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Alcoholic Beverages

Alcoholic Beverages

Alcoholic beverages all share the common feature of being produced through anaerobic fermentation of plant-derived carbohydrate materials by yeasts. Sugars are converted to alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide by these fungi, which also impart characteristic flavors and aromas to the beverage. Depending upon what fermentable material is used, and the method by which the materials are processed, alcoholic beverages may be classified as being wines, beers, or spirits. Many countries in which they are produced regulate the production of most spirits, beer, and wine and carefully control taxation of these alcoholic beverages.


Wines are alcoholic beverages that have been fermented from fleshy fruits (e.g., apples, grapes, peaches, and plums), although most often from the cultivated grape Vitis vinifera (family Vitaceae) and related species. While the vast majority of wines are made from grapes, wines may also be made from the vegetative parts of certain plants.

Wines are made by harvesting ripened grapes from farms known as vineyards. The timing of the harvest is critical, since a balance of accumulated sugar, acids, and other grape flavor components reaches an optimal level to ultimately produce a fine wine. If the grapes are harvested too soon or too late, there is the possibility of producing a lower quality wine. Bunches of

Beverage Fermented Materials Carbonated? Distilled? Other Features
Ales Barley malt, wheat, rice Yes No Warm fermented
Stout Highly kilned (dark) malt Yes No An ale using dark malts
Lagers Barley malt Yes No Cold fermented
Weizen beers Wheat malt Yes No Wheat beers of Germany
Red Grapes fermented with skins No No Served at room temperature
White Grapes fermented without skins No No Served chilled
Port Grapes No No/Yes Fortified with alcohol/cognac
Champagne Grapes fermented without skins Yes No A sparkling wine
Sparkling wines Grapes Yes No May be blended
Scotch Barley malt, often No Yes Aged in oak casks
(single malt) peat-smoked
Rye Rye (at least 51 percent) No Yes Maximum 80 proof
Bourbon Corn (at least 51 percent) No Yes Sour mashed with bacteria
Gin Malt, other grains No Yes Flavored with juniper cones
Rum Sugarcane or molasses No Yes Light or dark rums available
Tequila/Mescal Agave tequiliana stems No Yes Traditional drinks of Mexico
Vodka Malt, grains, potatoes No Yes Few additional flavors
Brandy/Cognac Wines No Yes Distilled wines
Liqueurs Wines No Yes Sweetened with added sugars
Sake Rice No No Double fermentation
Cider Apples Yes/No No May be flavored/spiced
Mead Honey Yes/No No May be flavored/spiced

grapes are removed from the vines, usually by manual labor, and are brought to the winery for production. The grapes are passed through a mechanical destemmer that removes the nonfruit portions of the bunches, and the fruits are then crushed to express the juice from the fleshy berries. The liquid obtained from the crushed grapes is termed "must." The must is placed in either open or closed fermentation vessels (typically closed vessels in modern wineries) and readied for fermentation. If red wines are being made, the skins from the pressed grapes are also added to the fermentation vessel (the grape skins contribute reddish pigments to the finished wine); for white wine production, the skins are not used and only clear must is fermented.

The must that is ready to be fermented is then inoculated with a particular strain of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae ) that has been selected for wine fermentation. There are hundreds of different strains of wine yeast, each imparting a particular flavor during the fermentation. When complete, the fermentation will produce an alcohol content of approximately 12 to 14 percent alcohol by volume. Following fermentation, any suspended particulate material (the lees) is allowed to settle, and the clear wine is siphoned (or racked) to a new storage vessel, which is usually a large barrel made from white oak wood. The wine is then conditioned in these barrels for a year or more, occasionally being racked to new oak barrels as the wine matures. Under these conditions, chemical reactions take place in the wine that add complexity to the flavor profile. Even contact with tannins in the walls of the barrel provides subtle and desirable flavor characteristics that lower quality wines conditioned in stainless steel vessels lack. Most wines are "still" (not carbonated), but sparkling wines are allowed to undergo another fermentation after they mature, and are bottled while this fermentation is occuring, thereby carbonating the wine. Champagne is one famous version of a sparkling (white) wine originally from the region of France known by that name.

