Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Preserving Unfermented Wine in Bible Times

Editorial note in Biblical Evangelist:
Last year we published a strong message from the pen of a Texas pastor, David Brumbelow, dealing with so-called social drinking, “The Bible Speaks on Alcohol.” David did his undergraduate work at East Texas Baptist University and then earned a Master of Divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

In this issue we are presenting a follow-up as he explodes a long-held criticism against prohibition that “the ancients had no way of preserving grape juice” (the Welches hadn’t been born yet). He gives a fine scholarly answer to this myth, showing that they did, indeed, know how. -Editor R. L. Sumner


A Christian speaks against alcohol and explains how the biblical words for wine were used to refer to nonalcoholic, as well as alcoholic wine. A scholar replies, “But it was impossible to keep wine from fermenting in the ancient world. No one could do this until Louis Pasteur and Welch’s in the late 1800s.”

He adds for good measure, “The Passover wine had to be fermented because it was in the Spring, long after the Fall grape harvest.” That seems an unanswerable argument.

Those who use this argument think they are rightly interpreting Scripture. Instead, they are taking their own ignorance and projecting it onto the Bible and the ancient world. To argue that the ancients could not preserve un-intoxicating wine is wrong factually, scientifically, and historically. Actually, fermented wine was more difficult to make and preserve, than unfermented wine.

Unfermented wine could easily be preserved without electricity, refrigeration, or pasteurization. Following are several examples.

Reduce Its Consistency

One way is to boil fresh expressed wine down to about a third or fifth of its consistency. This thick, strong wine or syrup would keep without fermentation. When ready to drink, it would just be mixed with water. This was also done with cider and other fruit.

Patrick E. McGovern is a pro-drinking secular authority on ancient and modern wine. He said, “Concentrating grape juice down by heating is still used to make the popular shireh of modern Iran and was known to the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia as well as the Greeks and Romans. It enables fruit to be preserved, and, diluted with water, it produces a refreshing, nonalcoholic beverage.” (Ancient Wine: The Search For The Origins Of Viniculture by Patrick E. McGovern, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2003).

Tischendorf wrote of a visit to Coptic monasteries in Egypt in 1845, “Instead of wine they use a thick juice of the grape, which I at first mistook for oil.”

Aristotle said the wine of Arcadia was so thick it was necessary to scrape it from the wineskins and dissolve it in water (Patton, Bible Wines).

Length of the Grape Harvest

The grape harvest lasted six months. This was done by planting different varieties of grapes, and planting them in different microclimates. Ancient writers testified of the vast number of varieties of grapes; some said they were innumerable. Grape vines and cuttings were transported throughout the Roman world.

Israel was at the crossroads of the world. Agriculture was their life. Some vines bear an early harvest, some midseason, some late. The first grapes can be picked as early as July, the latest in December. Some vines ripen all their grapes at once; others over a long period of time. Some grapes bore two crops a year. Grapes right off the vine were available for half the year.

It was a common practice to squeeze a bunch of grapes by hand directly into a cup and drink that fresh, sweet (fermentation takes away the sweetness) unfermented wine. “Then Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand” (Genesis 40:11). Historian Josephus refers to this. Pharaoh apparently preferred his wine fresh and unfermented.

A stone relief found in the Roman city of Pompeii pictures the god of wine (in sore need of a loincloth), squeezing grapes by hand into a cup (Patton, Bible Wines). Early church writings referred to pressing grapes into a cup for the Lord’s Supper.

Grapes Preserved Fresh

Grapes could be preserved fresh for months. Some will protest their grapes don’t keep long. Let me explain. Any old-time gardener will tell you some fruits and vegetables are “good keepers,” others are not. A good keeper, at room temperature, can remain fresh for months. This was especially well-known in ancient times when such knowledge could mean the difference between going hungry or not, or even prevent starvation.

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.

The right varieties of grapes stored in this way would last fresh for months. Leon C. Field, Methodist scholar, said, in 1883, “Niebuhr says that, ‘the Arabs preserve grapes by hanging them up in their cellars, and eat them almost through the whole year.’ Dr. Kerr says, ‘A friend of mine now in Britain not long since unpacked grapes he had received eleven months previously from the continent, finding them fresh and good.’”

Also, “Bernier says grapes were sent from Persia to India, wrapped in cotton, two hundred years ago, and sold there throughout the year.”

An early 1800s recipe book, called “receipts” back then, gives directions that would preserve grapes fresh for 12 months. These grapes could be pressed into a cup at any time of the year (New Family Receipt Book, London; 1820).

