Today, we drink the wine of ingenuity. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The ancient discovery of
fermentation spawned all kinds of foods. Two
ferments are very old: leavened bread and fermented
honey. Yeast, or leaven, generates carbon dioxide
in bread. It makes the bread rise. It gives it a
light texture. Unleavened bread is dense and hard.
It makes biscuits or crackers.
The first fermented drink had to be a form of mead
-- a ferment of wild honey. Before agriculture, it
was the only foodstuff that would've given a
natural ferment. That's why honey-mead owns such
ancient and mystic symbolic power.
Neolithic farmers soon learned to ferment their
newly domesticated grains and grapes. Biblical
accounts of early man mention alcohol some 250
times -- usually wine, but beer and vinegar as
well. Some versions talk about strong drink, but
that's misleading. Distillation was a medieval
invention. No one made really strong drink before
the 13th century.
Natural ferments of sugary fruit juices or honey go
in two stages. The first stage produces alcohol.
The second forms acetic acid -- vinegar. The trick
is to stop fermentation before the second stage can
take place. The easiest way to do that is by
sealing the container before vinegar can be formed.
The Egyptians were already making several kinds of
beer when they began recording their own history.
They were also making wine from dates, honey, and
even milk. Their hieroglyph for the word brewer
showed a man straining mash into a vat. The process
changes slightly in Sumerian hieroglyphs.
So fermenting was a highly refined art in the
ancient world. Biblical references to wine take two
forms. Usually it's a symbol of good and of plenty.
But we're also warned, over and over, to take it
easy. "Wisdom hath mingled her wine," says the Book
of Proverbs. That's a simple warning to mix water
with wine before we drink it.
Vinegar was the strongest acid in the old world. It
was widely used in medicines. Many of its chemical
properties were also known. One of the Psalms warns
against mixing an acid and a base: "Like vinegar
poured on soda is one who sings songs to a heavy
heart," it says.
Natural ferments have an odd place in human
history. They've engaged human ingenuity since
recorded time. Their variety goes on and on. I've
drunk beer made from bread in Russia and wine made
from cactus in Mexico. Ferments make foodstuffs
that are both honored and dangerous. But that's in
the nature of technology itself. What technology
pleases the mind and the senses without requiring
caution along the way?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds