Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the "requirement" to be a teetotaler

Obviously, as someone who has written repeatedly about beer, and has even provided a review of a liquid substance claimed by its manufacturer to be beer, I am (obviously) not in the camp of the teetotalers.  But as someone who does love fundamental Christian theology, I do from time to time come into contact with those who would strongly argue for the position of abstinence.

One recent case is that of David Brumbelow's Ancient Wine and the Bible, where the author makes a number of claims to establish the idea that the faithful have always rejected ordinary wine with alcohol.  One of the claims is that, instead of simply crushing the grape harvest and allowing it to ferment in vats or wineskins (Luke 5), the ancients were prone to taking large portions of their grape harvest and boiling it down into a syrup that would keep through the year, then reconstituting it and making a drink from it.

Now there are all kinds of reasons to reject this, including the Bible's silence on this practice (it's never mentioned), the lack of archeological evidence for this practice (large metal pots, etc..), the lack of fuel to do the boiling, the fact that boiling destroys Vitamin C and exposes the drinkers to scurvy, and finally (Luke 5 again) our Savior's notation that new wine would break old wine-skins, and that people preferred the old (drier, more fermented) wine.  Really, any family that decided to do this would give it up when they got scurvy and couldn't bake their bread or keep warm in winter.

But that noted, I decided last night to give it a try to see how it would come out, so I bought a can of grape juice concentrate (the bottles were all Concord grapes, the wrong species of grape), reconstituted it, and boiled it down to slightly less than its original volume--about a fifth of the original.  This is where the sugar concentration inhibits yeast growth, and a little bit lower concentration than you'd need to stop all molds and bacteria--which is why most people refrigerate their jellies, of course. 

What did I find?  You can do it, I guess, and it is a sort of syrup at 75F (but definitely not in the fridge!), though I'd maintain what grandmother would tell you; the pectin in the grapes is going to change the consistency somewhat.  It took about an hour of vigorous boiling on the stove to eliminate about 40 ounces of water from the mix.  If you had a large pot like the one Grandma used to make apple butter, you might boil off a few gallons per hour, but overall, you're talking dozens or hundreds of hours of time in front of a fire in July and August to do this--and you're going to burn a lot of wood.  I estimated about 2kW-H for my experiment, which is about a kG of coal burned.  So for a family's 1 ton grape crop, we're talking about half a cord (100 cubic feet) of wood or so--again, you're going to be working hard to get this much, especially in an arid land like Israel.

Another note; average temperature in Israel in August goes up to 95-100 degrees or more.  How does it sound to stand in front of that vat all day to stir it?  Keep in mind that you could also just put the juice in skins or vats to ferment, or simply dry the grapes on your roof for raisins. 

When reconstituted with some difficulty, it resembles a slightly charred version of KoolAid far more than a 2007 from Gevrey-Chambertin, and it's certain that no wedding host would say it's the best they've ever tasted.  Keep in mind here that the pan I used was an All-Clad--suffice it to say that my heat distribution was better than that of the ancients, so if they did this, their syrup would be quite a bit more charred than mine.

Verdict: it is extremely unlikely that this would have been done on a large scale anywhere around the Mediterranean.  It's not witnessed in Scripture or archeology, it uses too much wood, and it would be a lot of work for the purpose of getting scurvy and water-borne diseases instead of enjoying robust health by eating raisins and having a glass of wine.


Jim Peet said...

On Sharper Iron here


David R. Brumbelow said...

I am honored you would read and consider “Ancient Wine and the Bible,” though I respectfully disagree with your conclusions.

Boiled down grape juice (which keeps unfermented) was common in the ancient world (documentation is in the book), and is common today. Buy it at Amazon.com:


By the way, I would recommend using fresh grape juice and a slow, rather than vigorous boil. Also, the ancients had other common ways to provide unfermented wine throughout the year.

I happily challenge anyone to fairly compare the information in “Ancient Wine and the Bible.” I think the documentation in the book will hold up well.
While you may disagree with my view on abstinence, it is a historical fact that both fermented and unfermented wine were widely available in ancient times.

David R. Brumbelow

Bike Bubba said...

David, exactly how can you say you're well sourced when there are ZERO Biblical examples of what you claim? Honestly, if I want theology out of whole cloth, I'll just go to the Mormons or JWs.

And exactly what does a modern, Muslim grape molasses prove about the ancients? You are aware that we have fossil fuels to boil it down and they did not, right? You are aware that even in Iran, there were hundreds of wineries until the Ayatollahs came to power in 1979? (it's the classic "shiraz" wine, and yes, Marco Polo and others make it clear that it had alcohol)

Jim Peet said...

Next lab experiment: Take some polluted water ... mix in wine 1 to 6 to "purify" it .... drink and report back.

Be sure to have some IMODIUM® handy

Bike Bubba said...

I'm thinking there are some experiments for which lab animals are a good idea, and my kids' spaniels don't count. :^)

David R. Brumbelow said...

For I have become like a wineskin in smoke, Yet I do not forget Your statutes. -Psalm 119:83

The Bible does not speak in detail about how they dressed and preserved meat, but that no more means they only had rotten meat than that they were helpless in preserving various kinds of wine. Scripture does not detail many of the skills of that day.
The above verse, however, alludes to some of this practice.
Fire and cooking are often mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 22:6; Exodus 12:8; John 18:18; 21:9; Acts 28:2….). Israel was more forested in that day (modern Israel is bringing that back). They certainly had the ability to boil wine.

As to boiling wine in the ancient world:

“The caldron room, in which boiled wine is made, should be neither narrow nor dark, so that the attendant who is boiling down the must may move around without inconvenience.”
“The more the must is boiled down – provided it not be burnt – the better and the thicker it becomes.”
- Columella (4 BC-c. AD 70) a Roman.

Aristotle spoke of wine so thick it had to be scraped from the wineskin.

Hippocrates (c. 460 BC – 370) often mentioned boiled wine.

“With Vulcan’s aid boils the sweet must-juice down, and skims with leaves the quivering cauldron’s wave.”
-Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC).

Patrick E. McGovern is a pro-drinking secular authority on ancient and modern wine. He said, “Concentrating grape juice down by heating is still used to make the popular shireh of modern Iran and was known to the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia as well as the Greeks and Romans. It enables fruit to be preserved, and, diluted with water, it produces a refreshing, nonalcoholic beverage.” -Ancient Wine: The Search For The Origins Of Viniculture by Patrick E. McGovern, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2003.

These quotes and many more, and more detail are given in “Ancient Wine and the Bible.” Many Scriptures are discussed:

David R. Brumbelow

Bike Bubba said...

Tell ya what, David. Cook a wineskin at 212F for a while and tell me what happens. Hint; the Donner party did this with their shoes when food ran short. Hint #2; go to your local BBQ joint and find out what happens when you heat proteins to this temperature.