Wines are bottled in glass containers and are usually sealed by inserting a compressed cork into the neck of the bottles. Wine is stored and further matured while laying on the side, so that the cork remains moist to maintain its airtight seal. Some wines should be consumed within a year or two of production; others need many years or decades to achieve their optimum flavor.

The wine industry is an extensive one, with major centers of production in France, California, Italy, Spain, and Germany, with additional developing centers of production in South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and Chile. Although wine is vinted around the world, certain places are favored for wine production due to optimal climates and suitable land for the establishment of vineyards. Wine grapes often need warm days and cool nights, with minimal temperature extremes seasonally. Furthermore, ample sunlight, available soil nutrients, and sufficient water are required for grape production. Due to variation in seasonal climates, growing and harvest conditions, and seasonal timing of production events, significant changes occur from year to year that make wines produced in certain years of higher or lower quality. Thus, the practice of labeling vintages of wine (the year of wine production) and the grape variety from which they were made is established so that enologists (people who study wine) can evaluate differences from year to year, as well as to ensure that enophiles (people who enjoy and collect wine) can purchase wines of known quality. Since many of the variables that go into wine production are not controllable by the wine producers, differences are bound to occur in each production cycle. The variation in wine flavors is therefore unending and the source of fascination for many who appreciate wine.


Among the oldest records of the production and use of alcoholic beverages is that of beer, which originated in Mesopotamia and the Babylonian regions of Asia at least fifty-five hundred years ago. Beer is a beverage obtained by fermenting carbohydrate-containing extracts of various grains with yeast. It is usually flavored with bittering substances to balance the sweet flavor of unfermented sugars, which are typically found in beer.

The brewing process begins by taking grains, usually barley (Hordeum vulgare ), and producing malt. To do this, viable barley grains are steeped in water and allowed to germinate under controlled conditions. The germination process produces enzymes that begin to break down the complex carbohydrates (starch) found in the endosperm of the barley grains into soluble sugars. When a specified stage of germination is reached, the enzyme concentration in the sprouted grains is maximized to an optimal level, and the entire process is halted abruptly by rapid drying (called kilning) of the grains to remove most of the water. At this stage the sprouted and dried grains are called malt. The degree of kilning of the malt determines the darkness and color of the resulting beer; for instance, malts that are highly kilned produce beers with darker color.

In order to extract a sufficient amount of fermentable sugars, the malt is crushed to expose the embryo and endosperm components; the ground malt is called grist. To begin conversion of starches and complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars, the grist is mixed with water (the mash) and heated to a temperature of approximately 65°C (150°F). Under these conditions, the once active enzymes (amylases) are reactivated and continue to break down the carbohydrate materials. When the brewer determines that the conversion is complete, the fluid portions of the mash are removed through a process known as sparging, and the liquid (called sweet wort) is transferred to a boiling vessel.

The sweet wort is then boiled for a specific length of time, typically one to two hours, while the resinous, cone-like inflorescences of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus; family Cannabinaceae) are added to provide flavoring, aromatic, and bittering characteristics to the beer. Hops contain resins, collectively termed lupulin, which gives the beer its characteristic aroma and bitterness. Prior to the use of hops, other herbs, such as spruce, nettle, and woodruff were used for the same purpose: to balance the beer's sweetness with bitterness. The boiling process also kills microorganisms that would otherwise spoil the wort, or produce undesirable fermentation products. The liquid that has been boiled with hops is now termed bitter wort; it is rapidly cooled and passed on to a fermentation vessel.

