Why Didn't North American Indians Develop Alcoholic Beverages

Before you start, yes, I know that the Aztecs had pulque, and there were reportedly mild alcoholic brews in some places in the Southeast, and in South America (and elsewhere), they had (as a recent thread said) “Spit wine”.

But there clearly was no tradition of wine or other fermented beverages among most of the American Indians. This strikes me as extremely odd. There were alcoholic beverages throughout Eurasia and in Africa. Natural fermentation of juices and fruits is damned near inevitable. The North American Indians had plenty of sugar=bearing yeast-attached fruits and berries, including the ancestors of several (labrsca grapes, pre-Loganberries) that are used today in commercial winemaking. So howcum they didn’t have wine?
I asked a woman of Native American ancestry this today. She didn’t know. Pepper Mill opines that they just didn’t like the taste. But that doesn’t explain why everyone avoided such alcohol. Out of many thousand years and a great many individuals, inevitably you;'d have a group of people stumble across wine who actually liked wine.
But there is no tradition. As everyone points out, the Indians had a very low tolerance for alcohol, as it wasn’t in their culture. This isn’t a racist stereotype – I’ve heard it often enough from Amerindian historians and students of culture (with today being the latest example). I’ve come across cases from the 18th century and earlier in original documents, and written about two cases myself for a history journal. Alcohol was an unexpected problem for the North American Indians.

But why? An unprejudiced observer would wonder why they hadn’t discovered alcohol long ago and used it themselves. Is it related to that very susceptibility to alcohol they had? Did groups who used alcohol perish because they succumbed to it too easily and essentially wiped themselves out?

Maybe the effects of other drugs they did use were preferred. I would think an alcoholic haze would hinder hunting, and defense against raids.

I should think that would have occured in Europe and Asia as well, though.

Is it true that native Americans had no alcohol? I always assumed they had naturally fermented drinks and it was the technology of distilling these drinks to a higher alcohol content that they missed.

Lack of domesticated animals (except the llama, dog & turkey) led to very small farms led to a limited supply of grains and other crops which led to people eating rather than fermenting them.

To elaborate on what Paul in Saudi said, plentiful alcohol pretty much requires a heavy agricultural society, not a hunter-gatherer society. It’s hard to brew booze when you’re packing up and moving every few weeks to follow the game animals. I did read a theory once that it was the discovery of alcohol that actually prompted early European/Asian society to move from hunter-gatherer to agricultural, and from there to city/state instead of tribal communities.

We did a thread once which identified the peoples around the globe who seemed to fail to come up with alcoholic beverages as part of their cuisine. Damned if I can find it now, though.

It’s also hard to produce grape juice that doesn’t turn to wine within a few days
In the east, grapes were quite common, see The Travels of William Bartram (c1790). The natives made raisons, and juice, yet there’s no mention of wine? Either they boiled their juice, tossed it after a day, or had a natural supply of Campden tablets.

Qadgop, possibly this:
Was the wine in the Bible, Non-alcoholic?

It’s not on the site, but Cecil did do a column about this many years ago, and according to him, the whole “Native Americans have a low tolerance for alcohol” is bunk. What happened, he said, is that the pale faces convinced the Native Americans that when you got drunk, you were supposed to hoot and holler and fire off guns.

Isn’t there a whole list of things any given population didn’t come up with?
And that list is spectacularly long for NA Indians, surely…

As an aside I’m unclear that cultures which have mastered alcoholic beverages have a particularly high tolerance for them.

Use of yeast for bread would help too. Cross contamination with other food stuffs around bread yeasts could be a track to alcohol and cheese development. Any one of the products that use yeast, could be a vector for the other products. Sour Dough starter can be drunk for it’s alcoholic effect. This alcoholic liquid is hooch. In North America they didn’t develop the use of yeast for any of the products that use it. No wheat production in America, so no gluten rich cereals, that use yeast to rise, and contaminate the other stuff.

I think the other way around is more likely. Grapes, and apples, as well as some other fruits have yeasts that grow upon them naturally, and reusing a vessel in which cider, wine or beer have been made to mix a dough could easily provide the first raised bread.


I don’t believe that pre-Columbian Americans had grapes or apples. They’re old world fruits. The only native American crops which are commonly used for alcohol production are corn and potatoes and they’re both used in making distilled spirits.

Like I said “Any one of the products that use yeast, could be a vector for the other products.”

It’s all a speculation. It could just be something catches on just because it’s fashionable and trendy. Neither one of those are a 21st century exclusive.

The Europeans had LSD for a long time, known as the fungus Ergot. They didn’t know about the LSD, but it did change cultures. The fungus proliferates during cool damp summers, on grains used for making bread. The outbreak of werewolf persecutions in Germany is one of the things that may have occurred, because of ergot. The vampire and witch stories may also have a connection to ergot. Local conditions can be one factor in that something is noticed or not. The use of alcohol may depend on certain favorable conditions that North America didn’t have, or just bad timing so that the person recognizing what they had, died too soon to pass it on.

Grapes span both worlds:

Apples too:

Apples aren’t native, but grapes are.

ETA: Bah. Beaten to the punch and with better information, too!

Wouldn’t having less tolerance for alcohol make them less likely to be alcoholics, though? I remember from abnormal psychology that usually, the more tolerant one is, the more alcohol it takes to create an effect…so that people who were more tolerant were more likely to develop a dependency on alcohol.

They had grapes, in some areas. They also had honey for mead. And many other berries will ferment.

You can make beer from just about any grain.

Is it because they were a Stone-Age culture? When did wine-making occur in the Old World - Bronze Age? I find the OP pretty interesting, and hope someone comes in with a Pretty Good Answer.

[Somebody please tell me how to add the small “TM”.]