Why drink alcohol? Because historically, water wasn’t safe.

By Richard Keorkunian Richards

The reason beer and wine have been such popular drinks for most of recorded history is because “pure” water found in nature is not very safe to drink in most places, and never was.

Until recently (as in the 19th century) it wasn’t widely understood that disease was caused by microorganisms, but it was already known that people who often drank native water without at least 1% alcohol in it would quite often suffer from diseases from giardiasis to polio, whereas people who consumed mostly beer or wine were much more hale and healthy.

Today one might attempt to explain it in terms of socio-economic status: wine drinkers were most often upper class, and so lived “cleaner” lives. However, this is actually not true. The hygiene habits of the very rich, before the germ theory of disease became widely known, did not significantly differ from the hygiene habits of the very poor. Everyone was more or less equally disgusting, and all the rich had which the poor didn’t were expensive perfumes and powders to mask the odor, which were often poisonous themselves, and still are.

In 1854, there was an outbreak of cholera in London on Broad Street, due to early septic tanks leaking feces into the water system. This is, in fact, the point at which it was conclusively discovered that cholera was the result of drinking unclean water.

John Snow would have received a Nobel Prize, if the Nobel Prize had been invented 50 years earlier. Curiously, employees of a nearby brewery were unaffected by cholera, down to the last man. One of the perquisites of working at a brewery was a free pint of beer every day, which the employees dutifully drank instead of pump water. Even though the beer was made with the same cholera-infested water, the brewing process sterilized it.

In places of the world where alcohol was unknown, unpopular, or forbidden by religious decree, coffee and tea were drunk instead. The process of boiling water to make these drinks kills most microorganisms in it.

The myth of “natural water” being mostly clean is a recent urban myth. For example, almost all wild deer and beavers have perpetual giardiasis infections from the water they drink (to the point that giardiasis is still called “beaver fever” in Canada).

Cold mountain water is actually the least safe in terms of giardiasis: Giardia lamblia cysts can survive for months in such water. Leeuwenhoek himself (the inventor of microbiology) was the first to observe Giardia under a lens, and he harvested it from his own diarrhea. Such infections were not uncommon in his time, and they still aren’t in most of the world today. Leeuwenhoek predates the industrial revolution by approximately two centuries, and was contemporary to Isaac Newton.

Beer and wine being the staple beverages for most of the western world, therefore, it was very profitable to investigate ways that they could be stored for longer periods of time.

Enter Louis Pasteur, whose research was basically intended to find a way of preventing wine from turning into vinegar. He succeeded in this, but is better known today for using his “pasteurization” method to preserve foods and milk, which was really just a byproduct of his work.


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