Recently, a writer friend was asking around on Facebook for some information about the history of brewing and distilling. Since I’ve been studying up on these subjects (and blogging on the subject: see here for brewing, and there’s some stuff about distilling mixed into this tag), it was suggested I might be of some help.
I started writing a longish response, and then decided that rather than toss all that information down into the Facebook crevasse where it would never be seen again, I would make a blog post about it.
I specify “fantasy” in the title but enough of these sources would be useful for writing about beer in other genres: historical fiction, horror, SF… I am, however, presuming a certain freedom to speculate and invent. Whether you’re writing about beer or distilled liquors in some kind of fantasy setting, in an SF context, or some other speculative mode, the following should be of use to you.
On Making Up Fictional Alcoholic Beverages:
Um. Use your imagination? I mean, you might be surprised: Stephen King made up graf out of his head–the apple beer mentioned in his Dark Tower series–but it’s inspired homebrewers enough to actually make their own versions of the stuff.
That said, graf was kind of an easy thing to think up: we make cider, and we make beer. Why not blend them and make a cider-beer? Other blends are possible, and also exist either as commercial beverages, historical styles, or as experimental homebrew projects, including:
- cider + mead (cyser)
- mead + beer (historically, “mead” or “braggot”/”bracket”/etc.)
- wine + mead (melomel)
- wine + beer (some homebrewers have experimented with this)
In our world, there are good practical, economic, political, and scientific reasons why barley ended up being the predominant grain used in European beer, but practically every grain has been turned into beer… even the grains (ie. maïze, rice, millet) that are so enzyme-poor that they require exposure to an enzyme supplement–like human spit, or fungal spores, or yeast-and-bacteria-impregnated enyzmatic starter cultures.
The truth is, fermentation was universal before the invention of fridges: it was a great way of preserving foods longer. (Contrary to the claims of various teetotal Christian groups, unfermented grape juice would have been relatively hard to produce in the ancient world… and somewhat pointless by the universal standards. Pasteurized grape juice as we know it was invented in the 1860s, and the name of its inventor is, I’ll bet, familiar to you. Other fermentation methods supposedly existed, but what they might have been is unknown… probably boiling, or some kind of crude chemical additive.)
So, you know, you can let your imagination run wild. Still, if you’d like to venture a little further afield, imagination is best guided with some tips and principles, so, here:
- Anything with sugar in it can be fermented into alcohol… though it’s harder if the solution is more acidic than the yeast can tolerate. So: fruit juice, malt sugars extracted from malted grains and dissolved in water, and other sugar sources dissolved into water (like honey, agave nectar, tree sap, and so on). The farther back you go, the more you find mixtures being fermented: “mead” wasn’t always pure honey wine, but in fact often was a mix of honey and malt sugars. The main determinant in what people turned into booze is what the local sources for sugars were, and how easily they could be extracted from raw agricultural produce.That said, the main families of beverage in our world are:
- beer (grain-based)
- wine/cider (fruit based)
- mead (honey based)
- other (fermenting extracted sugars, saps, and yes, milk–see kefir and kumis)
- distilled alcohol (any of 1-4, subjected to an extra step of processing that concentrates the alcohols.)
Popular terminology doesn’t always follow this specialized terminology. Some African banana beers are primarily fruit-based; Korean marketers try to capitalize on the higher profile enjoyed by wine in Korea and market makgeolli (rice beer) to the world as “rice wine.”
Likewise, unless you know what tequila or mezcal is made of, you might assume that, like whiskey, it’s distilled from a grain alcohol. Not so: it’s… I’m not even sure, though I think of the juice from the heart of an agave plant as being more akin to sap than to fruit. In practical terms, though, it’s sugar. Anything with sugar in it can and will ferment. That includes imaginary flora in your world… or, hell, maybe even certain imaginary fauna…
- The farther back you go, the less strong a basic fermentation will be. This means it will be sweeter (when young) and lower-in-alcohol. The yeast just wasn’t as well-bred for brewing purposes, so it wasn’t quite efficient, and especially with beers, the enyzmatic power of the malt was weaker (and mashing less precise)… in the short term, that meant more sugars left in, and that means drinks were sweeter… at first. However, since modern sanitation and hygiene practices hadn’t developed, wild yeast and bacteria had more access to fermenting beverages… and in general, that means more acidification and more weird, funky aromas. (Think goat, toe jam, barnyard, and cheesy, but also unexpected fruity smells and flavors like stone fruit, tropical fruit, and so on. Also, “actetic”–vinegary flavors, a characteristic some people (including me) actually like to some degree in a sour beer. The older the beverage, and the lower its original acidity level, the more sour it will get over time. After three years, a beer produced under less-than-hygenic conditions can be utterly mouth-puckeringly sour. That said, some beers produced in the 1870s were produced so cleanly that they were stable and delicious–and not sour–right up to the present: here’s two sets of tasting notes. 200 year old wine was reported by those lucky enough to taste it, to still have a fresh character. )
- Fermentation was mysterious, and distillation was long seen as straight-up magical. Theories that sound bizarre to us today about how it happened abounded. People knew yeast was involved, but now how. It was seen as miraculous or magical. Brewing also often had a religious link, as did wine. (Think of the Catholic Mass.) Apparently the oldest written text we know about is both (simultaneously!) a recipe for beer and a hymn to the Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi. And as for distillation, in Western history, at least, it was associated with alchemists, though it spread from Asia. It was popularized by the publication of Books of Secrets, which were the late-Medieval/early Renaissance equivalent of Instructables. I’ve written more about that here. I’ll say more about distillation specifically below.
