Making Wine and Beer? Resources for Historical Novelists
Wine and beer were important beverages for our ancestors, and odds are you may have to know something about how they were made in the era of your novel. Here are some websites that offer free historical information on wine- and beer-making, followed by some print books on wine.
This website by the Australian Wine Research Institute includes an extensive timeline of major discoveries and firsts in world wine-making history, such as when the first cork factory began producing, or the first use of glass bottles to store wine. You can click on “show graphical timeline” to convert the page to a graph.
This is a guest blog post by Emily Kate on the blog Academic Wino from 2014. At the time she was a history student specializing in wine history, but I haven’t been able to verify her credentials elsewhere, so use this source with caution. The blog post is as titled, a history of wine containers through the ages, with photos such as Roman amphorae, and the evolution of port bottles.
Joshua Malin wrote this article about the history of wine transportation, from ancient times to today. It’s carried on the website of a company called VinePair, a .com firm, which tastes, rates and reviews wines, beer, and spirits to provide information for the consumer. As always, use information on any .com site with caution, watching for possible biases.
Mark Cartwright wrote this article in the online Ancient History Encyclopedia, a nonprofit with a mission to “engage people with cultural heritage and to improve history education worldwide.” The title is self-explanatory, wine in ancient Greece and Rome. Photos include a reconstructed Roman wine press, and one showing how amphorae were packed into a ship’s hold. The article has a bibliography, useful for further research.
This is a sister article to the above from the same Ancient History Encyclopedia, about the early history of beer. It discusses the probable origin of the word “beer,” beer brewing in Mesopotamia and Egypt, plus Rome and the rest of Europe in ancient times. Beer was considered a lower class drink in Greece and Rome, but a dietary staple in Mesopotamia. As with the previous article, it concludes with a bibliography.
This is an e-book version of a print book by Max Nelson, based on his doctoral dissertation, and published by Routledge in 2005. It appears to be freely available to all; a friend in another country confirmed that she could access it. It’s hosted by the University of Windsor in Canada. Chapters discuss Greeks’ prejudice against beer, Celts’ attitude towards beer, the decline during Roman rule, and its popularity among the Germanic peoples. Images include maps, ancient drinking vessels, and a tombstone of a beer dealer in 1st-century Germany.
This blog post on the Smithsonian Institution’s website by Julia Blakely is about Ephraim Bull and his development from American wild grapes of the Concord grape, named after the town in Massachusetts where he lived. The Concord is more popular as a table grape or for juice these days rather than in wine-making, but in the 19th century it was an important wine variety grown on homesteads. The post contains leads to other sources on the topic. Bull’s original vine is still producing grapes in Concord.
This article by John Intardonato appears on Winebusiness.com’s website, and was written in 2007. While it does briefly survey ancient times, the emphasis is on the evolution of Jewish winemaking in America. It discusses Jewish winemakers’ “move away from the traditional, sugar-laced, concord-style wines, and focus on ultra-premium vinifera grapes.” As a .com website, use the information with caution.
This is part of a website called Alcohol Problems & Solutions, written by a sociology professor from the State University of New York, David Hanson. The article is an extensive timeline with comments, and is supported by footnotes and a bibliography that will be of great help to researchers. Did you know that a wine exhibition was held in Paris as far back as 1214? In the 1180s, a tax on ale in England supported the crusades. A link at the end of the article leads you to the website’s section on alcohol use during the Renaissance, and the site offers more on later centuries.
Nina Martyris wrote this article for National Public Radio’s website that makes the connection between Reformation leader Martin Luther and beer. Before the Reformation, Martyris said, the Catholic Church controlled the making of beer, and was against using hops in its brews. The new Protestants embraced using hops in the beer they brewed, one reason being that hops were not taxed. Luther enjoyed beer’s sleep-inducing and laxative properties (he had a constipation problem), and he often mentions beer in his correspondence. Luther’s wife even started her own brewing operation.
This is an online exhibit of objects from an exhibition by Cornell University in the U.S., which curates the Eastern Wine and Grape Archive. The exhibit “offers an overview of the art and science of wine making through rare books, photographs, documents, and artifacts.” Objects in the online exhibit include ancient Greek wine cups, an 1875 map of the wine districts of Europe, and 19th century temperance literature. Each object can be made larger by clicking on a “zoom” link. A related page is available, a recording of a video by wine historian Thomas Pinney giving a talk in connection with the exhibition titled, “A Very Short History of Wine in America.”
