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Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk? (2016) (hypotheses.org)
211 points by pepys on Jan 31, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 197 comments

They were most certainly tossed off their butts in the antebellum US at least: "Drink was everywhere in early America. “Liquor at that time,” recalled the Massachusetts carpenter Elbridge Boyden, “was used as commonly as the food we ate.” Americans drank in enormous quantities. Their yearly consumption at the time of the Revolution has been estimated at the equivalent of three-and-a-half gallons of pure, two-hundred proof alcohol for each person. After 1790 American men began to drink even more. By the late 1820s imbibing had risen to an all-time high of almost four gallons per capita."[0]

That 1820s number, if you do the math, was ~1.4 shots of Everclear or 3.5 shots of modern 80 proof whiskey per day for the average citizen. Wikipedia [1] has some more info on the boozing of people in those antebellum days. Suffice to say, it was a lot of booze. You can debate the strengths of these particular spirits and beers and people's drinking habits, but form what written evidence we have, the US was a nation populated by either a lot of very tipsy people, or a lot of sober people and some very drunk people.

[0] http://www.teachushistory.org/second-great-awakening-age-ref... [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Antebellum_America#...

> “Liquor at that time,” recalled the Massachusetts carpenter Elbridge Boyden, “was used as commonly as the food we ate.”

And it made perfect sense in the age before refrigeration. Since alcohol doesn't spoil it's a great way to achieve long-term storage of calories from grains (beer, whiskey) or fruit (wine, brandy). For many centuries the French peasant would be sustained in his daily labors by the bottle of wine in his pocket.

In rural areas alcohol was a necessity, not a luxury. Part of the reason why the young Federal government ran into trouble imposing what it thought was a tax on vice [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_Rebellion

There were also classes of alcohol that we just don't really bother much with today. For example Small beer and various other low alcohol beers were very common and helped prevent sickness from drinking tainted water.

One of my friends is a very dedicated home brewer, and he's recently taken an interest in a lost class of 2-3% beers that have fallen out of fashion.

There's also traditional ferments like Kvass or Brottrunk which are made from bread, have <1% alcohol and are very drinkable and can also make the foundation for a soup or other foods which need some quick flavor.



I had completely forgotten that kvass is a bit alcoholic on my last trip to visit my family, until I realized that I was having a very good time indeed having started drinking it when I woke up early in the morning.

Makes me wonder a bit about just how much of that stuff I drank as a kid, because I certainly don't remember moderating myself then, either.

Kefir can have a bit of alcohol in it as well. Not sure how much industrially produced kind has. But brewed at home would have some.

Both kvass and kefir can save your morning after yesterday's zastolie (and the entire day if otherwise you would start it with more alcoholic drinks).

Kombucha as well.

Not sure if it is still available, but in the UK there was a stout called Sweetheart Stout that was brewed to 2.5% alcohol making it like a very sweet Guinness. It is lovely, used to drink it all the time 20 years ago.

Iirc it was in earlier times marketed to ladies and also pregnant women because it is high in Vitamin B12(?) or something. Legend had it you wouldn't get rickets (bendy legs) if you drank sweet stout.

In Scandinavia lett øl (low alcohol beer) is in all the supermarkets, this is 2.5% alcohol pilsner.

My mother claims she used to drink that whilst she was pregnant with me.

Would explain a lot :D

That sounds a bit like Mackeson. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mackeson_Stout

Can't get that sent to me outside the UK and now I am sad and it's all your fault. But now I have another reason to visit the homeland, so I am happy and that's your fault too.

In Colorado, non-liquor stores are capped at selling alcohol at 3.2%. Varieties in many types of beer were sold, some specially made for this type of distribution. We called them "grocery store beers".

> One of my friends is a very dedicated home brewer, and he's recently taken an interest in a lost class of 2-3% beers that have fallen out of fashion.

Isn't that what a session beer is supposed to be?

Sessions are typically 3-5% ABV.

Not sure there is anything commercially marketed that is under 3% ABV, really.

Not sure there is anything commercially marketed that is under 3% ABV, really.

In Norway and Sweden beer under 2.8% is is exempt from most licencing and excise regulations. So there is large market for that sort of beer.

Personal experience, yes.

The ancester of carbonated soda, called «limonade» in France and given to kids cannot be naturally obtained without alchohol.

As an experience I did make some (water, citrus, a little exposition to air (thus yeast)) and anaeroby fermentation will give you the expected result: - an acid, sugarish refreshing drink - with bubbles, - and ~2-3% alcohol

My experiments confirm what is said on a chemistry forum. http://forums.futura-sciences.com/chimie/410527-limonade-art...

Kids, were given alcohol in the old days, no wonder why they were calmer, lol.

My look at older german polish recipies makes me suspicious that a common drink of the old ages their the «brotbier» (you put old bread in a jar of water and let it ferment in anaerobic conditions) should also have been alcoholized.

And yes without Chaptal (17g/l of sugar = 1% alcohol, how to dope your alcohol fast) (not Gay Lussac) obtaning strong alcohol is tough.

The ability to carbonate water (for soda) without yeast/alcohol is very much a relatively modern industrial invention.

Root beer and Ginger ale are named as such for the obvious reason.

My small disappointment in the current fad of "hard" sodas is that they are often malt beverages/"distilled" beer at ~5% alcohol rather than, say, traditional recipes in the ~2-3% range.

make yours :) it is easy and fun.

I don't think I've ever seen a session beer for sale under 4%. Most seem to be between 4.5 and 4.9, just low enough to be "less than 5".

That's a real shame, they're ubiquitous in Scotland; any brand's "70 shilling" will be in the 3.5% range. Belhaven Best is also extremely common, and that's 3.2%.

It's common in England for pubs to have at least one bitter that is below 4%.

They're awesome, too. Tonnes of flavour, huge variety, thoroughly drinkable, and low enough in alcohol that you can usually get an extra pint in. There are what the USians call microbreweries everywhere and any decent pub is likely to have a local session beer, frequently very good.

I live in Zürich now. The local lager's okay, but it's all lager, and it's all 5%, which is the upper limit of what I like. I miss good old fashioned ale.

if you mean stuff you can buy in shops like COOP, then local lager is piece of s__t. if you mean some local small breweries then it might be different

But ... try Falcon Bayersk and tell me you don't like it.

3.5% beers, if well made well, to my taste are better than the stronger ones of the same brand.

You'll find a handful in the 3-4% range if you look around a nice beer shop.Look for session IPAs, "table beers", and maybe some Goozes.

I've not checked for "table beers" and don't know what that actually is. Goses aren't my style. IPAs are, and I've seen few if any session IPAs in person that hit at or below 4%. Just looking at the top 10 session IPAs that show up when I search for "session" on Untappd, I see only one below 4%, Even Keel at 3.8%. So I guess someone's making them, but no one's making them at 3 and almost no one is making them below 4.

