju, vodka, whiskey, and gin, which contain around 20%, 40%, 45%, and 45% alcohol, respectively. Unlike the other two, spirits are made not through fermenting a grain or a fruit, but rather through distilling a liquid that already contains alcohol. To put it simply, the liquid is heated so that ethanol and other volatile liquids will evaporate. The evaporated water enters a tube where they are cooled and collected. Through distillation, manufacturers can remove water from the liquid, making a spirit that is higher in alcohol content. This process may be repeated several times to reach a certain alcohol percentage. These spirits are often flavored using natural substances such as sugar cane, fruits, and wood. After all the decisions are made and the product is packaged, we have the different brands of alcohol that we find on the market today. From its long history to the lengthy procedure that goes into the production of alcohol today, alcohol is truly a complex topic that can never be fully understood or mastered.

 

Citations:

IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. “Worldwide

Production and Use of Alcoholic Beverages.” Alcohol Drinking., U.S. National Library of

Medicine, 1 Jan. 1988, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531660/

Uncorking the Cultural History of Alcohol, matson.psu.edu/wp-

Accessed 14 May 2024. 

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