Before Welch’s

Note – Last Sunday I preached the fifth of twelve messages on What’s The Word On Wine, (The Bible And Social Drinking).  The sermon was, New Wine (juice), Old Wine (alcohol), Bad Wine (vinegar).  In the message, I talked about how people in biblical times, contrary to popular belief, were able even back then to preserve the juice without ever having to alcoholize it so it wouldn’t turn into vinegar.  After the  service, I was asked how they were able to do so.  And since it is such an important point, I thought I’d explain it here.

One of the mistakes we all make when it comes to wine-making is to think that we moderns are so advanced and those ancients were so backwards; but such is far from the case.  While allowing for the fact that our fruit-of-the-vine knowledge and equipment in 2,000 A.D. is far superior to that of 200 B.C. – they were, nevertheless, quite able, if not ingenious, concerning preserving the grape.  And this is critical for the following reason:

A Christian abstainer speaks and explains how the biblical words for wine were used to refer to both non-alcoholic and  alcoholic drinks.  A scholar replies, “But it was impossible back then to keep wine from fermenting, as the ancient world hadn’t knowledge of microbiology.  No one could do that until Louis Pasteur and Thomas Welch in the late 1800s.”  Now this line is typical of the many professors who teach the ministers and write the commentaries.  And those who use that argument think they are properly interpreting Scripture and they seem to be right.  But are they?  No!

Sadly, they are taking their own biased ignorance and projecting in onto the Scriptures and ancient world.  To argue that the ancients couldn’t have preserved un-intoxicating wine is wrong – factually, scientifically and historically.  You see, Bible people lived in an agrarian society.  They were very accomplished farmers and gardeners; well-prepared to grow, harvest, process and preserve crops of various kinds, including grapes.  And don’t forget that the land God brought the Jews into was above everything else, a real grape paradise with His’ instruction for them to enjoy that particular fruit-of-the-vine.  The Bible says that every family dwelt under their own vine and that there would be so much of the  purple juice they’d be able to do their laundry in it.  So wine-making was not something the Jews did on the side.

The truth is, non-fermented juice was preserved then –  without electricity, refrigeration, or pasteurization – and enjoyed year-round.  Here’s how the ancients did it:

The Grapes – The major grape harvest occurred in the fall of the year, but the entire grape ingathering lasted six months or more.  This was done by planting various varieties of grapes that ripened at different times.  This was also accomplished by planting grapes in different micro-climates.  These micro-climates would make the same grapes ripen a little sooner or a little later.  Micro-climates are determined by the amount of sun or shade, what direction the exposure is, and whether the grapes are planted at the bottom, side, or top of the hill.  Ancient writers speak of the vast numbers of micro-climate grape varieties; some saying they were almost innumerable.   These Israelites were deeply involved in such agriculture and knew well about vini-culturing, with some of their vines bearing an earlier harvest, some in mid-season, and others at the very end.
The first grapes could be picked as early as July, the last in December, sometimes even after that.  Some grapes were best following a frost.  As well, some vines ripened all their grapes at once, others over a long period of time.  Some vines even bore twice a year.  The result of this lengthy season meant that fresh grapes right off the vine were available for half the year or more.  These fresh grapes could then be made into new wine by simply squeezing them by hand into a cup (like Pharaoh’s cupbearer did for him).

Also bunches of grapes could easily be preserved fresh and made available throughout the year.  Some will protest that our grapes don’t keep long, even when placed in the  refrigerator, but let me explain.  Ancient people were well aware of the keeping qualities of some grapes.  They would hang clusters by their stems in a cool cellar or cave.  Such grapes would keep fresh for six months or more.  Any old gardener will tell you some fruits and vegetables are “good keepers”, while others are not. A good keeper, at room temperature or placed in a cellar, can remain fresh for months.  And this was especially well-known in ancient times when such knowledge could mean the difference between having plenty to eat, going hungry, or even starving to death.

Characteristics of good-keeping grapes include a tough skin and adhering well to the cluster.  The cluster would be cut from the vine.  Any bad grapes would be clipped, not pulled, from the cluster.  (Pulling a grape leaves a “brush” that can start a molding, decaying process.)  Grape clusters were loosely packed in straw, cotton, bran, or hung from the ceiling.  Periodically they would be inspected and any bad grapes clipped off.  Some were stored in airtight containers.  The right varieties of grapes stored in these ways would last fresh for months.

The Juice – It was very common in ancient times to boil fresh squeezed juice down to about one-third or more of its consistency.   It would then be bottled air-tight in a new container (which was often coated outside with olive oil and inside with honey).  The bottle was then totally immersed in cool water for about a month. After that, it was good for a year.  This thick, strong syrup would keep well without fermentation as it was so rich,  microorganisms could not attack it.  Then when ready to drink, water was added.  Sometimes the resulting must was used as a sweetener or like a fruit preserve, but primarily for drinking.  And this practice not only preserved the juice in an unfermented state, but also made it easier for use by the traveler.  Instead of carrying the entire weight of a liquid, you’d take just the concentrated juice form and then add local water for a sweet beverage. A modern equivalent of this practice is cider preservation.  Cider, of course, is apple juice.  The word cider, like wine, can refer to un-intoxicating sweet cider or intoxicating hard cider.  A 1980s book gives directions for preparing cider concentrate or boiled cider.  You prepare non-alcoholic sweet cider basically the same way ancients prepared unfermented wine, boiling five gallons of fresh cider down to a gallon concentrate.  Later, when you are ready to drink, simply add four or five parts water to one part concentrate.  These directions could easily have been written in 80 B.C.

The ancients also had a way of preserving the sweet juice from the grape without first turning it into a must.  This process involved gentle pressing and albumen filtration, but was generally not considered practical –  being both too labour-intensive and time-consuming.

Lengthy is the list of ancient secular writers testifying of preserved, non-fermented, sweet grape juice (Aristotle, Cato, Pliny, Varo, etc.) – men who lived long before Christ did, and even longer before Pasteur and Welch.