Although honestly I don't think I'd want a session IPA at 4 or below. Most (though not all) session IPAs are pretty terrible at ~4.5. They'd probably taste like watery trash at 3.5.

Btw, I think OP meant Gueze / Gueuze lambic which is quite different from Gose though similar in many ways too.

There are many in this range in Australia, where they are known as Light Beers and have almost 10% market share. [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_in_Australia#Market_chara...

Soft beer I can believe it. But whisky? I don't think so. After a little physical activity, a headache is what you can expect.

BTW, was beer popular in USA at that time?

Cider was the most common drink.

I may be wrong but I remember learning some where some years ago that cider was less in alcoholic content. Sometimes I travel to Ithaca which has a cider store that sells a number of European ciders. Surprisingly a lot are 2.5% to 5.4%.

Mead was also drank but I'm not sure it's popularity. If you read Food in England by Dorethy Hartley; beet wine, turnip wine and carrot wine were all being made too. I have a recipe for parsley root wine that I keep meaning to try whenever I have them fresh from the garden.

The amount of alcohol nowadays in cider is due to legislation.

My cider without chaptalisation can go to ~6%. (100g/l is what modern apple yields in sugar this 100g/17 ~ 5.8%)

Actual cider makers are owned by a few brands that can make cheaper cider that are horribly sugarish since the 90s.

Old «farmers» cider were more acid, astringent and strong.

No need to say, that farmers were no idiots and that the knowledge of adding more sugar to higher the degree of alcohol is known since the XIXth.

I have add access to «cidre fermier of the grandpa» that was 12%.

Opaque, whitish and making you cough.

That is how my cider is looking like, and how home made and «illegally sold under the mantel» ciders were.

The government is trying to kill the taste of traditional products for the profit of big shitty brands. But the gustative resistance is all over the country since decades.

We will not bow down, and will keep on making bread, hams, alcohol, choucroute, pickles and jams in our homes.

I believe this book may be relevant to your post: "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front"


I was a tad exaggerating. However living in Canada made me scared of how much the federal govt was looking so victorian.

They are scared of everything, making blood wurst the traditionnal way (by taking blood, spices and milk) is forbidden!

They almost pasteurize everything, even the cheeses !

And god curse the queen, Québec has awesome cheeses better than most UK and germany.

Cheesus God! I don't want to take part in the global fight against tasty food!

Tripes, boundins, alcohols, bagels, couscous, kebab, pierogi, pizza, bo bun and so much more should be the symbol of a new generation, giving up on flags for the profit of what should really unite us: happy fooding!

In the US there are definitely still a lot of laws on the books outright prohibiting the brewing of ciders and the sale of ciders. Most of these laws are leftovers of American prohibition and its teetotaling war on all alchohol. Some of the anti-cider laws were the first on the books and the strictest and hardest to overturn in the way that marijuana laws are similar the vanguard of America's laws in place from its war on drugs.

Alcoholic cider is one of the easiest things to homebrew, and was indeed something of a common beverage. To my grandfathers and great-grandfathers, brewing cider was an act of home rebellion, a reminder of how simple and commonplace alcohol can be. During the American Prohibition cider brewing was seen as a slippery slope to bootlegging and moonshine. (Partly because it was.)

I think America is still recovering from a lot of Prohibition-era anti-cider bias. There are still a lot of people that seem to think that making home ciders is dangerous and a quick way to die, even as there is an incredible movement overall in homebrewing beers these days. In some states, from what I recall, it may even still be the case that homebrewing cider is technically illegal.

My immigrant (Belgian) great father also arrived in a anti cider era (in France).

No resistance, he just did what stubborn persons are making ; his own cider at industrial scale for him. I think he actually ended up being a legal moonshiner (bouilleur de crue).

Incidently, I am gonna point at Vermont and Québec that are 2 of my favourite north American regions because they so love great food :

- Québec cider industry is making awesome apple wine, and some heirs of french traditions are going back to making french ciders (I prefer the québecan apple wine) that are delightful;

- Vermont and Québec are pushing towards high quality food;

- Washington wines deserves to be given a thumb up for their quality (ontario/niagara wines are interesting too);

- Québec is beginning to produce amazing high quality stuff in Gaspésie (charcuterie, sparkling wines, veggies...)

My staying in Canada has been enlightened by the discovery of great food coming from unexpected places, and the rebirth of old awesome traditions. I even tasted close to medieval french recipes and it actually brought tears to my eyes. (When it comes to food, I have a problem)

And I also remember eating in PA in an amish place where food was way above standards.

The cliché of America being an underdeveloped gastronomical country is a lie. Even the tacos in Miami (FL) bouibouis are awesome.

United tastes of (diverse) foods (and alcohol)!

We cannot hate people with food we want to eat!

Which cider store in Ithaca are you referring to? I live here and I can only think of Cellar D'or and the larger store near the FedEx on state street.

Cellar D'or. I'll have to check out the one near the Fedex some time.

And for stronger stuff, Applejack (which is distilled cider; often by the primitive freeze-distilling method).

Can human body actually make use of alcohol as energy? Because I was fairly sure we can only make energy of something that breaks down to glucose, which alcohol obviously doesn't.

Not so sure already.

Humans absolutely can use ethanol for energy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_metabolism We net 7 kcal/g from ethanol, (compare to 9 kcal/g fat, or 4 kcal/g carbohydrate/protein.) There's several intermediate steps, but it's pretty efficient and a dense source of energy.

Much of lipid and protein catabolism also does not rely on glucose as an intermediate. Everything that doesn't get converted to glucose first will get converted to acetyl-CoA (glucose catabolites turn into this too) for use in the Krebs cycle.

Absolutely. Bavarian monks famously invented Bock beer (very rich, high wort density, 7% ABV and above) as nourishment during Lent when they were not allowed to take in solid food.

I've read somewhere that beer was used instead of water in areas where water wasn't safe. IIRC, beer has non-alcoholic calories also. I don't believe one can live on spirits, but it could make you forget you are hungry :)

Edit: I should have read TFA before commenting.

Old saying that my wife's French grandpa liked to say - "I don't drink water, it makes me rust".

Heard it as "Water make iron stomachs rust". Usually everyday beer as a replacement of water was smallbeer/bière de table with 2-3% alcohol.

Yes, humans can derive energy from alcohol.

The system that eventually extracts energy from glucose (the citric acid cycle, also called the Krebs cycle) is involved, after the liver converts the ethanol.

All the calories from the grains or fruits used to make alcoholic drinks don't just evaporate into the ether! "Lite" beers with low calorie contents are a fairly new invention.

