(The following article is part of A Layman’s Guide to Ancient Life)
Fresh water is the most basic beverage, and while it can carry pathogens there are many sources of clean water in nature. Groundwater is the most common source of potable water for sedentary populations; it is naturally filtered as it percolates through the earth and is usually safe to drink. Spring water is the cleanest form, followed by wells; a general rule is that the deeper the aquifer or well, the cleaner the water. Water from streams and rivers can be safe to drink if the source is clean; mountain snowmelt is a good source of water, though farther downstream the water picks up more particulate. Ponds, lakes, and large rivers can vary in quality from potable to toxic depending on their source and location. In areas with abundant precipitation, rainwater and snow can be collected. Stagnant or standing water should be avoided, as should water that emanates in close proximity to toxic metals and minerals, and water downstream from human settlements.
Water that is unclean is often visibly dirty or cloudy, and can have a discernible smell and taste. There are several methods to treat and purify water; settling water in tanks and filtering water through gravel, sand, charcoal, or cloth removes particulate, while aerating water prevents the formation of algae and some harmful organisms. Alum can be used to clarify water as it settles particulate, and can trap bacteria as well. Heating water kills most bacteria and pathogens; boiling and distilling are the most effective, though heating in sunlight is more common. Some herbs and plant compounds are naturally antiseptic, and can be used to effectively treat water.
Fruit juices are made by crushing or pressing ripe fruits and berries, peeled or whole, to extract their liquid. The resulting liquid is usually strained to remove solid material, and can be drunk fresh. Untreated fruit juice will quickly spoil or turn alcoholic due to its natural sugars. Fruits used to produce juices include apple, apricot, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, grape, grapefruit, guava, kiwi, kumquat, lemon, lime, mango, orange, papaya, peach, pear, pineapple, plum, pomegranate, raspberry, strawberry and watermelon.
Vegetable juices are made by crushing or pressing ripe vegetables or edible plants, peeled or whole, to extract their liquid. The resulting liquid is usually strained to remove solid material, and can be drunk fresh. Plants used to produce juices include aloe, beet, cactus, carrot, celery, cucumber, sugarcane and tomato.
The sap of some trees and plants can be collected, usually by tapping or scoring the flesh, and drunk fresh. Raw tree sap is usually clear with a consistency similar to water and a light sweetness to the taste. As sap contains natural sugars, it can be fermented or boiled down to sweet syrup. Trees which produce edible sap include birch, maple, sycamore, sassafras and walnut. Other plants which produce sap include agave, coconut flower, grape, and palm.
Animal & Dairy
Milk is collected from domesticated mammals and can be consumed fresh and untreated. Left to sit the fat rises to the top, separating into cream. Milk spoils quickly in warm climates and is usually fermented and/or made into cheese if storage is desired. Milk can be obtained from cows, buffalo, yak, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, pigs, camels, moose, and deer.
Blood can be collected from slaughtered animals, or can be let from live animals with small, shallow wounds that are later allowed to heal. Blood can be drunk fresh, mixed with other beverages, or cooked until thickened.
Tisanes are beverages made by steeping plant material in hot water. Tea (by definition) is made with the leaves of the tea plant, whose flavor is derived from the curing process. Tea leaves can be crushed, pressed, steamed, roasted, smoked, dried, and fermented to affect their flavor. These teas are sometimes mixed with other herbs & spices, and can be served hot or cold, sometimes sweetened or mixed with other beverages. Teas made from the tea plant contain varying levels of caffeine.
Tisanes are made with dried or fresh herbs, flowers, roots, grains, spices, or material from plants other than the tea plant. Examples of ingredients used in tisanes include acorn, anise, barley, caraway, catnip, chamomile, chicory, cinnamon, citrus peel, clove, coca, corn, dandelion, elderflower, fennel, ginger, ginseng, hibiscus, hops, jasmine, juniper, kava, lavender, licorice, mint, nettle, pepper, pine needles, toasted rice, rose, rosemary, sage, sassafras bark, thyme, vanilla, wintergreen, wormwood, and yerba mate. The plants used in tisanes often have medicinal and antibacterial properties.
Coffee, cocoa, and kola also fall under the category of tisanes, and are examples of caffeine-containing nuts and beans from which beverages can be made. The plant material is dried, cured, fermented and/or roasted before crushing or grinding, at which point it is infused into hot water (although sometimes cold water is used). The resulting beverages have strong, bitter tastes and are often sweetened or mixed with additional spices such as cinnamon, vanilla or chili.
Plant milks are made by crushing plant material, soaking in water, and straining the solids from the resulting milky liquid. Plant milks are usually served cold and are sometimes sweetened or spiced. Plant milk can be made from nuts, such as almond, peanut and coconut; seeds, such as hemp and sesame; beans, such as soybeans, and grains, such as rice, oats, rye, or quinoa.
Fermenting beverages has many advantages; it increases the time that beverages can be stored for consumption, and can break down complex food structures, increasing the bioavailability of nutrients and making digestion easier. The alcohols and acids produced by fermentation have antibacterial and preservative properties, making fermented beverages a safe alternative when clean water is not available. Any liquids with high enough sugar content can be fermented when colonized by beneficial bacteria.