Fermentation historically took place in open-topped fermenters, although modern commercial breweries use closed fermenters and are meticulous in their sanitary practices to ensure that fermentation is accomplished only by the yeast strain with which the brewer inoculates the cooled bitter wort. Two main kinds of yeast are used: ales are beers fermented with beer strains of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae at temperatures of 15° to 25°C (59° to 77°F); lagers are beers fermented with strains of S. uvarum at temperatures of 5° to 15°C (41° to 59°F), which are further conditioned (lagered) at near-freezing temperatures for several weeks or months. The alcohol content of the majority of beers is generally around 5 percent by volume, although certain styles of beer are produced with alcohol contents ranging from 8 to 14 percent and higher.

Some beers are naturally carbonated by continued slow fermentation after they are bottled, or they are artificially carbonated prior to bottling. Beers are also packaged in kegs (traditionally in oaken barrels) or in metal cans. Although the earliest beer production took place originally in the Middle East, the origins of modern beer styles can be traced to Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic. There are a number of indigenous beers produced by many cultures around the world, but few have had as much influence on the brewing industry as those originating from the European region.


Beverages produced from plant products that have been fermented and then distilled are considered spirits. The distillation process takes the fermented materials, often with a maximum alcohol content of 14 to 16 percent, and increases it to 40 to 75 percent alcohol by vaporizing the alcohol and many flavor components and then condensing them in specialized equipment known as stills. The concentrated alcoholic beverages resulting from this process are spirits or liquor, alluding to the condensate coming from the distillation process. Whiskeys (including Scotch or single-malt whiskey), bourbon, gin, vodka, rum, brandy, and various other liqueurs are produced through the distillation process. Each begins with a different starting material prior to fermentation and these impart different flavor characteristics in the finished spirit. Spirits are measured for alcohol content, and are then described as having a certain proof, or twice the measured alcohol content (an 86 proof whiskey has an alcohol content of 43 percent, for example). Spirits are the major component of mixed drinks.

Other Alcoholic Beverages

A variety of other alcoholic beverages exist in nearly every culture. Often they are safer to drink than local water sources, which may contain parasites, so they are widely used. Additionally, many alcoholic beverages complement different cuisines of served foods, and in some cases have been shown to improve digestion. Sake is a beerlike beverage originating in Japan that uses rice as the source of carbohydrate materials and is double fermented using yeast and a species of Aspergillus fungus. Cider (sometimes called hard cider) is an alcoholic beverage, popular in England, produced from yeast-fermented apple juice; it is occasionally flavored with a variety of spices. Mead, a beverage originating from medieval Europe, consists of honey that is fermented, occasionally together with other herbs or fruits, to produce a winelike drink that may be still or sparkling. The term "honeymoon" is coined from the practice of giving a gift of mead to a newly married couple: if they drank mead (honey) each night until the next moon, they would be given the gift of a new child.

see also Alcoholic Beverage Industry; Cork; Economic Importance of Plants; Grasses.

Robert S. Wallace


Jackson, Michael. The New World Guide to Beer. Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1988.

Johnson, H. The World Atlas of Wine. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1985.

Simpson, B. B., and M. C. Ogorzaly. Economic Botany: Plants in Our World, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1995.

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"Alcoholic Beverages." Plant Sciences. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Alcoholic Beverages." Plant Sciences. . (December 17, 2017).

"Alcoholic Beverages." Plant Sciences. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

alcoholic beverages

alcoholic beverages Drinks made by fermenting fruit juices, sugars, and fermentable carbohydrates with yeast to form alcohol. These include beer, cider, and perry, 4–6% alcohol by volume; wines, 9–13% alcohol; spirits (e.g. brandy, gin, rum, vodka, whisky) made by distilling fermented liquor, 38–45% alcohol; liqueurs made from distilled spirits, sweetened and flavoured, 20–40% alcohol; and fortified wines (aperitif wines, madeira, port, sherry) made by adding spirit to wine, 18–25% alcohol. See also alcohol; proof spirit.

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"alcoholic beverages." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"alcoholic beverages." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from