If the germ theory is relatively new, how do they think fermentation was happening (like wine, ale, yogurt etc.) thousands of years ago?

54 views

If the germ theory is relatively new, how do they think fermentation was happening (like wine, ale, yogurt etc.) thousands of years ago?

In: 613

That shit just happened and it was cool as fuck. Berries ferment naturally and people figured that out probably by eating them, and started to replicate those conditions and perfect them over time. They began to see what variables changed the flavor and potency and the like. Relatively quickly the enjoyment of somewhat simple to produce very flavorful beverage spread and so more people started to have more ideas about how and what to do. The fact that it’s fermentation is a new idea and cool but doesn’t actually do much to the process overall

They just knew that brew begat brew, or they figured it was magic.

The Norse had a tradition where they would take a piece of wood and inoculate it with the yeast- sometimes a stick they would stir the brew with, sometimes an unworked log they would simply dump in it wholesale. The porous wood would take in living yeast from the brew, dry it safely, and store it for when it was dunked into the next brew.

They didn’t know anything about germs or yeast, they just knew the wood helped the brew.

A lot of medieval European cultures used beer wort to leaven bread. It’s easy enough to imagine this originating with someone doing this by accident trying to make a simple flatbread, substituting water for whatever leftover beer they had in the bottom of their pot.

Things can often simply ferment naturally. A fruit laying on the forest floor or a bees nest washed by the rain into a hollow stump have a decent, although not great, chance of being colonized primarily by yeast before anything else. If someone was desperate enough to eat or drink those things, they might put together that letting sweet things sit for long enough sometimes made you feel nice when you consumed them instead of making you sick.

Same as why people thought stuff that went up would then go down even though we hadn’t discovered gravity yet.

​

Stuff just did other stuff nd people didn’t look into it any further.

Yeast. It’s visible and interactive and recognizably alive. One does not need to understand cellular life to observe or farm yeast.

People probably knew about it in some capacity, but didn’t have the means to articulate it.

There’s the theory that someone wanted sweet water. So they put honey and water into a jar mixed it, took a few sips, closed the lid and put the stuff away for a few days / weeks. Then opened it again and drank from it again, unknowingly being the first person to drink alcohol. And mead at that.

Then they wanted more of the stuff, so they repeated the process. And then they experimented.

Thanks to modern science we now have this cultural drive to try to explain in rational terms everything that we observe. You see something curious and you automatically start to think how it could have happened. You make theories, you discuss with other people, you look for more information, etc.

But for a long time in history this mindset wasn’t the default. There were too many unexplained events happening and too little knowledge and tools to study them. There was also no urge to do it. Instead, it was more natural to accept things as they are and not ask questions that couldn’t be answered anyway. God knows best. Ancient philosophers and medieval alchemists were members of the higher layers of the society – they had time and resources to ponder those questions, but often they treated it as a hobby and were coming up with fantastic theories instead of something resembling science. Those who really tried were few and far between. So even though we know about people like Archimedes, Galen, or Avicenna, who were rigorous in their studies, their methods didn’t get popular recognition. That changed only fairly recently.

The WEST came up with the germ theory but do not think for a second that ancient cultures did not know about germs and cleanliness. There is lots of ancient literature discussing this. The West took a lot of time catching up and dying in the process….

Fortunately, some firsthand info exists- in particular, the [Hymn to Ninkasi](https://vinepair.com/articles/hymn-to-ninkasi-infographic/).

It’s both a hymn of praise to the Sumerian goddess of beer (also seduction, fertility, and warfare…so they had the full beer thing going on) and a bit of a recipe for how to make the stuff.

You don’t need theory for something to work.

Heres how a science theory comes to existence:

1. someone see something happening, in nature or artificial.
2. they wonder how it happened.
3. they come up with a hypothesis.
4. they test it out with experiment.
5. they create a new theory once the experiment shows support.\

You can leave it at step 1, step 2~5 is not required to replicate the product.

If someone left the oats in water because of procrastination and led to spicy water. They don’t need to understand the mechanics behind that to recreate the process.

I could probably teach most random people how to set up a PCR experiment. I wouldn’t have to explain what is going on, they could just mix the ingredients, put it on the machine, etc.

Same concept.

It’s really hard to explain history of science topics like you’re five, but here’s my best go.

If you want some historical sources of thought on this topic, check out [book IV](http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/meteorology.4.iv.html) of Aristotle’s Meteorology (despite the title, the fourth book is actually not about meteorology at all). Aristotle discusses at length the way that different terrestrial bodies can change and be changed. He didn’t have a theory of fermentation per se, but it and a number of other processes (digestion, cooking, smelting) are considered to be part of the same family of processes. You’ve got to think about things in terms of bodies with certain properties having their properties changed, not in terms of atoms. Fermentation is just another way by which people can change the properties of certain bodies.

