Rod Phillips, author of Alcohol: A History, talks with Gina Mahalek about beer vs. wine, alcohol vs. water, and the (possible) dawn of a “post-alcohol era.”
Gina Mahalek: This is the first cultural history of alcohol. What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
Rod Phillips: One of the big challenges I had was to create the periods of the history of alcohol because there was no model. To some extent I followed conventional periods, like Classical and Medieval, but more recent periods were trickier. And because this is a global history, I faced the same problems as world historians: periods in Africa and South America don’t align with periods in Europe and North America. So I ended up with a mix of chronological and thematic divisions. I think it works.
GM: What role did the church play in extending wine production up to and beyond the end of the first Christian millennium?
RP: The church was very important in promoting wine production throughout Europe and the wider world. Wine was central to Christian rituals and symbolism and it was needed for communion, so priests needed access to wine wherever they were. But they didn’t need very much because from the Middle Ages to the 1960s, only the priest sipped wine; the congregation took only bread. This means that almost all the wine produced on church lands (including monasteries) was consumed by the clergy as a secular drink or sold on the open market. Monasteries also produced beer and, later, distilled spirits. But it’s possible that the church’s role in alcohol production has been exaggerated because monastic and other church records have been conserved well, while we might have lost the records of much of the alcohol production by other vineyard and brewery owners.
GM: What was the first known instance of prohibition?
RP: When anyone mentions Prohibition, most people think immediately of Prohibition in the United States. But as I hope I show in my chapter on “Prohibitions,” other countries (like Russia, Sweden, and Norway) adopted prohibition policies around the same time as the United States. As for earlier examples of prohibition, the best known and most effective example is Islam. Since the seventh century, Islam has forbidden the consumption of alcohol, and although some Muslims drink, the great majority of Muslims do not. It’s the most successful and enduring example of prohibition in history. Before Muhammad forbade alcohol, a few small Christian and Jewish sects also did so, but they were hardly significant or mainstream.
GM: What is one misconception about alcohol that you hope to dispel?
RP: People are often surprised to learn that alcohol was so widely consumed in the past as an item of diet, rather than as an optional beverage as it is now. There really has been a sea change in the cultural meaning of alcohol as it is now discretionary and consumed for pleasure. On the other hand, it was consumed for centuries because it was nutritious, healthy, and a safe way of hydrating the body.
GM: Why has wine enjoyed more cultural cachet than beer?
RP: It’s true that over the long term, and even today, beer has been thought of as a culturally inferior drink—although today, craft brewers are making beer that they believe is every bit as complex and serious as wine, and terms that have been associated with wine are now being used to describe beer. Originally, it was probably the relative scarcity of wine that gave it cultural value. Wine could be made only once a year, at grape harvest, unlike beer, which could be made year-round from stored grain. Wine was also made in smaller volumes than beer. Relative scarcity made it more expensive and therefore within reach only of the elites. In ancient societies, the elites drank wine and beer, but the masses only drank beer. As the elites monopolized wine, they also associated it with divinity, which reinforced the sense that the rich and powerful were closer to the gods. Continue reading ‘Interview: Rod Phillips and the world history of alcohol’ »