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I've heard that there were two common methods to disinfecting water in the past: boiling water or turning it into alcohol. Presumably, those in the East relied on boiling water, while those in the West relied on alcohol.

In the context of contaminated water supply, ethyl alcohol may indeed have been mother’s milk to a nascent Western civilization. Beer and wine were free of pathogens. And the antiseptic power of alcohol, as well as the natural acidity of wine and beer, killed many pathogens when the alcoholic drinks were diluted with the sullied water supply. Dating from the taming and conscious application of the fermentation process, people of all ages in the West have therefore consumed beer and wine, not water, as their major daily thirst quenchers.

The experience in the East differed greatly. For at least the past 2000 years, the practice of boiling water, usually for tea, has created a potable supply of nonalcoholic beverages. In addition, genetics played an important role in making Asia avoid alcohol: approximately half of all Asian people lack an enzyme necessary for complete alcohol metabolism, making the experience of drinking quite unpleasant. Thus, beer and wine took their place as staples only in Western societies and remained there until the end of the last century. (Source)

What I'm interested in is how those societies functioned if they had to rely on alcohol as a source of water, as compared to societies that relied on boiling water. Was the alcohol thinned down? Was it used only as an emergency source of water?

If they had indeed relied on alcohol, did those societies develop a genetic immunity to alcohol intoxication? Did it have health effects as compared to societies that relied on boiling water? Or was it treated in a manner similar to how modern societies drink carbonated water?

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If the core question is whether people who hadn't yet discovered germs intended to destroy germs, then that has one answer. If your question is whether people who were ignorant of germ theory experienced disinfection as a side benefit, then that has a second answer. If you're asking how people survived as functional alcoholics, there is a third answer. Can you clarify the question? –  Mark C. Wallace Mar 18 '13 at 14:39
@MarkC.Wallace Thanks, I rewrote the question to make it clearer. First part is to confirm the assumption of whether/how alcohol was used as a source of water. Second part is to compare those societies to the ones who boiled water. I'm assuming people back then knew of the benefits of food preservation and treated alcohol in a similar manner, even without germ theory. –  Muz Mar 19 '13 at 11:14
Fermentation doesn't turn water into alcohol. It turns sugars into alcohol, resulting in a maximum of about 5% alcohol before the yeast go dormant. –  Ben Crowell Aug 14 '14 at 15:57
Two correction: 1) brewing itself contains a boiling element, however pure water boiled doesnt remain sterile. 2) Your quotation most probably mixed up cause with result: the alcohol tolerance in the West is the result of adaptation to alcohol drinking, and not the other way. –  Greg Jan 5 at 17:34

6 Answers 6

I don't know whether this is example of people deliberately drinking beer rather than water for it's protective effects. But there is certainly an interesting case study to be had in the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. Wikipedia quote:

"There was one significant anomaly - none of the monks in the adjacent monastery 
contracted cholera. Investigation showed that this was not an anomaly, but further
evidence, for they drank only beer, which they brewed themselves."

Although I've seen this elsewhere (and on the map) as brewery workers.

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This is nice but doesn't really answer the question IMHO. –  Lohoris Dec 11 '13 at 16:30
I can't remember, but i think this started life as a comment. I don't think it does answer the question in itself, but i added it because i thought it was nice. –  Nathan Cooper Dec 12 '13 at 8:47

I know the Germans, not understanding bacteria et. Al. Actually thought the brewing process removed "evil spirits" from water, this explains why they also sometimes used beer in masonry and foundation construction, resulting in more than a few "drunk" (leaning) buildings when too much beer was used vs. straight water.

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contrary to popular belief, buildings don't get drunk by imbibing too much alcohol :) They get drunk by their builders imbibing too much alcohol or by natural processes causing the ground under them to subside. –  jwenting Aug 13 '14 at 7:40
This answer would be improved by sources. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 13 '14 at 10:33
As I was told (oral history by a German brew master). The alcohol actually can cause the cement to set improperly. Contrary to popular beleif the water added to cement doesn't just wet it so it pours and stays where it's put -- it's actually part of the chemical reaction, beer or other things can ruin the strength of it. –  Rj Dieken Aug 14 '14 at 13:45

Alcohol was almost surely first produced by accident. Then people noticed its intoxicating effects. It was probably not until much later that its effects on bacteria were noticed, as these didn't become really important until the population density was high enough that infected water was problematic (a small tribe living near a stream would not have this problem, for instance).

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Got a link for this assertion? It sounds possible, but my understanding is that the origins of alcohol are still hotly debated. –  T.E.D. Mar 18 '13 at 14:28
No, I haven't got a link ... But alcohol comes about so easily! So many things ferment, if left alone. –  Peter Flom Mar 18 '13 at 14:43
True. I was thinking of beer (grain fermentation) due to some recent articles (my bad). Fermented fruit can literally be found all over the ground during the right time of year. –  T.E.D. Mar 18 '13 at 15:20
doesn't answer the question though, of whether drinking alcohol was done (at least in part) as a means to prevent having to drink contaminated water. –  jwenting Mar 19 '13 at 14:55

Yes, they drank beer (and/or wine depending on the availability of the ingredients) so they'd not have to drink (as much) water.
For example http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/egypt_alcohol.html#.UUb7yVfNhgg describes in detail ancient Egyptian beer, which has actually been reproduced from recipes found.

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I will grant you that they drank beer, but was the motivation for drinking beer "to not drink water", or was it that beer is good? –  Mark C. Wallace Mar 19 '13 at 11:50
linked article claimed it was to avoid drinking water, as well as for ceremonial and entertainment purposes. So apparently beer was multi functional :) –  jwenting Mar 19 '13 at 11:52
@Mark C. Wallace - Well, they make the claim it was to make the beverage safe by killing bacteria, but they don't source it. I'm beginning to think it's a bit of "common knowledge" some of those writing on the topic haven't actually verified. –  RI Swamp Yankee Mar 19 '13 at 18:24

In Anglo-Saxon England, beer was watered down, with the most watered-down called "small beer" which was used in place of water for drinking and cooking. The phrase small beer is still used, though now it means of low priority in the sense of lacking importance.

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While it is true that alcohol disinfects, it is also a poor hydration source. First beers (e.g. in Egypt) were low alcohol content, even kids could drink it, and they were mayor protein/nutrition source while being more or less germless. You can argue that this is already a hygienic use. Southern and Middle Europe wine was much more available for drinking (Greeks and Rome in Ancient times, and later all the area during middle ages), but they diluted wine with water for regular consumption. Since wine has very low nutrition value compared to beer, we can argue that diluted wine consumed in large volume in daily bases is mostly a water-substitue / refreshing drink.

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Yes, this is what I've heard elsewhere; plain water was considered impure as a beverage, with watered down beer and wine being preferred. But that leaves a bit of a question - if the water source was so contaminated, what were they watering the wine and beer down with, that it didn't get contaminated in turn? –  Bryce Jan 6 at 1:36
Alcohol keeps the beverages clean, even after mixing, and it kills even the germs that get into it after preparation. Note, we not necessarily talk about sewage water and such. If you open a bottle of water, drink from it, and leave outside the refrigerator, you better not drink it a half day later. Tea, wine etc handles better such situations, germs can grow in them much slower, and also has better taste than some still water source. –  Greg Jan 6 at 5:08

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