Made from Dried Grapes

Wine was also made from dried grapes or raisins. Drying is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. Raisins were rehydrated by soaking or boiling and pressed into wine.

The Talmud (ancient Jewish writings) refers to raisin wine. Polybius (Greek historian c. 100 BC) spoke of un-intoxicating raisin wine. A medieval Arabian writer refers to raisin wine for the Lord’s Supper. Modern day Jews refer to raisin wine.

Sealing “Must”

Seal “must” in amphora (wine container). Roman writer Cato (c. 170 BC) said, “If you would keep must [new unfermented wine] for a year, pour it into an amphora and seal the cork with pitch. Immerse the amphora in cold water for thirty days. Then remove it and the must will be preserved for one year” (De Agri Cultura).

Additionally, olive oil and resin were used to make containers and contents airtight. Filtering was claimed to break the strength of wine. Chemical additives were used. Fermented wine could be boiled to remove the alcohol.

The above methods were widely practiced and provided unfermented wine throughout the year. So, don’t let anyone tell you, scholar or otherwise, that in Bible times they had no choice but to drink fermented wine.

Further study: Alcohol Today, Peter Lumpkins; The Bible and its Wines, Charles Wesley Ewing; Bible Wines, William Patton; Fights I Didn’t Start, And Some I Did, R. L. Sumner; Communion Wine, William M. Thayer; Libertinism: A Baptist and His Booze, Jerry Vines; Oinos, Leon C. Field.

Note:  A new book, Ancient Wine and the Bible: The Case for Abstinence by David R. Brumbelow, contains much more information about Preserving Unfermented Wine in Bible Times

See additional articles on Alcohol under Gulf Coast Pastor Articles (Labels) in right margin. 
SBC Resolution on Alcohol Use in America
Ancient Wine Production and the Bible
Wine for Your Stomach's Sake; 1 Timothy 5:23

-David R. Brumbelow, Gulf Coast Pastor, October 5, AD 2010. 

This article was originally published in the Biblical Evangelist, July-August, 2010.

Subscribe at: The Biblical Evangelist - 5717 Pine Drive, Raleigh, North Carolina 27606-8947 or biblicalevangelist.org (see Link in right margin).  Subscription is free, they operate on a donation basis.  If you can, send a generous donation!


  1. Why don't you read about this in the Bible? Why all the warnings against drunkenness in the Bible?

  2. I assume your first question is, why don’t we read about preserving unfermented wine in the Bible?

    There is much the Bible does not cover. The Bible says little to nothing about preserving fish, meat, grain, vegetables. The Bible speaks often of oil, yet almost nothing about how to render and preserve it. It does not explain how olive trees were grafted, yet it speaks of grafting them. It says nothing of amurca, yet it was a byproduct of oil that was used to repel weevils in grain and allowed the grain to be preserved. It says nothing much about preparing raisins, yet they are often mentioned in Scripture.

    The Bible says little about the details of farming, growing vines and fruit trees or raising sheep and goats. Yet people in Bible times did all of this and more. And they were very accomplished in these practices. Just because we do not know these methods, in no way means they did not know and use these methods. You can find these agricultural practices written about in Pliny, Columella, Varro, etc.

    The answer to your second question is simple. In Bible and ancient times they had numerous kinds of wine. They obviously had alcoholic wine, because we read of cases of drunkenness in the Bible and in ancient literature. They also had nonalcoholic wine.

    Some accuse those who believe in abstaining from alcohol, as believing all wine in the Bible was nonalcoholic. That is a ridiculous charge (I‘m not saying you have made this particular charge, but many have). I’ve never known anyone who believed that. But there are also clear cases of nonalcoholic wine in Scripture and ancient literature. The moderate drinkers ignore or attempt to explain away this evidence.

    Just as today, people in ancient times had a choice between alcoholic, and nonalcoholic drinks.
    David R. Brumbelow

  3. Hey brother David, thanks for stopping by at serious things and sharing your post. I'd like to share my post with you and your readers as well. May God bless you and your studies: Bible Study on Wine and Grape Juice

  4. Another option the ancients had for preservation was lacto-fermentation. This could be simply accomplished by adding some whey to the fresh juice. This would largely prevent the formation of alcohol and prevent putrifaction. I want to thank you especially for the information about the long term storage of grapes without drying or spoilage. Modern varieties aren't selected for this purpose so it doesn't occur to us. One point to consider is that boiling down wine to be thick enough to make a syrup would require quite a bit of fuel, so it wouldn't be used extensively.


What do you think?