Fermentation is a natural process. It predates human civilization. Almost all vertebrates & mammals have enzymes to process alcohol. Some animals even seek it deliberately. Haven’t you heard about monkeys and elephants who pluck fruit? They bruise/ smash them and pile them in heaps. Ever wondered why?
They do this to accelerate fermentation. This results into utilizing wild yeast from the fruit skin. People, generally, fail to observe that they come back a couple of days later to consume this mild intoxicant! A honeycomb, which fell in a pool of rainwater would naturally ferment. This mead is still the most sought after drink for the primitive tribal hunter-gatherers.
In nature, milk flows directly from the glands to the mouth where it digests immediately. The wild did not collect, store, or had time to ferment. Yet curd, yogurt, or cheese-making is an ancient art. Our ancestors, through trial and error, isolated the right strains of lactobacillus. These are responsible for the curds, and cheese that we consume.
Humans have the ability to domesticate the micro-organism cultures. They can harness their potential and refine the process. It’s important not to undermine this aspect. Rather, it is worth admiration.
Here is an interesting re-enactment of the medieval and early beer brewing setup.
Brewing is 5000 year old Art!
What prompted our ancestors, used to instant gratification, to settle down and farm?
All across the world, various cultures and religions offer alcohol to God. People even consume it in religious ceremonies. Interestingly, men learned making beers and wine much before they knew farming or bread baking. The oldest piece of writing is a clay tablet from Mesopotamia that records beer rations. The oldest law (Hammurabi code, 1754BC) has several paragraphs on tavern and beer.
History of Farming
Primitive life, although hard, was simple. Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They could gather a basket full of fruits, fish, roots, or berries in a couple of hours. Those undergoing military training would hunt down a wild animal for the evening bonfire. Animal husbandry probably started as an act of mercy on wounded animals. Saving them for later would prove to be more beneficial than culling them during hunts and dragging their carcass back. Horticulture, similarly, had a spontaneous origin.
Farming, on the other hand, did not have such simple benign origins. It requires, even today, 6 months of back-breaking work. The idea was very susceptible to vagaries of nature, stampede by wild animals, and was on mercy of weather Gods (Rain, Sun, Wind, etc.) or pests. Without crop insurance, reliable trade, or irrigation systems, it is unimaginable how did it develop as a reliable sustainable source of staple food.
Most experts agree that the development of agriculture involved hunter-gatherers. This was to ensure a continuous supply of beer rather than to develop a reliable source of bread (or food). After all, fruits and honey are not available year-round to ferment. Therefore, saving some grains for the rainy day has been an age-old wisdom across civilizations.
Fermentation leads to Modern Life
Honestly, the development of refrigeration & air-conditioning took place keeping the interest of the beer industry in mind. It provides us with the legacy of rating power in tons. Monks in Belgium slid ice cubes 1mX1mX1m, weighing one ton, to cool the beer brewing caves).
Agriculture tax (Lagaan) -is the oldest form of taxation. Even in Agriculture, grains were heavily taxed but horticulture produce was rarely taxed. This was probably because the purpose of taxation was to gather grains for the King’s civic duty to provide free beers for his armies and citizens during ceremonies. It might not be a stretch to say that isolating fermentation from human history is not possible.
Fermentation in Everyday Life
Today, alcohol preparation and consumption, primarily, is for recreational purposes. However, throughout history, it had a more benign, practical, and utilitarian purpose. From black tea to coffee beans to cheese, curd, breads, idli (steamed rice cakes), a lot of food around us involves fermentation.
Humanity’s motivation for fermentation
1. Food preservation:
Milk spoils within hours. Curd can last longer and cheese can last for years. Pickling/ kimchi/ sauerkraut was one of the most reliable ways to preserve seasonal vegetables, fruits, meats, or fish before mankind could develop a refrigerator or canning industry.
Natural food preservative, table salt, played a vital role in pickling and hence food preservations. This probably explains ‘why’ this commodity had a place of reverence throughout history and across the globe. Phrases like payment in salt, one who works for salt, and one who betrays the salt giver’s trust, talks about its importance (in fermented food) throughout the globe.
2. Killing bad micro-organisms
Cholera was one of the biggest killers of the urban population raging havoc in London (1854) and Shanghai (1921). Boiling, filtration, and water treatment are new-age techniques to create potable water. Prior to bottled water, fermented beverage was the only safe and reliable source of drinking water throughout history.
For over three thousand years across civilizations, those who drank fermented beverages (fermented Rice water, Buttermilk/ Curd water, Kanji (fermented carrot water in India), Fly (fermented sweet potato water in Africa), English ales/ Sour beers, Roman wines, Fruit ciders, etc. lived longer and disease free. Vedas stressed on drinking pond water only if it had Lotus growing. The spongy stem of lotus harbors micro-organisms that ferment the impurities and purify the water.