Much later, the great alchemist Paracelsus also writes about fermentation as an analogue for the elixir of life. For him, yeast and other agents of fermentation just have a special preservative property to fix things in their current state. This kind of thinking is common in alchemical and non-alchemical texts alike – all the things in nature just have special god-given properties, and it’s up to the clever alchemists to find them. Paracelsus says:

>”We call this preservative an elixir, as if it were yeast, with which bread is fermented and digested by the body. Its virtue is to preserve the body in that state wherein it finds it, and in that same vigour and essence. Since this is the nature of preservatives, namely, that they defend from corruption, not in any way by purifying, but simply by preserving. The fact that they also take away diseases is due to the subtlety which they possess. So, then, they do not only preserve, but they also conserve. They have a double labour and duty, that is to say, to prevent diseases and to keep the essence itself in its proper condition”
>
>- Paracelsus, *The Archidoxies of Theophrastus Paracelsus*, Book 8, *trans*. Waite

Essentially, some stuff just has the power to act on other stuff in a way that preserves it. This isn’t all that weird on an ancient or early modern worldview. Some rocks just have the power to attract iron! Some plants have the power to induce vomiting! This kind of magical essentialist thinking is a major feature of western science up into the 17th century. It may seem like a bit of a cop-out explanation to us, but it worked pretty well for them.

People in the Tudor era had a vague understanding of yeast. It was the woman’s job to make ale for the family, so when it came time to start a new batch, she went into the grain field and sent out a plate with water to “catch the spirits”. Today, we know this as yeast. This seemingly superstitious phrase gives us the word “spirits”, aka alcohol.

Ancient people were mostly like “yeah, food just does that sometimes.” You cook an egg and it hardens, you chop up an apple and it turns brown, you let malted barley sit in a tun for a few days and it gets foamy and makes you tell your friends you love them. Why do these things happen? Dunno. God/s made it it that way, and we love them for it.

When a culture develops agriculture it sets out on a path of inevitable discovery. You grow grains for bread, you store your grains and at some point they get wet and begin to sprout. You have discovered malt at which point God steps in and says,”Y’all though that ‘let there be light bit was good? Hah! Watch this! “Let there be beer!”

…and it was good.

They new about bacteria, fungus, etc. Germ theory describes why and how, not exactly what. Remember that they can see the yeast and such because of the size of colony. It happens more than once and these big collections of something are growing in it? It’s obviously connected even if they don’t truly have a good understanding of it.

You don’t have to know how wheat grows to use flour and make bread… people follow processes that work without needing to know *how* it works at all.

Look at driving a car; the average person has little idea how an engine functions, and often not even if their own car is front- or rear-wheel drive. It just magically goes when you step on that pedal thingy.

So there is a difference between doing something and understanding what you are doing.

Germ theory is new – it is an understanding that germs exist, and beyond that the whole understanding of microscopic life and the role they play in things like fermentation.

Before that, all these things like wine, ale, yoghurt etc came about through trial and error, and passing on that knowledge to the next generation.

Cheese is a good example – one theory is someone in ancient times tried to store milk within a container made out of an animal stomach; this accidentally exposed the milk to the enzymes in the stomach and separated the milk into curds and whey. This is one method of making curds. Tasting the curds you’d realise it’s something new; the next step is separating out the solid curds from the liquid whey to make your cheese. There are over 1000 different cheeses as there are so many different ways of both making curds and what you can do with curds afterwards, and so many different milks to use. All of this is from trial and error, with totally different methods and so different cheeses from all over the world. But the first step is thought to have happened in 5,000 BC and spread from there.

But the science of cheese – actually understanding how curds form or the other steps that go into making cheese work – is modern. Until then it was simply – if you do this, you will get this cheese.

This applies to wine, ale, yoghurt and so on. Some are easier to understand how they might be accidentally discovered – making wine by accidentally leaving grapes to ferment for example. Others are a bit more mind boggling – yoghurt is made by heating then cooling then culturing. However each step still produces something useful that may have allowed the next step, which may explain how complex processes for some yoghurts came about. For yogurt, the first step is called scalding – scalded milk is used directly in some recipes, scalded then cooled milk is used to make some breads and so on.

So while it seems impossible to do these things without understanding how it works, a lot of these things have been around for 1000s of a years and likely came about by accidents, and people trying new things and sharing those new recipes and methods. Then once we developed microscopes we started to understand how these things actually work.

Stuff just works.

Kinda like gravity and the big orange thing in the sky.

“Hows positrac work, how are rainbows made? It just does…. (Joe Dirt)”

they thought it was something certain material did spontaneously. which, without sterilization, is close enough to true. yeast exists naturally on nearly all food.