“Beer,” writes the Egyptologist Wolfgang Helck, “could easily have been discovered by chance.” The Babylonians and ancient Egyptians didn’t have microbrewing supplies, but they had grains—grains that would, from time to time, get wet, interact with airborne yeasts, and voila, a brewski was born.
That’s according to Ian Spencer Hornsey, who describes in his book, A History of Beer and Brewing, the long, global history of fermented beverages.
Today, most beer is made either by multinational conglomerates or careful artisans, but originally, all men were (rather careless) home-brewers. The Babylonians would mix crumbled bread with water, add yeast, and just forget about it for a while. One of the Sumerians’ few female deities was Ninkasi, “Lady of the inebriating fruit,” who watched over the “cooked mash” as it cooled.
Haphazardly fermenting various starches was, however, not always done with the intention of getting wasted. Medieval southern Europeans and Turks would mix millet with water and let it rest for 24 hours, at which point it would become braga (or boza), an “opaque beverage” with a slightly acidic flavor, Hornsey writes. It only had an alcohol content of 1 to 2 percent, but after Islam spread throughout the region the drink suffered a crackdown at the hands of various teetotalling sultans.
Colonial Americans, as my colleague Emma Green points out, drank far than modern ones do. Much of that, however, was in the form of “small beer”—a diluted, fermented slurry of grains and water that was consumed at breakfast and lunch, including by children and servants on the job. Often brewed from the “second runnings” of grains first used to make a higher-quality beer, small beer had a much lower alcohol percentage than so-called “strong beer.” Before water filtration was commonplace, small beer guarded against cholera and other infections because it was mashed and fermented.
It’s something to consider this Fourth of July, a day for outdoor festivities, copious drinking, and honoring enlightenment-era American values. Guzzling low- and no-alcohol fermented beverages might be the perfect way to avoid the common frustration of being uncomfortably drunk and still standing in the afternoon sun. I, personally, have an extra reason to be temperate on Independence Day: My birthday is the day after, and kicking it off folded up on the couch with a throbbing headache is not particularly celebratory.
Besides, weak drinks are patriotic, stamped with the approval of our founding fathers. George Washington’s favorite small beer recipe called for “a large Sifter full of Bran Hops,” boiled for three hours, then strained. Then he combined it with molasses and let the whole mess stand “til it is little more than Blood warm.” Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, made a 15-gallon batch of small beer every two weeks. The couple learned how to make it from the British.
Most other countries have their own distinctive take on the fermented, low-alcohol refreshment. Regardless of nationality, our ancestors all day-drank with abandon—they just did it with very weak sauce.
Central Asians have kumis, which is made with mare’s milk. The 13th-century voyager William of Rubruck described it positively, writing, “when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue.” Though the pungent kumis “makes the inner man most joyful,” Rubruck wrote, its very slight alcohol content “also intoxicates weak heads.” Swedes have long made svagdricka, a 2.25-percent brew that literally translates to “weak drink.”
Russia, Ukraine, and other former-Soviet countries have for centuries drank kvass, a light-brown substance made by fermenting rye bread. Unlike many other Russian drinks, it’s considered nonalcoholic because it contains less than one percent alcohol by volume. It tastes a little like flat, unsweetened root beer that’s been marinating for a while in a metal barrel on wheels—which is, coincidentally, is how it was vended in Soviet times. Mainly the flavor is one of overwhelming sourness.
That’s how it should be, as Russian writer Alexander Genis told NPR: "The sour is the taste of Russia—everything is supposed to be sour for Russian taste.”
I had some kvass recently with my American boyfriend, who suggested it tasted like the “effluvia of a forsaken tree farm.” I suppose the “taste of Russia” is an acquired one. Regardless, the intrepid can track down a few niche American brewers who make the stuff.
Non-alcoholic beers have been around for a while, of course, but increasingly, American craft brewers are dreaming up modern-day takes on small beer. “Session beers,” which are roughly 3 percent ABV or less, aim to fuel an entire day of drinking with only the slightest buzz.
There are the beer-lemonade mixes called shandies, session IPAs, and even a seven-malt session ale that purports to resemble “bitter orange marmalade spread onto a thick bread crust.” May was “American Mild” month, during which session-ale lovers urged brewers to make low-alcohol beers that don’t taste like canned urine. Godspeed, fellow lightweights.
For those who prefer to go no- (or almost-no) alcohol, the new-age answer is kombucha, the East Asian take on fermented potables. Kombucha is made by letting green or black tea (and sometimes fruit juice and other flavorings) hang out for a bit with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or “SCOBY.” Unlike most soft drinks, it contains little sugar, and with just a few dozen calories per serving, you can chug it all afternoon without feeling like you’re part of some Spurlockian fattening experiment. Many kombucha brands also purport to cure digestive ailments and other health problems, but these claims are dubious.
Then there’s the alcohol question: Many kinds of unpasteurized kombucha were pulled from store shelves in 2010 after tests raised questions about their true alcohol content. Testers were finding that alcohol would ferment in the drinks long after bottling because the yeast cultures were still alive. Some types of kombucha reportedly reached 2 to 3 percent alcohol by volume, slightly below a light beer—and definitely crossing the point at which alcohol regulators would get involved.
The kombucha makers changed their brewing processes, and today, many kombucha websites answer the “Is it alcoholic?” question on their FAQ pages with a firm “no” if they contain less than .5 percent alcohol, the legal cutoff. In short, kombucha is what to have if you want to feel like you’re drinking something beer-like and healthy, but not if you want to get hammered.
Kombucha varieties have only proliferated since this controversy, something I confirmed during a recent visit to the gut-health mecca that is Whole Foods.
First, I tried Buchi kombucha in the “Fire” flavor.” At check-out, the cashier asked me for my ID. When I asked her why, she said she thought it was beer. I could see why: Buchi is bottled in a slightly manlier bottle, with dark brown glass and a vaguely aggro “distressed” font. You could drink it at a backyard barbeque and almost pass for guzzling Bud Light.
What’s inside is almost a perfect alcohol replacement—it even has a nice throat-burning quality that makes it feel bad for you. But, with a flavor like a very potent ginger ale, Fire is actually too tasty to be believably similar to beer. It’s more like a handcrafted soda with ostensible health benefits.
Next came the Kevita “sparkling drink,” which claims to contain four strains of probiotics. I chose the “mojita lime mint coconut” flavor in hopes that it would resemble a cocktail, or at least a Lime-a-Rita. It reminded me of a coconut that’s gone a bit off, but it wasn’t wholly bad. It’s certainly more of, shall we say, a sipping beverage.
How many kombuchas should you drink in a given day? Tipsiness won’t be an issue, but it appears there’s a slight risk of intestinal distress.
“Members of our team have had up to eight or nine bottles in a day while working music festivals and can say the only negative effect we've felt is burping a lot,” the Buchi site reads. Though that amount seems treacherous: “You should be aware,” it continues, “that if you eat a lot of processed or fast foods you may experience what we politely refer to as ‘a healing crisis.’”
That’s a hippie term for digestive upheaval. And indeed, after I downed two bottles of the stuff in one afternoon, I could feel my microbiota start to seize the means of production.
Still, it likely beats a 3 p.m. hangover—or, as more frequently happens to me, falling asleep before the fireworks start.