If you look back far enough, some early brewing, like that of ancient Egypt, made beer so thick that mugs would often come with straws built into them so people could get past the thick layer of almost-solid grains that would float to the top.

Ethanol is broken down and eventually fed into the TCA cycle. Some useful byproducts are also made. So, yeah, you get some energy out of ethanol. It's a pretty inefficient way to get energy though.

It's an efficient way to get calories up until the year's first harvest though.

Those quantities don't sound enormous - nowhere near enough that being "tossed off their butts" or "very tipsy" could have been the typical experience. Four gallons of pure ethanol per year works out to 4*128/365 = 1.4 ounces per day. That would have most likely been consumed in the form of beer or cider, and even if we assume a relatively modest 5% ABV, that's only 28 fluid ounces of alcoholic beverage per day - less than two pints. That's nowhere near enough to get plastered as a regular occurrence - that's just a culture where it's normal that the beverage you consume with your meals happens to be moderately alcoholic.

Three year olds aren't crushing shots every night, even then. That number was per person in the US at the time. You could probably safely double that number. Four pints per night is putting in work.

Thank you! I did not have the citation for the actual number of drinkers and non-drinkers, so I just included the info as I found it. Interpreting the data, we can see that those that drank did so heavily, though other commenters indicate that it may be similar to current alcohol abuse patterns as I elude to in my last sentence.

Could it be explained with the same imbalance as we currently have, assuming this is accurate? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/25/think...

tl;dr: the top three 10% brackets consume ~1 "drink" per day, then ~2/day, and the top consumes ~10/day. That top bracket they summarize as consuming "a little more than four-and-a-half 750 ml bottles of Jack Daniels" each week.


edit: Which is (750x4.5x0.4)/7=193ml of pure alcohol per day, or ((750x4.5)/7)/(44ml per shot)=11 shots per day. So it doesn't quite, but if you raise the ground floor of half the population to one or two per day instead of zero, it might balance out.

750: ml/jack daniels bottle. 4.5: bottles/week. 0.4: 80 proof = 0.4 alcohol content. 44ml = 1.5floz

> ~1.4 shots of Everclear or 3.5 shots of modern 80 proof whiskey per day

Or a couple of pints. So that's lunch - did they not drink in the evenings in those days?

Well, there were a lot of young children in those days too. They drank a lot less (I can't figure out how to say that without sounding sarcastic. They drank, but not much).

I drank kvass as a kid in Russia all the time in the summer.

I don't know which is worse for a kid, on average: a light buzz on most days, or getting sick from drinking tainted water.

Probably the tainted water. With tainted water, you're going to vomit or experience diarrhea which leaves you dehydrated. What do you drink then to rehydrate, more tainted water?

Perhaps night time being a time to sleep instead of work was a good factor considering electricity and all not coming about until later. Look at the amish and when they go to bed and wake up.

Umm, who is drinking 2+ pints for lunch every single day of the year and then some more in the evenings? I'm pretty sure that is a lot to drink.

I have to wonder how it impacted human evolution. I mean, evolutionary psychology (for what little good the field is) usually dwells on "savannah ancestors" and whatnot, but centuries of being perpetually drunk is going to have an impact too.

Not just in terms of tolerance, but in terms of mental conditions. If the ground-state of the human mind is tipsy, then is sobriety functionally an abnormal state we're maladapted for?

> If the ground-state of the human mind is tipsy, then is sobriety functionally an abnormal state we're maladapted for?

I vaguely recall reading that the ancient Persians would make decisions twice: once sober, and once drunk. If their decisions were the same, then they knew that they'd decided correctly. Of course, they ended up being conquered by a bunch of teetotallers …

No reference, I'm afraid. It could be very well be total bunk.

Apparently it is a quote from Herodutus, so the reference dates back a long way but that does not necessarily mean it is true:


To be fair, they held on their own for centuries of constant warfare with Greco-Roman civilization, which at certain times consisted of the largest, most powerful political entities.

Pity today's Iran is rather more strict about it. In Teheran, can only get alcohol legally in the Armenian community centre, AFAIK: red wine, white wine, or vodka.

I think any alcohol dependence would be much more recent than that, I doubt asian glow (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_flush_reaction) would be a thing of we were getting drunk on the Savannah.

Actually, some monkeys develop alcohol dependence in the wild (they get their alcohol from ripe fermenting fruits).

Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/chimpanzees-...

Here's also an extract from a BBC Nature documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSm7BcQHWXk

Apparently, the monkeys are divided among heavy drinkers, occasional drinkers or teetootalers in proportions that are roughly equal to those among human beings.

The "Asian flush" response is the result of a mutation that is believed to have arisen in Asia, and is relatively uncommon in Europe and Africa. So the ancestral (savannah) state may have been tipsy indeed. The derived allele appears to have been positively selected in Asia, possibly because it is protective against alcohol dependency, but the selective pressure hasn't been conclusively established.

Human evolution has been hand in hand with ethanol, likely mammalian evolution. But those incidents of alcohol abuse only would occur when fruit was fermenting on the vine/tree as this youtube video humorously demonstrates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50tlF3kGbT4

Also, many 'native' peoples in the Americas, Australia, and Oceania have large problems with alcohol abuse. Large areas of Queensland forbid any ethanol, even for medicinal use, because of these social problems.

I guess I was vague - I meant to contrast the "savannah ancestors" fixation of evopsych with considering evolution of humans in the modern era. While normally evolutionary psychology worries about the tens of thousands of years of prehistoric man, the thousands-ish years of drunken modern man would still definitely have an impact.

It could go the other way around too. If these people consumed so much alcohol everyday since childhood, they probably built up a decent tolerance to its effects.

Yes, but your liver and heart do not. The early death rates for males in Russia are attributed to alcohol abuse.

Remember, though, to have a "classical" evolutionary impact (i.e. change in gene pool composition), you'd have to have different survival or more precisely procreation rates for different gene endowments.

But I like your way of thinking. As they say, reality is a terminal condition caused by a lack of alcohol, or something something.

For example, being obsessively careful would help you survive when drunk, as then you'd only be moderately careful.... whereas a normal person goes from moderately careful to careless when drunk. That's what I mean by "being drunk all the time having an evolutionary impact" - I wonder if this could explain being obsessive or overcautious. That is, mild forms of OCD existing as an adaptation to an alcohol-rich environment.

4 shots of whiskey is quite a lot but for many people wouldn't lead to anything resembling drunk if consumed over a period of several hours.

Yep! I think that's what commenter's statement is intended to mean: "the US was a nation populated by either a lot of very tipsy people, or a lot of sober people and some very drunk people".

But even tipsy wouldn't be the case for people that were drinking such amounts everyday.


