Fermentation is a natural process and predates human civilization. Almost all vertebrates & mammals have enzymes to process alcohol and some animals even seek it deliberately. In the wild, haven’t you heard about monkeys and elephants to pluck fruits, bruise/ smash them and pile them in heaps? Ever wondered why? They do this to accelerate fermentation utilizing wild yeast from the fruit skin. What most people fail to observe is that they come back a couple of days later to consume this mild intoxicant. A honeycomb, which fell in a pool of rainwater (say inside the hollow of a tree), would naturally ferment and 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 is digested immediately. It was never collected, stored or had time to ferment in the wild. Yet curd, yoghurt or cheese-making is an ancient art. Our ancestors, through trial and error, isolated the right strains of lacto-bacillus, which are responsible for the curds, and cheese that we consume. Our ability to domesticate the micro-organism cultures, harness its potential and refine the process is worth admiration and should not be undermined.
What prompted our ancestors, used to instant gratification, to settle down and farm?
Across cultures and religions globally, alcohol has been offered to God and consumed in religious ceremonies. Interestingly, men learnt making beers and wine much before they knew farming or bread baking. The oldest piece of writing is clay tablet from Mesopotamia that records beer rations. The oldest law (Hammurabi code, 1754BC) has several paragraphs on tavern and beer.
Primitive life although hard but was simple. Early humans were hunter-gatherers, who would 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 bon-fire. 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 spontaneous origin, when seeds of the fruits that we ingested, germinated in our backyard (latrines and garbage heaps).
Farming on the other hand did not have such simple benign origins. It requires, even today, 6 months of back breaking work and 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 it could develop as a reliable sustainable source of staple food.
Most experts agree that, agriculture was developed by hunter-gatherers to ensure 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 and saving some grains for the rainy day have been an age-old wisdom across civilizations.
Honestly, refrigeration & air-conditioning were developed keeping the interest of beer industry in mind. It left the legacy of rating power in tons (ice cubes 1mX1mX1m weighing one ton were slid by monks in Belgium to cool the beer brewing caves). Agriculture tax (Lagaan) -is the oldest form of taxation and was enforced globally centuries before income tax was conceived. Even in Agriculture, grains were heavily taxed but horticulture produce was rarely taxed. This was probably because taxation was developed 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.
Today, alcohol is prepared and consumed primarily for recreational purpose. 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 is fermented.
Humanity’s motivation for fermentation was based on the following facts listed in chronological order:
- Food preservation: Milk spoils within hours but curd can last longer and cheese can last for years. Pickling/ kimchi/ sauerkraut was one of the most reliable way 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, which is worth few pennies today, was so revered throughout history and across the globe. Words 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 various parts of the globe.
- Killing bad micro-organisms: Cholera was one of the biggest killer of 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 and released it as daily rations to sailors and men.
- Food processing: Raw olives are bitter and needs to be pickled/ fermented before humans can consume it. Similarly, raw cassava (a toxic tuber/ root that has cyanogenic glucosides, linamarin and lotaustralin, which can induce hydrogen cyanide poisoning), when fermented, gets transformed 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 known method for food preservation, before the canning industry was developed. Interestingly, the flavors that we associate with tea, coffee, chocolate, cheese, breads etc. come exclusively from fermentation.
- Warfare, Trade & Politics: During the war of independence and civil wars, almost all recruitment by American Army was conducted 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 discovered was . 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 and not lemon juice, onboard its ships. During World War I&II, Germans relied so much on pickled vegetables that they were nicknamed as (sauerkraut eaters).
Hebrew language also has a ‘, 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.
Wines were the most desired luxuries since ancient times and actively traded. However, 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.
- Medicine: 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 tonic to mask the bitterness of quinine when administered to malaria patients. Homeopathy, Chinese medicine and other traditional medicines relied heavily on fermentation & alcohol.
- Social Bonding: Buying someone a drink or having drinks together has been a universal gesture of goodwill. Almost all initiation of new member, marking the end of disputes and celebrations would involve offering of 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 designed to be gulped by gallons over the course of the day, as a substitute to water. It was only after 12th Century, when the glassware became economical that people could see, for the first time, what they were drinking and hence 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. Distillation was discovered in 16th century by Dutch sailors 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 book is written to motivate the readers to carry the legacy forward and invent a few new styles.