- Ingredients weren’t the same in the past. For one thing, different ingredients were used in different areas. Some places in the British Isles, 100% oat malt beer was normal for a time. In other places, 100% smoked wheat and a ton of hops were used in the dominant local beer. But in general, until sometime in the early-to-mid-1700s, all beer was at least a little smoky. Malt producers (who were sometimes the brewers themselves) had to kiln the malt, and kilning required heat, and heat came from burning things. Even straw smoked. Until better technology (kilning tech, and coke as a fuel source) were developed, beer was smoky. Grain also was less well-modified, so it yielded less fermentable sugar (ie. beers were sweeter) and yeast was less supercharged, or so I’ve read. Hops weren’t the only bittering additive (or even in regular use in a lot of places, for a long time–especially in Britain, where hop use came later than on the Continent: sometimes herbs or other plants were used, and in medicinal ales, all kinds of stuff got thrown in. Even the fashions in terms of toxic adulterants changed over time. But you could over all expect beer to be funkier, smokier, sweeter, and once aged, more sour, the further back in time you go.
- The history of alcohol-production is an utterly crazed patchwork of experiments, trends and categories and “styles” or product types arising and dying out. If people could extract sugars from it, they would ferment it; if they could ferment it, they did ferment it… even to the brink of famine. Modern people (and especially modern Americans) think in way shaped by branding, marketing, and so on; in the old days, regional styles existed, but it’s more useful to think of beers in terms of families: wheaty sourish beers existed across the Hanseatic league; dark, strongish beers existed all over Europe; when the technology developed, paler beers showed up all over, especially where the local water characteristics permitted their use. Think of food styles, and how they vary from region to region. (How Texas barbecue isn’t the same as barbecue in South Carolina or Memphis.) It was like that. If you can think of an oddball configuration for an alcoholic beverage, chances are, it probably existed somewhere.
- The further back you go, the more alcohol-production is a household chore, rather than a commercial enterprise. Well, sort of. In Mesopotamia, brewing was a religious activity, and lots of religious symbology is linked to brewing:
Actually, temples did it, and a lot of depictions of brewing and drinking also seem to involve prostitution and so on. Hell, if you read the epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll notice that the beastman Enkidu is humanized basically by drinking beer, eating bread, and having sex with a temple prostitute named Shamhat. (Among other things. And yes, they drank beer with straws, for various reasons–all of which link to how radically different beer can be from the stuff you know as beer. )
Beer and religion were often linked later on, too: the Church in Europe not only operated a number of brewries out of monasteries, but also taxed gruit, which was a rather standard combination of herbs used to bitter continental malt liquors, for example… but once the knowledge and technology spread enough for home fermentation to become practicable, it stayed that way for most of human history. In our own world’s history, you don’t start getting seriously scaled-up industrial brewing till the middle of the 18th century, and even then, home production continues strongly for some time.
- Both fermented and distilled beverages were often seen as having a medicinal function. Medicinal ales and wines were made with special herbal additions in various places and times, and not only in Europe; likewise, medicinal “aqua vitae” were distilled with special aromatics and flavorings (like juniper in gin) and sold for such purposes. Distilled alcohols were probably the first high-tech medicine in production, though not the first resource intensive medicine to be manufactured.