If I drank a shots worth of alcohol spaced put over 3 hours, I would not feel anything and I am not a particularly large person

And if you did it every day, you wouldn't feel it at all. But, your liver would.

Really? Most health guidelines suggest drinking no more than 2-4 standard drinks per day. I'd be very surprised if one standard drink per day, spread over a long period, caused any measurable harm.

Guidelines vary by country, but 2-4/day is high at least by current UK and US guidelines.

In the UK it was lowered a year ago to a recommended 14 units per week (UK units - "14 units is equivalent to a bottle and a half of wine or five pints of export-type lager (5% abv) over the course of a week") [1]. CDC website says "According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,1 moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. This definition is referring to the amount consumed on any single day and is not intended as an average over several days." [2]

Actually, there's a Wikipedia page with various countries' guidelines: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recommended_maximum_intake_of_...

[1] http://www.nhs.uk/news/2016/01January/Pages/New-alcohol-advi... [2] https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#moderate

The CDC warns that moderate consumption increases cancer risk:

For some conditions, like some cancers, the risk increases even at very low levels of alcohol consumption (less than 1 drink).


Yes, that is exactly what I meant. Current average alcohol use in the US is very high, but that is due to the skew caused by alcoholics. The median use of alcohol is more 'reasonable'. Other commenters cite the current rates and usage stats. I assume that the 1820's usage patterns are very similar to current one, but I have no data to prove that, hence the last sentence. That said, I think that the point still stands that they were pretty sloshed. Current usage patterns tease this out : https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/25/think... . Today, per that chart, the average American drinks ~1.4 'drinks' per day, not 1.4 shots of pure ethanol. The 1820s were a lush time.

Or people who were sober most of the time but rip roaring drunk several times a week.

> That 1820s number, if you do the math, was ~1.4 shots of Everclear or 3.5 shots of modern 80 proof whiskey per day for the average citizen.

3.5 shots of whiskey is about the same amount of alcohol as 3.5 beers. Round up, and it's a couple at lunch and a couple at dinner. Almost nobody's going to get very drunk off that, and a lot (most?) people won't even get tipsy. Factor in that people build up a tolerance to alcohol, and it doesn't seem too bad.

Long term, I'm curious if it's any worse than 4 sodas a day?

Yes, but your liver and heart don't like that much ethanol every couple hours, every day of the year. Russian men die because, it is thought, of their drinking culture.


It would be interesting to see the epigentic effects of generations of alcohol use. Kind of like Terence McKenna's "stoped ape" theory.

Exactly. Besides physiological adaptations like resiliant livers, what about mental adaptations? I mean, are drinker-evolved humans more naturally obsessive and careful and self-doubting to compensate for the clumsiness and overconfidence of drink?

I wonder if there is not a social evolution attendant to drunkenness. If people are regularly drunk, it means there is a time set aside for excusable inappropriateness. Daily life can be fairly strict because there is a "playtime" that is wild and unaccountable. People learn to express some parts of themselves -- their negative feelings and maybe their true enthusiasms -- under the cover of drink.

There's also an environmental aspect at play. Italians drink a lot of wine but I have never seen a drunk Italian, not once.

The English, on the other hand, get completely hammered.

The Romans had trouble instilling their calm Mediterranean cafe culture in the gray and frigid binge-drinking north. It's an environmentally inspired culture difference that goes back thousands of years, so it's hard to draw a conclusion about drinking and humans as a whole.

I did do the math. At 1.5 oz, there are 85 shots in a gallon. 85 * 4 gallons = 340 shots. 340 /.40 (80 proof alcohol) = 850 850/365 = ~2.3 shots of 40% alcohol. But then 1.5 oz shot is pretty small and my knob Creek is 50% :)

Edit: so it's 3.5 oz, not shots. Also, mmmmm whiskey.

Good catch, thank you!

3.5 gal would be ~13l.

Sure, more than today, but not remarkably so:


the article talks about the early modern period - that period would end with the 19th century; They certainly weren't too sober in London town - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_Craze

But at this point in time Britain had a rather high standard of living (compared with the rest of the world), so go figure.


Reminds me, the military defence line across the Kowlon peninsula to protect (then British) Hong Kong from Japanese invasion during WW II was known as "The Gin Drinkers Line" :-)

(Unfortunately, the line fell in about two days, and HK in less than two weeks, Christmas 1941...)


I was a bit taken aback by this statement: "[Dr.] James [Sumner], a historian of science and technology... argues that ‘alcohol by volume’ was rarely used as a measure of strength for beers and wines until the work of nineteenth-century French chemists such as Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and that it’s therefore ahistorical to apply it to earlier cultures and beverages." To me, this is like saying that because trilobites did not make measurements of ocean pH, it would be wrong for us to estimate the acidity of Cambrian oceans. Is there more to this than just an absurdly dogmatic backlash against Whig historiography?

Compared to the paragraph before it, I think he's just saying our estimates of ABV may be wildly off because we don't have a great historical basis for them. Our modern notion of what constitutes wine or liquor is based in part on ABV ranges. If we say "ancient peoples drank wine nonstop", someone might think you're talking about a ~15% ABV beverage, when that isn't necessarily true.

That's a good question. Reading it charitably, one could interpret that to mean either 1) we can't reliably estimate alcohol by volume prior to the 19th century because there weren't reliable tools to measure it or 2) pre-19th century people didn't think in terms of ABV, and that this may have meant that they experienced drunkenness differently on a subjective level. I'm generally anti-Whig but I'm with you on this one in hoping that there's more to it than that.

The article does mention some more quantitative methods for estimating potency, including working from recipes.

Dr. Sumner may have reasons for doubting the efficacy of these methods. On reflection, I suspect that the article has mixed up two different arguments by Dr. Sumner, one about the estimates of potency, and a different one about how or whether we should judge these allegedly inebriated societies.

Of course, Hogarth (among others) had something to say at what I think was a slightly later time, about the effects of cheap gin.

I think it has to do with understanding the goals of beer manufacturing in an earlier era: they weren't targeting ABV ratios, and maybe understood the "strength" of beer in a much less precise way than we do. Thus if you read that so-and-so person had 3 quarts of "strong beer" a day with their cheese and pork trimmings it might be jumping to conclusions to assume it was all in the 5-7% range.

My reading of it was that "Small Beer" and "Table Beer" may have not had characteristic ABVs as they didn't use ABV to classify types of drink then.

I made cyder at home a couple of years ago (about 8 gallons).

I had 2 pints at one sitting, I have no memory of the evening past about 10pm and when I woke up my first thought was that I had had a stroke.

The rest of the stuff is still sitting in the shed.

I'll tell you a story that happened to me

One day as I went down to Cork by the sea

The sun it was hot and the day it was warm,

Says I a quiet pint wouldn't do me no harm

I went in and I called for a bottle of stout

Says the barman, I'm sorry, all the beer is sold out

Try whiskey or paddy, ten years in the wood

Says I, I'll try cider, I've heard it was good.

Oh never, Oh never, Oh never again

If I live to be a hundred or a hundred and ten

I fell to the ground and I couldn't get up

After drinking a quart of the Johnny Jump Up


You might need to distill off the methanol that might be present, if you're blacking out. Had a similar problem with some homebrew wine where a glass tossed me to blacking out (yet I can toss back a half pint of vodka without too much issue.) Turned out there was a good amount of methanol in there.

How sure are you about this?

From what I've read, it is very hard to generate methanol via fermentation alone[0] and home-brew usually has 2-3 ppm, versus a LD_{50} in the tens of thousands of ppm. Obviously, there might be problems well before the LD_{50}, but that's a lot of wiggle room (and methanol would be out-competed by the ethanol which is presumably also in the booze).

[0] Concentrating the wine via freezing (as in some ice wines or applejack) might be an exception to this, but I'm not sure.

Very sure as I was using naturally-present yeast instead of any brewer's yeast or bread yeast. Methanol content is something to look out for when you use natural yeasts.

Source: 15 years brewing/distilling. Just got lazy/too self-assured one day.


It does look pectin can be degraded into methanol by some microbes. I'm surprised there was enough feedstock to generate a problematic amount of methanol, but I'm glad you're ok.

Hooch / Bootleg alcohol are rife with methanol-related deaths.


I always thought that was because methylated spirits were used in place of pure alcohol? I.e. not a fermentation issue.

Nope. In Mississippi prisons (Did some time myself) we just took OJ and yeast-leavened bread from our lunch trays, sealed it in a plastic bag, and had hooch in a couple days.

I was going to ask sgt101 to send me a galloon of his cyder before I read your comment, hah. Uh yeah, methanol is scary.

I've heard third hand rumors of people at fancy parties using sublingual methanol drops recreationally. Sounds insane to me, if true.

Or you could just sanitize your filthy carboy before brewing.

Wrong. Natural yeasts produce methanol in fairly sufficient amounts to cause damage even when mixed with ethanol.

Source? I harvest my own wild yeast, order interesting samples from boutique yeast labs, and am involved in communities dedicated to this sort of thing, and as such, have also read mountains of research. All the research I've read, all of the things I've brewed, and all of the people I've spoken to that do this say quite the opposite.

Fruit pectin can be broken down into methanol, but it creates tiny amounts. You're talking like 20 to 200mg per liter.

I've been brewing for roughly 15 years, and let me tell you, there are more yeasts than you'll suspect in your batch if you're going with the natural yeast present directly on the grape and nothing else. Plenty of them have zero issues making lots of methanol and if they manage to become the dominant culture, well...

BTW - prison hooch methanol poisonings would like to have a word with you. Even regular bread yeasts will make enough methanol.

That's bacteria, dude, not yeast.

Incorrect. Bacteria typically do it with ammonia compounds, not pectins and sugars.


I am not disputing that "some" level of methanol is created by yeast fermentation. But you are not going to get anything approaching a significant amount of methanol out of it, unless you have an infection.

Especially if we're talking about blacking out, as the GP post was saying. If you have enough methanol to be problem, it's because you're equipment is dirty. You'll get more methanol from a week-old jug of orange juice than you will out of making grape wine in warm conditions.

But this is typical of people. You're so quick to gleefully jump and declare someone "WRONG!" that they don't take a moment to figure out if their evidence even means anything. It's why I can't stand being on most programming or brewing forums anymore. Folks like you ruin it.

"Especially if we're talking about blacking out, as the GP post was saying. If you have enough methanol to be problem, it's because you're equipment is dirty."

No, as I buy brand new carboys every time. PET 3-gallon bottles are had for like 5 bucks each and I just give them to someone else to sterilize and use in their water cooler when I'm done making a batch of wine.

Here's why I get methanol - A. high natural yeast concentration. B. Raw unfiltered mash - the grapes have had a gentle sterilizing soak in 300 ppm cold bleach water solution for 60 seconds. This wipes out most bacteria but leaves the natural yeasts mostly untouched (the haze on grapes resists lower concentrations of bleach.) This means I have tons of pectins as I'm not fermenting filtered juice like most people would when making wine, I ferment the entire thing to get maximum flavor profile (and you can't obtain such a natural blush otherwise.)

Fifteen years of doing it. I have my brewer's certifcation and used to work for (ugh) Coors.

I make cider every year and I've never had any problems - I think it's the easiest form of alcohol to make.

On the question of methanol, it is my understanding it comes from the high pectin content. I always use a pectic enzyme to break down the pectin, mainly because that releases more sugars and makes the cider clearer, but possibly it helps stop methanol formation? I know it can be an issue if you distill cider into apple brandy (calvados) - but that's illegal in the UK anyway without a license, so has never been an issue.

Friend of mine's family made something which they called 'apple wine': an open bucket with sugar, apple juice, some citrus (lemon juice, I believe) and then left for about a week. (With muslin over the top to keep the flies off!)

Wild yeast causes it to start fermenting. Once it begins to froth, you bottle. After another week or so it's lightly carbonated and very slightly alcoholic.

The thing is, it continues to ferment in the bottles. So as time passes, it gets more and more alcoholic and less and less sweet, as the yeast consumes the sugar. So while the children were allowed to drink it for the first few weeks after bottling, after a certain point it was distinctly adults-only. So it's quite possible that the parent simply left theirs to ferment too long.

...I used to make ginger beer, which is a variation on the same thing; you cultivate a yeast/bacteria/ginger culture used for the fermentation rather than relying on wild yeast, but the process is the same. Thing about ginger beer, though, is that it's heavily flavoured with ginger, and you need the sugar to make it drinkable. So if you left it for too long it ended up both extremely alcoholic and mouth-puckeringly bitter.

(I can strongly recommend giving ginger beer a try, actually. It's dead easy to make, exceedingly nice, you can pick any alcohol level you like including almost none, and is a continuation of a thoroughly ancient tradition. Be warned, though: (a) it's packed full of sugar, (b) it's quite hard to make in small quantities, and (c) if you get the bug you may find yourself surreptitiously exchanging jam-jars full of biological slime at pubs with total strangers...)

I think my issue was/is two fold.

1) I think that the wild yeast in my orchard is a bit "oomphy" 2) I put 8 grams of sugar a pint in for the brew. Which was far too much.

Next year I should have a decent harvest to go at (I've changed out my apple trees and the new ones put in five years ago are fruiting nicely now) so I'm going to have another go... at 4 grams a pint.