Honey wine or mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages known to man. At its simplest it is a solution of honey and water left to ferment naturally. Varying ratios of honey to water can produce differing levels of alcohol and sweetness, while local variation in wild yeast can affect the flavor as well. Caramelizing or burning the honey produces a darker, bitterer drink. Honey wine can be infused with herbs and spices, leading to hundreds of variations on the beverage. It can also be infused with fresh fruits; in some cases it is used as method of preserving fruit. Honey wine can be blended with water, vinegar, sour wine or seawater, and may be served hot or cold.
Wine is the most well-known alcoholic fruit beverage, produced by fermenting grapes. White and red are the most common variations; red being produced from whole red grapes and white from whole white grapes or skinned red grapes. Wine can vary widely in alcohol content and flavor; variations come primarily from the fermentation process, varieties of grapes used, and time of harvest (grapes that are harvested after being sun-dried or frozen produce a sweeter wine). To a lesser degree the flavor is influenced by the length of aging, methods of storage and the soil and climate characteristics of the growing region. Wine that continues to ferment after bottling produces bubbles or effervescence, which may or may not be a desired characteristic. Wine may be watered down in ratios as high as 3 parts water to 1 part wine, and can also be fortified with distilled liquor. Wine is sometimes sweetened with honey or sugar and infused with herbs, spices, and fruits, and may be served hot or cold.
Fruit wine or cider refers to alcoholic beverages produced by fermenting fruits other than grapes; oftentimes the fermentation process is simpler than that of winemaking. Fruits used to make wines include apple, apricot, banana, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, elderberry, gooseberry, grape pomace, peach, pear, pineapple, plum, raspberry, and strawberry. Plant and tree sap (such as agave, cactus, coconut, palm, sugarcane or maple) and infusions of starchy roots (such as carrot, beet, potato or cassava) can also be fermented.
Starch or grain fermentations are produced by steeping grains in hot water (mash), then draining and fermenting the resulting liquid (wort). Beer specifically refers to fermentations with hops added, while ale generally refers to ones without; rice wine and barley wine are terms used to describe stronger ales (with alcohol contents similar to wine). The simplest ales were fermented with naturally-occurring yeasts, were low in alcohol content and could replace water as a source of hydration. Bread or gruel could be used in place of mash to start fermentation, and ale can be eaten as a fermented porridge if the liquids are not strained from the solids. Stronger ales are produced by collecting only the liquid from the first wash of the grains, which contains the highest concentration of fermentable sugars; the wort can be further concentrated by boiling and reducing the liquid.
The characteristics of the water used in brewing (particularly its mineral content) can impact the flavor of an ale or beer. Various herbs (such as heather, juniper or wormwood) can be added during the brewing process to add flavor and aid preservation; the addition of hops to beer improves its ability to store without spoiling while imparting a bitter taste. Grain can be pretreated by germinating and drying or roasting in a process known as malting; roasting longer produces darker ales. Most ales continue to ferment after bottling, giving them a natural effervescence. The alcohol content of ale and beer can vary widely; anywhere from 1% to 20% alcohol is possible from fermentation alone, depending on the sugar content of the wort. Grains used in the production of ale and beer include barley, corn, oats, millet, rice, rye, spelt, sorghum, and wheat.
Vinegar is created when aerobic fermentation breaks down alcohol to produce acidic compounds. Vinegar has antibacterial and preservative properties, and while it is usually too strong to consume alone it can be diluted with water or mixed with other beverages. Vinegar can be produced from fruit, grains, and any liquids that have fermented into alcohol, and can be aged and infused with herbs and spices.
Fermenting dairy allows it to be stored for longer periods of time, and tends to produce beverages with a thicker consistency and higher acidity. While it is possible to ferment dairy spontaneously with wild bacteria, the results are less consistent than with fruit or grains – dairy fermentation is usually induced by transferring active cultures to fresh dairy. Yogurt is the simplest dairy fermentation, produced by culturing milk, although cream and whey can also be fermented in this style. Yoghurt can be strained, sweetened, salted, and/or flavored with herbs and spices. Differing cultures (such as kefir) and dairy with higher sugar content (such as mare’s milk) can produce varying flavors, as well as effervescence and alcohol.
Distillation can be used to concentrate the alcohol contained in fermented beverages. While alembic distillation of water and oils was known in early antiquity, it was not until 800 AD that alcohol distillation was discovered (freeze distillation became known around the same time). Concentrated spirits were first used to produce medicines and perfumes, and it was not until 1200 AD that drinking liquors were widely produced.
Distilled liquors can be made from any beverage with suitable alcohol content. Distillations of wines and ciders produce brandy and eau de vie whose flavors vary widely according to their ingredients. Distillations of grain fermentations (such as barley, rye, wheat, corn, or rice) produce whiskey. Many plants with high starch or sugar content can infused in water, fermented, and distilled – examples include potatoes, sweet potatoes, sugar beets, sugarcane and sweet grass. Less common sources of alcohol include fermented saps (such as agave or maple) and whey. Distilled alcohol can be infused easily due to its solvent character – fruit is a common addition, as are herbs such as anise, cacao, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, citrus peel, cloves, coffee, fennel, ginger, juniper, licorice, mint, thistle, or wormwood. Further flavor can be imparted by storage methods, such as wooden casks. Liquor is drunk cold, and is often mixed with nonalcoholic beverages.