Archaeologists trace the beginning of civilization to a time when early humans abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a sedentary life of cultivating cereal grains. Whether the principal motivation for settling down was to bake bread or brew beer is still debated. But, for the most part, civilization began with beer, even if civilized behavior often ends with it.
In the earliest civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, a crude form of beer—a porridge-like concoction sucked through reeds—sufficed as the only widely available alcoholic beverage. Given its importance as a source of nutrition and disease-free hydration, most early beer was probably little stronger than modern light beer—though much more filling. It would get you intoxicated, but you had to work at it.
Wine was also consumed by these early civilizations, but only by the elite, who could afford the expense of transporting it from the northern mountainous areas in Armenia and northern Iran where wine-making originated. Greece’s climate and terrain, unlike Egypt’s and Mesopotamia’s, proved ideal for viticulture, and winemaking spread rapidly. By the 7th century BC, Greece had become the first civilization to produce wine on an affordable, commercial scale. Even slaves drank it.
The downside of democratizing wine is that the Greeks now had to police it. At 12% ABV, compared to around 4% for beer, wine represented a threefold increase in potency. It was now three times easier to get drunk—and three times less filling. You no longer had to consume an entire day’s worth of calories to catch a buzz.
This could be especially troubling for a society that prided itself on its civilized nature. Having conquered all of the known world and laid the foundations for modern Western politics, philosophy, science, and law, the Greeks clearly felt superior to their non-Greek speaking neighbors, whom they referred to as barbaroi, or barbarians. And only barbarians drank wine straight.
Greek culture, having evolved with viticulture, developed societal customs to moderate the intoxicating effects of wine. They diluted it. This was accomplished at a symposium, a kind of drinking party where the topics of the day were debated in friendly but adversarial fashion by men of the privileged social classes.
In their pursuit of balance and proportion, the Greeks arrived at four ideal ratios of water to wine—2:1, 5:2, 3:1, and 4:1—which just happen to correspond to the four classic ABVs associated throughout history with beer: 6% strong beer, 5% premium beer, 4% light beer, and 3% small beer.
At the beginning of the symposium, participants would throw dice to determine who would play the role of the symposiarch, a combination of bartender, bouncer, and designated driver, who was responsible for diluting the wine in the proportion best suited to the occasion and maintaining civility at the symposium. The wine and water were mixed in a large two-handled vase known as a krater, from which pitchers were filled and then poured into individual goblets.
Crucial to the success of a symposium was how well the group balanced rational inquiry with alcohol-fueled flights of fancy and insight. Certainly, there is intellectual value in the loosening of inhibitions. “Wine reveals what is hidden,” wrote the philosopher Eratosthenes in the third century B.C. But drinking even diluted wine could lead to excess.
The Greeks could not directly measure blood alcohol levels, but they did develop quantitative guidelines for responsible consumption. In one of the works of the playwright Eubulus, Dionysus, the god of wine, recommends three kraters: one for health, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep.
“The fourth krater is not mine any more—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.”
Of course, the barbarians prevailed. No one drinks diluted wine today except for French and Italian children and Catholic priests. And yet what the Greeks once considered barbaric—drinking undiluted wine—is now considered civilized in comparison to the high-octane alternatives unleashed by the alchemy of distillation.
Greek culture was one of the few to view intoxication free of the moral prejudice often imposed by religious dogma. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the Greeks associated the problems with alcohol not with the use of a bad thing but with the abuse of a good thing. And though the Greeks disdained beer as much as undiluted wine, it is modern beer—not wine—that best embodies the classic Greek model of moderation.