Lucky you didn't go blind

I'm sure you can find someone to take it off your hands (possible methanol aside...)

I'm going to use it as weedkiller.

If you need someone to get rid of it I'll take it off your hands.

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast has an episode on how drugs and alcohol affected some major historical events: http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-20-blitz-h...

As a home brewer, any of these styles, even 10% or higher is easily accomplished by any seasoned brewmaster. And for the quantity of beer brewed, and number of breweries, there must have been many. I must say that I cannot agree with the authors conclusion surrounding strong beer, as I have one in my fridge, made with barley and rye in the old way at 10.7 as determened by hydrometer. It kicks like a mule but is very drinkable.

10% is easy with modern equipment and yeast, but remember that pure yeast strains didn't exist until Emil Hansen isolated one at the Carlsberg Laboratory in 1883 [1]. In Early Modern times people used whatever yeast happened to grow locally, saved between batches as "barm" (flocculated yeast). Selection pressure with this propagation technique is primarily for flocculation ability, and it produces strains much more flocculant than wild strains. These strains have lower attenuation because they drop out of suspension before all the sugar is fermented. Try reaching 10% ABV with a traditional English strain like Fermentis Safale S-04 - it's pretty much impossible.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emil_Christian_Hansen

Despite what Fermentis claims, I don't think S-04 is that "traditional." It's a beast of a yeast and it will keep going and going. 10% is pushing the upper end of its range, but more because of the limited alcohol tolerance of the yeast than because of anything else.

It makes sense if you consider where it came from-- it was supposedly used in the tower fermenters of the old Whitbread brewery. Where the most important thing was a cockaroach-like ability to survive and keep fermenting no matter what, as new wort was fed into one end of the system and fermented beer came out the other end.

I don't like s-04 because it throws lactic acid, which tastes like someone squeezed a lemon into the beer. Not what I want in an English ale.

If you want traditional, go with something like Danstar Winsor. But be warned, the yeast can't ferment maltotriose, and it struggles with gravities above 1.040.

As to what early moderns did-- well, they could have just put sugar in the wort if they wanted to push up the ABV. I guess that wouldn't apply back in the middle ages though (not sure what you are considering early modern).

I was told by a biologist that old houses were full of airborne yeast (saccarome cervisirae) which origins where the «Chaumes» roof. [confirmed by a link in the paperspace]


made with barley and rye in the old way

I'm assuming you're adding brewers yeast as well. My understanding is that beers made in this period where brewed purely with natural fermentation, making it much harder to reach these higher strength.

It really depends. For example, take lambic beer production. This is a spontaneously fermented beer from Pajottenland, near Brussels. You can easily hit 8-9% alcohol.

The key is that the microflora that innoculates the wort was living in the barrels. When you had a "good" barrel, you would keep brewing in it. When the barrel went "bad" you would destroy it and burn it. The entire brewery would be a source of yeast and in some breweries it was considered very bad form to clean. Even today, there are some Belgian breweries where you can get fired if you kill a spider (the spiders catch fruit flies that can bring in wort spoiling bacteria). Once you had a good, stable population of yeast/bacteria you could maintain it simply by overwhelming other beasties. When I first started homebrewing, I didn't know that much and I must have gone nearly 10 years without ever disinfecting anything. I had a definite "house flavour" in my beer, but it was far from bad.

Anyway, these days, in order to get up to 10% (or higher) alcohol level, you will go with a single strain with high alcohol tolerance. But there are several traditional multi-strain cultures that do a very good job and have a very interesting flavour profile. Quite frequently you'll have one strain that ferments quickly and drops out fast with a second one that is "powdery" and hangs in suspension for months. Finally you will have a "chaining" yeast that will drag the "powdery" yeast out of suspension. You end up with having most of the flavour profile of the first yeast, while the powdery yeast will bring the terminal gravity down and the last yeast will brighten the beer. Some really famous yeast cultures (like Worthington Whiteshield) are composed of 5 or more strains working in concert. It is truly amazing what people accomplished just with selective techniques.

Having said that, some styles that are currently quite high alcohol were traditionally much sweeter. Bock styles were drunk by monks during lent. These beers had to be sweet enough to sustain them, because they ate nothing else during that period. A friend of mine who did quite a lot of research in the area (because he wanted to do the same thing... :-P) reckoned that historical bocks were probably only 3-4% alcohol.

It's not even this hard to make high APV beer. Make 5% APV. Feeze it and remove half the water. Blameo, 10% APV.

That is a fair point. In the United States, people used to make "apple jack" out of apple cider that way. It's essentially freeze distillation.

But be warned! Don't do this, because it concentrates the methanol and other conjoiners. Remember, distillation bad, brewing good... unless you really know what you're doing and are legally allowed to do it...

Yep. There's a traditional style of beer called eisbock: http://brewwiki.com/index.php/Eisbock

Freezing things wasn't that easy either until recently.

You leave it out in the snow.

Kind of. All our cultured yeasts were once wild. Brewers cultivate their own yeast or use others. The most common way is to keep some after an especially good batch, and use it until it 'ages' and enough generations of yeast have passed to change the flavor. I actually brewed my second beer this way, saving the yeast from a bottle fermented chimay.

While I agree with you, people would often water down their beer and liquor, so the brewed strength is not necessarily what people drank.

True, but not likely with beer except in the case of rations from what I understand. Its not quite like watering down wine or rum.

Supposedly in the old British Royal Navy, watering down the daily rum ration was a common punishment for minor infractions. The offending sailor still received the same quantity of rum, just with twice as much water added. I can't imagine what the captains thought they were accomplishing.

Well, the quality of the water (as well as provisions) on a ship starts declining drastically once you're at sea for an extended period. I can't imagine any sailor actually wanting to drink the water, except out of pure necessity.

Watering it down as a punishment doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. I have read that the rum ration was mixed with fruit juice both to extend the drink and likely to attempt to combat scurvy. This is where 'grog' comes from, which is rum mixed with fruit juice.

(Second reply of mine, sorry).

Apparently one reason high ABV alcohol was hard was because yeast started dying off after 7%. A better source than I can be: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/14fvf8/comme...

While I can't vouch for the comment itself, I can vouch for the availability of people on that subreddit to ask similar questions and demand sourced answers.

The higher the abv, the higher the pressure on yeast, yes. But from what I can tell, at least by the time brewers were recording their recipes using hydrometers, beers up to around 10% were very possible.