This link will take you to the first page of the Museum’s over 430 images related to brewing history in America: tools like skimmers and scrapers, early bottles, various brands’ beer tap knobs, and advertising images.
This page is from Historic Jamestowne (U.S. National Park Service)’s website, and contains a brief history of brewing in 17th century America. Beer was one of the supplies brought to Jamestown with the first settlers. But some of the early attempts at brewing on New World soil didn’t go very well, and some settlers accused others of trying to poison the colony with bad beer. The site includes authors and titles of works in a brief bibliography, but no publisher information.
For a really local historical focus, websites like this one disseminate information about brewing history in a particular town. In the 19th century because of the high proportion of German immigrants, Cincinnati’s beer consumption was much higher than an average American city. This website has a map showing where the city’s breweries were located, and gives names and years of each. Links in the red bar at the top provide further information, such as documenting the very first brewers. The site is owned by John Southwood, apparently a passionate local historian. It’s a .com site, but he appears to be disseminating information rather than trying to sell something.
This article is from the online Canadian Encyclopedia and is arranged in timeline format. The first brewers were Jesuit fathers, and Canada’s first commercial brewery was as early as 1671. I live in an area that’s not too far from the Canadian border, and I’ve heard about the rum-running across borders into Michigan after Ontario’s Prohibition ended in the late 1920s, while the U.S.’s was still going on. A good idea for a novel, and this would be a good place to start one’s research. The end of the article has cross-reference links to related stories in the encyclopedia, about individual Canadian brewers.
This page is from an online version of a Canadian history magazine. It concentrates on Canada’s Prohibition era, so it would be a good additional source to the one listed above for those researching alcohol trafficking between countries or Prohibition in general. The page offers six related images.
This is a section of the South Australia History Hub website, which gives a brief history of beer in the state of South Australia (capital: Adelaide). The site is owned by the South Australia History Trust, a history/museums organization. The first brewery in the state began in 1838.
BOOKS ON WINE
9000 Years of Wine: a World History, by Rod Phillips. Whitecap, 2017.
“No other element in the Western diet has a history that is as rich and complex as wine, and this book sets out to describe it.”—introduction, p.2. Phillips also states that the book “sets out not only to describe but also to explain the story of wine as a cultural product.”—introduction, p.9. The chapters follow chronological order, and a substantial bibliography will provide leads for further research.
Inventing Wine: a New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures, by Paul Lukacs. Norton, 2012.
The author contends, “Far from being the end-point in an unbroken series of vintages stretching back to antiquity, today’s wines are the product of a set of radical, even revolutionary changes involving both how wine was produced and why it was drunk.” Chapters follow a chronological order; there are no illustrations, but the bibliography will be useful to researchers.
The Origins and Ancient History of Wine, ed. by Patrick McGovern. Gordon and Breach, 1995.
The book’s origins lay in a conference that was held at a California winery in 1991, which was inspired by the discovery of early wine vessels in Iran in 1990. The chapters are not transcripts of papers presented, but were based on preliminary papers and incorporated the discussions held afterwards. Chapters cover the domestication of grapes in the Near East, analysis of the contents of Roman amphoras, viticulture in Anatolia, and imagery on ancient wine bowls. It concludes with an extensive bibliography.
Wine & Words in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, by Hanneke Wilson. Duckworth, 2003.
This book does not cover winemaking or the trade, but instead discusses wine’s cultural importance in literature and religion. The Bible and ancient Latin and Greek texts are examined for their attitudes towards wine. Sex roles, drunkenness, and connoisseurship are discussed in various chapters.
Note: my apologies for not including books on the history of beer brewing in the above list. I intended to, but restrictions on library operations during the COVID-19 crisis meant I could not request additional interlibrary loan books beyond the wine ones above, which I had already sent for before quarantine began.
These are some beer history titles I see listed in our library consortium’s catalog that look interesting as sources for historical novelists, but I have not been able to evaluate them:
Ambitious Brew: the Story of American Beer, by Maureen Ogle. Harcourt, 2003.
Barley, Malt and Ale in the Neolithic, by Merryn Dineley. Archaeopress, 2004.
Brewer’s Tale: a History of the World According to Beer, by William Bostwick. Norton, 2014.
Brewing Science, Technology and Print 1700-1880, by James Sumner. Pickering & Chatto, 2013.
History of Beer and Brewing, by Ian Hornsey. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.
Natural History of Beer, by Rob DeSalle. Yale University, 2019.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.