- In a lot of Northern/Western Europe, beer was seen and treated legislatively and socially as a foodstuff, rather than an drug (but distilled alcohols often were treated as a drug when they first appeared). Think of beer as liquid bread, with extensive connections to all elements in society: factories having beer on tap for workers; armies and navies needing to secure beer supplies for their troops; and so on. Think of distillation as being akin to the discovery of LSD. Now you’re on the right track.
- Hops are a standard and widespread (if not universal) bittering addition in beer today, but the further back you go, the more other herbs were used for bittering… as well as possibly imparting narcotic or hallucinogenic (or, unintendedly, toxic) qualities to a beverage. Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing has an interesting chart of historical bittering herbs used in Europe during the Middle Ages, as well as known adulterants, which were a common problem in alcohol production throughout its history.
- Think geography instead of “style”: American beer-lovers today especially are prone to rigidly taxonomizing beer or other beverage styles; the past was much more of a Wild West type of situation. What determined the emergence of a particular style was geography–the availability of fermentables of a given type, climate, and the character of the local water. Simply put, softer water allows for paler beers of a gentler, less-bitter character, while harder water requires darker beers (and privileges a stronger, crisper bitterness). Climate is also a factor: as a general rule, the warmer a fermentation (within reason), the fruitier and more characterful the beer produced will be; the colder the fermentation, the longer it takes to make the beer, and the more it will resemble what we call “lager.” (Though see below about bottom-fermenting yeast.) But the farther back you go, the more variety and odd stuff you see.
Now, how to apply that in practical terms?
Let’s consider a Medieval subtropical arid region: a desert like the one Conan trudged through from time to time.
Characters are likelier to be drinking something made of some kind of fruit juice from the fruit of oases (coconut milk? lychee-water?) or cactus sap (agave?), or perhaps some animal source–like the mare milk that the Mongols fermented. The product of the fermentation will (because of the fermentation temperature) likely be very fruity, but also perhaps sour–wild yeast and bacteria may be less plentiful in such climates, but are probably more active nonetheless when an infection does occur… and when infection takes in one batch, it sticks around for a long time. Expect fruity and funky aromas and flavors, and thin wine or beer, since the wild yeast chews through all the residual sugar, converting it all to alcohol. (Which is good when base sugars are in shorter supply.)
The alcohol levels might not be very high, though–high alcohol beverages are both expensive and hazardous to your health in such regions–but there might be some small distillation trade among the richest circles. Since distillation means the extraction of water from a fermented base, if water is at a premium, distillation might be prohibitively expensive for most people. Perhaps if there are annual rains, however, some kind of water-capture system might allow for annual distillations–a kind of water-harvest. But distilled booze is likely mostly medicine, not stuff one drinks for fun, outside of the top class… and even the top class might see it as medicinal as well as for-fun.
The aromatics and flavorings will be tropical–cinnamon or cardamom-like spices, not hops (which grow best in temperate climates). I’m guessing households add the sap of cacti (or, say, great sap-circulating fungal colonies? or both?) to their household water supply, to purify and flavor it, achieving maybe the strength of table or “small” beer–1% alcohol or less, just enough to kill bacteria. If it’s a fungal colony’s sap, there could easily be mild hallucinogenic or narcotic effects from the sap, aside from the alcohol. The fungus or cactus will likely be incorporated into the culture’s religious symbology and governmental legislation.
There would be a general home industry, with an annual or biannual production ritual or period–the time when everyone makes fungal beer with easily-gotten rainwater–and a smaller trade drawing on owned or paid water supplies like deep wells–that is, unless the water supplies above ground (a nearby river) are very polluted, in which case brewing will be a bigger feature of life. (Since brewing fends against the microbiological dangers of drinking fouled water.) Or, maybe, given a reasonable degree of water-scarcity, there might be a religious organization or guild that controls the commercial brewing, or maybe all brewing in this society; perhaps it was ripped from the household chores roster, or never got established within it, due to the general scarcity of water in the region. All kinds of things are possible in terms of that.
It’s up to you whether the sap used would be highly fermentable (like most saps in our world) or would include complex sugars that regular brewing yeast (in our world) couldn’t break down. (Wild yeast [again, in our world] can do that, but it takes time.) If there are complex sugars, you’re going to expect some bittering herbs boiled into the sap (or in the water used to dilute the sap), or extracted by prolonged immersion, to balance the sweetness to some degree. Perhaps the flesh of the fungus, or the floral blooms of the cactus, could be used for bittering; or perhaps some imported spice is used. Threats to that spice trade (bandits, international tariffs, a spice blight abroad) could be part of the background of your story.
The rest of this post, it’s for people who would like to dig deeper than that. Continue reading