For instance, Brew Your Own references some strong stout beers made in 1868 (recorded by a "G. Amsinck") here. (http://byo.com/bock/item/1623-when-stout-was-stout)

I plugged the OG (original specific gravity) and FG (final specific gravity) into a specific gravity to alcohol calculator, these are the results:

Dublin Stout: OG: 1.092, FG: 1.019 (ABV: 9.6%) Treble Stout: OG: 1.096, FG: 1.031 (ABV: 8.0%)

This is not typical -- the Dublin stout is more like a strong export style. Ray Daniels in "Designing Great Beers" provides both more references from G. Amsinck as well as a table derived from "The American Handy-Book of the Brewing Malting and Auxillary Trades" (1908). For more common "porter", the ranges was more typically, say OG: 1.06 FG: 1.02 (about 5% roughly).

Ray Daniels' book likewise references historical Scotch ales similarly. At the high end, massive Scotch ales were present in the nineteenth century (with OG in the 1.120 range, FG in the 1.050 range, and an ABV of 9%). Also more common Scotch ale too.

It is true that by modern standards many of these beers would be relatively sweet, not as fermented.

I personally would guess that even without pure cultures, if you used a fairly simple and probably even known technique back then -- make a big beer, and put that big beer on top of the yeast cake of a finished small beer -- 10% is pretty doable. (The 20+% some craft brewers can go for, however, is probably not. :) )

Hmm, I think time frame is at play here--I had forgotten the early modern constraint! Nonetheless this is a great resource for more reading--cheers!

Yeah... it's a pity (an understandable one in way) that I couldn't find more older more technical brewing books scanned online for quick reference. But at least some resources quote them. There's definitely a fair bit of older brewing books sitting in dusty corners of certain libraries that would be interesting to read. :)

This modern printing of a book from 1785 (https://www.amazon.com/Hydrometrical-observations-experiment...) for instance would've been interesting to view to get a perspective from a century earlier (at least for British porter). Unfortunately I can't find a digitized version online, but querying on that book led to this link, (https://books.google.com/books?id=GSTnBAAAQBAJ&pg=PT24&lpg=P...) does quote a 1784 porter at OG 1.071 FG 1.018 (about 7%). The full reference would probably be more helpful to determine a better picture of the historical range back then.

I believe the hydrometer only came into use in brewing science in the mid to late 1700s; before then, data definitely would've been a lot sketchier.

The author should try going to Belgium. In our recent trip to Brugge it was hard to find a beer under 10% and ones above that were common.

belgium is special. prohibition came to belgium in the form of a ban against hard liquor. strong beers came to fill the niche.

Plenty of Lambic family styles in Belgium that are under 10%, too. Just have to like sour beer :)

Are modern-day people perpetually drunk on mass-media opiates from consuming up to a gallon of behaviorally-engineered dopamine shots each day?

> Are modern-day people perpetually drunk on mass-media opiates from consuming up to a gallon of behaviorally-engineered dopamine shots each day?


I have always noticed contradictions within the history of booze. I can't understand how anyone who has ever tried well-water can believe that misconception about choosing beer over water. Also, an old U.S. History textbook in high school suggesting to us that the Temperance Movement was a reaction to people suddenly discovering strong alcohol. This article confirmed my suspicions on both of those events.

> I can't understand how anyone who has ever tried well-water can believe that misconception about choosing beer over water.

But for urban folk in the middle of London, or New York, was the water they were consuming as fresh as what you're imagining when you think of "well water?"

Even if it was drawn from nearby wells, and not from dirty cisterns, was their sewage system good enough to keep it from getting contaminated?

I don't know so much about water cleanliness, and the article suggests it may not have been that dirty, but I wouldn't assume that it was all as clean as a perfect little rural well.

Well water? Early municipal water systems were disgusting. The stuff that flowed in through the taps was barely filtered and mostly untreated.


If it was a choice between bilge water and beer, I'd pick beer every time.

I grew up on well water. It was fine.

Problem is when it isn't fine, such as in an "urban" area where there's lots of people drawing water and lots of people dumping contaminants indiscriminately (common then).

They may have "discovered" strong drinks at a point when the expanding American corn-farming industry discovered that moving whiskey was a whole lot more profitable per volume than dried corn.

Cholera was transmitted via contaminated water, remember John Snow's famous map showing the affected families during an 1854 outbreak in London were near one particular pump:


Very interesting read. Assuming I descended from these people, I wonder if I could build up such a tolerance, because it sure doesn't seem that way on the rare occassions I do drink.

Does anyone have links to a similar history of coffee? When and how it originated, effects it had on the people, etc.

Fernand Braudel has some pretty interesting material about coffee in passing, in The Structures of Everyday Life. One thing he discusses is how alcohol, coffee, and tobacco all substituted for each other to an extent: where coffee consumption spread in France, for example, wine consumption fell.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that all three were primarily social activities - you'd go and meet your friends for a drink at the bar, or some coffee at the coffeeshop, or to smoke cigars at a lounge. If your friends are all drinking coffee, you're likely going to start seeking a caffeine buzz rather than an alcohol one.

That sounds about right. To judge by The Structures of Everyday Life (my source for talking about all this), even "drinking to get drunk" was something done socially. Taverns were the ruin of the peasantry when they spread into the French countryside; there were enormous taverns just outside the walls of Paris, where the whole city gathered to drink too much wine and dodge the city's heavy taxes on it; and English society got blitzed on gin in the 18th century (a drinking epidemic even by early-modern standards), but specifically on gin sold by the glass and drunk on the spot, in the company of other patrons.

Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee [1] is the best book on the history of coffee that I know of. Fascinating story, in part because coffee's history with humans is far more brief than that of alcohol or opium. There's basically an order of magnitude difference between the former and the latter (1k years of consumption vs 10k).

I also agree with the Braudel recommendation.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Social-Life-Coffee-Emergence-Coffeeho...

I would really love to know the prevalence of liver disease then vs now. Because now it is apparently at a record high or so we are being told all the time.

Problem is life expectancy was so low then it would be hard to do a proper comparison, and most cases of liver failure happen in later life.

I absolutely love that they're trying to reach a broader public engagement of their historical academic work through innovative events such as the pub nights. I mean it's pretty easy for this when your research is into brewing habits of early modern people but it marks a significant depature from the lofty circles of academia and helps to really engage Joe Public with historical research and academic discovery in an easily accessable way.

I think that's an absolutely fantastic goal to shoot for. Scientific (and in a broader sense, academic in general) outreach is really important and beneficial for society as a whole, so I'm only too happy to read about how some people are trying to do that!

> beer was more important as a source of energy (via calories both from grain and alcohol)

> they were likely to have been pushing for ‘sweetness and body’ rather than maximum alcoholic strength

So, basically, people drank beer like they drink soda-pop today, and wanted the same things out of it (sweet, fizzy, not necessarily alcoholic, goes well with food.)

Anyone know what those people of the Early Modern era had to say about coffee? Were people who drank coffee, but not beer, considered teetotalers?