Today, studies show, those who regularly consume fermented food/ probiotics have a stronger immunity, robust digestion and richer gut flora than those living over sterile, processed or packaged food only. In the past, ships and armies carried wines as a substitute for drinking water.They released it as daily rations to sailors and men.
3. Food processing:
Raw olives are bitter. Therefore, we pickle/ ferment it before consuming it. Similarly, raw cassava (a toxic tuber/ root that has cyanogenic glucosides, linamarin, and lotaustralin, which can induce hydrogen cyanide poisoning), when fermented, transforms into a benign staple food of Africa. Aztec and Mayan civilization used to treat corn with ash (nixtamalization) to restore niacin in maize. Hence, fixing a major problem of corn-based modern diets.
Fermented fruits have higher Vitamin C and Vitamin B12. Pickling was the only method for food preservation, before the development of canning industry. Interestingly, the flavors that we associate with tea, coffee, chocolate, cheese, breads etc. come exclusively from fermentation.
During the war of independence and civil wars, almost all recruitment by the American Army took place in taverns. Viking ship captains would throw Gala parties on eve of sending off raiding parties. The captain with the strongest and tastiest beer would be the one who sailed with the largest army of able-bodied men. Throughout history, it was the brewers’ responsibility to help Generals recruit, keep troop’s morale high, prevent pestilence in army camps, and supply anesthesia to the battlefield medics/ surgeons.
The first Vitamin deficiency was Vitamin C. It raged havoc on sailors who had no access to fresh food. British Navy built up its supremacy over the seas by issuing daily rations of Vitamin C rich food and not lemon juice, onboard its ships. During World War I&II, Germans were relying so much on pickled vegetables. Hence, they got the nickname ‘sauerkraut eaters’.
Hebrew language also has a phrase where sprinkling salt (act of preserving or pickling) signified making something perpetual. A civilization’s ability to feed its population during drought or wars largely depended on the stock of salt at its disposal. Prior to Dollars being the international currency, Abyssinia and Moorish traders used salt as currency.
5. Trade & Politics
Wines were the most desired luxuries since ancient times and actively traded. However, the trade of staple food like meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables would not be possible without pickling (fermentation-based preservations aided by brine). There were well-established supply lines to move food and beverages across the globe even before refrigerated trucks were conceived. Armies had to be supplied with nutritious foods otherwise they perished on the fields.
The wars and political maneuvers, since time memorial are waged to gain control over the supply lines of food and resources. But, I would still like to mention four examples. In 1864, the Union army devised battle strategies twice just to capture and destroy Confederate salt works. The Pope & City of Venice waged Guerra del Sale (Salt wars) in 15th and 16th century just to monopolize salt trade, salt tax in France led to French Revolution (1789); similarly over 100,000 Indians joined in in 1930 leading to India’s independence.
Brandy and strong wines are still prescribed to cure cold and prevent hypothermia. Prior to 1853, when John Snow administered chloroform to Queen Victoria, alcohol was the only anesthesia used to relieve pain and calm the patient’s nerves before the surgery. Wines and Whiskey were regularly prescribed by doctors for ailments ranging from wound dressing, insomnia, depression, cold, and pain management to anxiety.
Vedas have prescribed adding herbs to alcohol fermentation to create tinctures. Alcohol has been widely used as a tonic to mask the bitterness of quinine when administered to malaria patients. Homeopathy, Chinese medicine, and other traditional medicines relied heavily on fermentation & alcohol.
7. Social Bonding
Buying someone a drink or having drinks together has been a universal gesture of goodwill. Almost all initiation of new members, marking the end of disputes and celebrations would involve offering drinks. The role of alcohol as a social lubricant and in traditional religious ceremonies cannot be under-estimated. This elixir makes it easier for people to interact, dance, and socialize. Prior to emoji’s, bars were the melting pot of civilization where working-class people could unwind and make new friends.
The first beers brewed in Mesopotamia were gruels (fermented porridges) and had to be drank and chewed. The early wines, ciders and beers were very mild sour intoxicants. These were designed to be gulped by gallons. They were taken over the course of the day, as a substitute to water. It was only after 12th Century, when the glassware became economical. And so people could see, for the first time, what they were drinking. Hence they sought for clearer beers and lagers. The economical sugar from Africa and America made it affordable to increase the alcohol content to the levels, habituated to nowadays.
Dutch sailors discovered distillation in the 16th century. They were looking for a way to transport more wines than they had cargo space. This gave birth to the completely new spirits industry. Fermentation has always been the most demanding & evolving frontiers of humankind. It was always keen to experiment and promote ancillary industry. It was keen to evolve and yet preserve heritage. This article aims to motivate the readers to carry the legacy forward and invent a few new styles.
Fermentation has kept pace with the advancement of science and food production across the world. Today some artisans are trying to resurrect the traditional natural way of fermentation to keep the tradition alive.