IIRC, coffee was introduced to Europe at about the end of the Dark Ages. I don't think it's a coincidence.

"James S. goes on to point out that while you can achieve the percentages suggested by Craig using modern barley, malting techniques, yeast, and equipment, such ‘show-stopping’ figures were unlikely to have been achieved by even the commercial producers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."

This is a key point. Malting is tricky: The barley seed must be germinated, since the enzyme that converts starch to fermentable sugars is produced by the sprouting seed. Then the germinated seed must be sterilized in a way that prevents too much of the starch from being converted but also does little damage to the grain. This can be done with drying, toasting, and smoking, but it requires a lot of process control to get a uniformly "pale" malt rather than a darker caramel or chocolate malt where some of the starches and sugars have been caramelized.

The development and popularization of pilseners and other light, clear beers in the 19th century was driven by techical advances in malting. 18th century malts were certainly less advanced, more uneven in quality, with a higher proportion of caramelized and toasted sugars and consequently a lot of body and a lower alcohol content.

Reminded me of the theory that early humans ate tons of psychedelic fungus and that is what helped us create the neural pathways towards sentience. (if you think we are sentient now that is)

Between that, and the cannabis receptors in our brains, perhaps we're not supposed to be sober.

Maybe everything is going to shit in the world because we as a species are going through a collective withdrawal from the substances that made us in the first place.

Edit: I think this is the documentary that I saw that referenced weaker beer. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/watch-video/#id=2082...

In my early 20s I could drink 5% ABV beer all day long and never get too drunk to pass a field-sobriety test.

This link is just timing out for me. HN hug of death?

Fullhn.com has it saved.

How did they avoid massive weight gain?

Exercise. People had to physically work a whole lot harder than we do. Local travel was mostly by foot. Heating the house meant hauling & shoveling coal or wood. Food & clothing was far more labor intensive. Entertainment was far more likely physical; even watching a show meant traveling to the theater.

Contrast today, where the thermostat keeps temperatures comfortable automatically, car/bus/taxi takes most people everywhere, prepared food is cheap (heat via microwave), work for the HN crowd is sitting/reading/typing, and entertainment is staring at a glowing wall.

A lot more physical activity. I think it's fairly well established that ~ 90% of people worked in agriculture (without machinery, of course) as recently as the 18th century.


* Because beer was consumed as a source of energy rather than as an alternative to water, and high alcohol content was favored, it seems like the answer is "Yes."

* However, it's unclear whether early brewers could make drinkable beer at high ABV, throwing this conclusion into doubt.

* But even if they couldn't hit the high ABV numbers, they were still drinking at least 3% beer pretty much all day long.

From what I've read, this behavior pretty much continued straight through until prohibition in the States. Usually a cider before about lunch, then beer and spirits.

From what I understand prohibition was the result of revolutionary drinking habits meeting up with increasing supplies of industrialized and cheap high alcohol beer and spirits.

As urban populations grew, rural grain farmers soon found that transporting spirits was a far more profitable per-volume process than raw dry grains.

BTW: that eventually led to institutionalizing the Southern US's illegal "moonshine culture", which as the automobile became commonplace started using cars for smuggling spirits, which then led to car racing (smugglers had powerful vehicles and talented drivers) which eventually manifested as NASCAR.

I'm noticing this thread is completely missing the point that common fruit drinks (high calorie, nutritious, safe origin), which was a convenient way of storing fruit (just squeeze & filter), would immediately start fermenting. Other than water (often unsafe) or milk (goes bad quickly), about the only shelf-stable beverages were self-fermenting.

> Were early modern people perpetually drunk?

It's an idiotic premise. Turn up to work drunk and see how well you do.

Who the hell would want to do a labourer's job drunk.

Who would hire someone drunk?

Imagine the whole workforce drunk?

Even tipsy, seems worse, the afternoon sucks after lunch drinks.

I think if you look at current 3rd world countries they are not far off culturally to 'Early Modern People'

There's a huge crutch on alcohol, it kills a lot of people.

But most people are not drunk (or tipsy) most of the time.

I come from a working class background in St. Louis. Laborers and factory workers absolutely do drink and smoke on and before the job. They don't necessarily show up wasted -- as you say, how could they? -- but they drink. It's less tolerated than in the past, but it still goes on, and it used to be much worse in recent memory, so I have no trouble believing it was even worse before that.

There's a pretty great scene in Season 2 of The Wire where the dock workers are subject to a checkpoint early in the morning on their way to the docks because of a political battle that has nothing to do with them. They've all just come from the bar, of course. One of the guys says to the cop stopping them, "Oh come on! It's 8 AM! Who would be drunk this early!"

I assure you that's meant to be funny.

You can sweat out a lot of beer doing brute-force manual labor. Especially if it's relatively low-test beer - it's pretty hard to drink it fast enough to get tipsy.

I mean, the daily ration of beer in the Royal Navy, when they were in English waters and not on hard stuff, was one gallon per man per day. And they were scampering around in the mastheads...

> it's pretty hard to drink it fast enough to get tipsy


> was one gallon per man per day.

It'd be interesting to see how it was consumed. I'd imagine most sailors rarely took their entire ration and it'd be after shift as a binge.

I like this quote -

"You mustn't imagine that naval ships were sailed by crews of drunken sailors," says Dr van der Merwe, general editor at the National Maritime Museum. "Everybody drowns if sailors are drunk all the time."


This is like the myth of split sleep, I don't know why people think these things are possible.

We know how we live, we know how really poor people live and these things just don't fit, they are illogical but people still believe them.

> one gallon per man per day

No it wasn't. There was never a time that a whole gallon per day was a normal rum ration. It was a gallon of beer, later a half pint of rum. A half pint of strong rum is still a lot to consume every day, but it's nowhere near a gallon.

Over time it was reduced until it turned into basically a shot, and then even that was stopped.


You just said the same thing as your parent comment (one gallon of beer per day). Please read carefully before disagreeing.

I read that a half dozen times before replying. Not sure how I misread that. Oops

Thanks for pointing out my mistake.

This is the common sense view. But I think it's mistaken, which is what makes the article surprising and interesting.

People can learn and adapt to alcohol consumption and use it to get more work done, especially unpleasant work, just as they do with coffee. Not necessarily their best work, but work nonetheless. Some function very effectively on it, even intellectually e.g. Christopher Hitchens.

Europeans often (typically?) drink during lunch. When I worked in Germany, the company cafeteria had someone serving beer, and bottles of wine were available to take with you.

If there's any cultural abnormality on the subject, it's that American companies consider the slightest hint of job-related alcohol consumption a firing offense.

In the bar & restaurant industry, it's pretty common for workers to drink and get high on the job.

Are you calling the Ballmer Peak a myth?

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