Alvaro watched as the colorful hummingbirds drank deeply of the trumpet flowers, their wings a blur as their heads disappeared into the purple blooms. The High Summer Festival had filled the city with people from nearby villages, here to perform the rites and take their vows at the temple,before the Altar of Fire. The incense from the braziers wafted down, sweet and intoxicating, inviting all the travelers inside out of the hot, humid streets
Before him was the large jug of Fire Wine his mother had brewed. All the priestesses brewed the sacred wine and kept the recipe a secret but children doled it out around the temple. A donation into one bowl meant a sip from the other and a sip had to be taken before one could speak before the Sun God. It put fire in one’s belly and melted the fear away, allowing those who partook to speak freely and without falsehood before their god. It was used to purify as well, sprayed in the faces of those accused of wrongdoing, poured over wounds and used to incite flames. Alvaro could smell the alcohol wafting up on the humid breeze and it made him sway on his feet. This was strong stuff.
A old woman with hands like dried corn husks dropped a metal bracelet into the offering bowl, grinning at Alvaro with huge, white teeth. When she smiled her eyes disappeared on her wrinkled face and Alvaro couldn’t help but smile back. “A drink for the God, tata?” he asked.
“Of course,” the old woman said with a smile. “Though I had a drink before I came here, so I’ll be twice as truthful and half as serious.” She laughed, a loud, raucous laugh. It made the hummingbirds scatter but Alvaro didn’t care. He loved laughter. Hands that bore the brand of the God dipped the bowl into the jug and he handed it to her, careful not to spill a drop of the sacred brew.
The old woman drank deep, tipping her head back as she gulped it down. She winced as she swallowed and coughed, but she smiled through it all. The old woman handed the bowl back to Alvaro. “They brewed it strong this year. The God must have many blessings for us!”
“I pray he does,” Alvaro said, smiling. The old woman bowed her head to him and made her way to the temple steps. The music in the temple had started, solemn and melodic but off in the city he could hear the plainer, more cheerful music starting up in the taverns and music houses of the city. After the temple many people would go into the city proper to celebrate. Fire Wine wouldn’t be on the menu. After telling the truth to the God, men and women would go and drink and make merry and be truthful with one another. Alvaro smiled as a pair of boys just a few harvests older than him came, each placing a turkey egg in the offering bowl. He offered them each a sip and sent them on their way, content to listen to the sounds of the temple, the city and nature all combine in the hot, summer air.
Liquor, beer and wine. Alcohol. Magic. At least it probably seemed like magic to the first people who partook of fermented sugars and experienced the effects of the now transformed substances. Can you imagine what the first drunks must have thought while under the first influence? And the significance of being able to create such a magical brew oneself? Beer is said to be the real reason why people bothered to settle down and grow grain in large quantities all those thousands of ago. If it wasn’t for beer, we wouldn’t have our fancy gadgets or laws or awesome vehicles. Think about that the next time you crack open your favorite brew.
Gods and goddesses have had alcohol, brewing and the merrymaking that comes with in their portfolios for thousands of years. Dionysus, Silenus, Ninkasi, Raugupatis and Raugutiene, Yasigi, Tepoztecatl, Osiris and Aegir are all associated with brewing (and in many cases fertility. Hello). Certain types of alcohol have been reserved for only the highest members of society and used in the solemnest of ceremonies. Other concoctions were specifically for the lowest members of society or poured during the bawdiest of festivals. Alcohol is even a drink suitable for the dead and the gods, poured out as libations, offered at household shrines and used in medicine. Red wine, similar to blood in appearance, has been both imbibed and avoided because of this very quality. Holy Communion uses wine as one of the Sacraments while other religions speak against it, saying that those who drink it drink the blood of the dead and become blood thirsty. Some religions forbid the drinking of spirits altogether; this led to some cultures gaining monopolies on alcohol production and pushing it in a way to ensure a percentage of the population would not convert. Get someone hooked on alcohol, they’re less likely to want to join a religion that looks down upon it.
Every culture has had their alcoholic beverage of choice. In places where water can be sketchy, the boiling of water needed to brew has saved populations and the local flora has always influenced the fire water of choice. In Mesoamerica, pulque and atoli were made from maguay while Andean societies made chicha out of corn, cassava, plantain and even amaranth. Palm wine is made in African and Asia where palm trees are readily available. Beer is made from malted grains while plants like hops, gesho root and heather add bitterness and preserve the liquid bread. The sugar plantations of the New World made rum a popular use for the sugar cane. Mead from honey, sake from rice, wine from fruit and grapes. And when you add to the fact that many flavours and colors are soluble in alcohol, the list explodes. Some add flavor while others added more…interesting properties to the brews.
And of course there is no alcohol without yeast. Some cultures relied on wild fermentation, as in the case of lambics. Some cultures used baked bread to make their beer. Others chewed their grains and spit them into a communal pot. People were sure to bring their brewing barrels and spoons with them when they moved, since the dormant yeast in the utensils would make brewing easier next time around. For centuries brewing was done at home; the earliest known beer recipe is both a recipe and a prayer to the goddess Ninkasi of Sumer. In many cultures, women did the majority of the brewing, since it was done in the kitchen. The invention of the screw in Ancient Greece (yeah, I know. Wrap your head around the world before the screw) led to winepresses being invented and distillation was invented in Ancient Greece and perfected in the Middle East because of alchemy.
The bar or the tavern is such a common starting point or meeting place in fantasy RPGs. But hey, what’ll your PCs have?
-What grains and fruits are produced in the world? What are the tastes of the people? The commoners? The aristocracy? The clergy?
-Is there a deity connected with fermentation?
-Who does the brewing? Do people brew at home? Is there a village brewer? Does each tavern have its own secret recipe?
-What kind of spirits are used for religious festivals? Are different beverages prescribed to different deities?
-Is alcohol something people drink daily? In a work week? Only on holidays?
-Are there laws about public drunkenness? How is drunkenness handled?
-What tools are used to produce alcohol?
-Are alcoholic beverages imported? Exported? Do various regions have reputations for producing unusual or amazing/terrible drinks? How do they preserve the concoctions?
-A shipment of rare, imported spirits is being sent to an important person. The PCs must escort the very valuable and super delicious spirits.
-A certain type of drink is suddenly starting to make imbibers hallucinate and run off into the forest. The PCs must find out what is the cause of the hallucinations. Is it natural? Is someone tampering with the brew? Is it magic?
-A church official pushes to make all of a certain type of grain or fruit church property, in order to protect the alcohol that is brewed from it safe and available for the church to use. Do the PCs agree? Do they take the side of the church or the farmers?
-Someone (a neighboring country, a rival brewery, a city) is saying that brewery that the PCs frequent makes alcoholic beverages brewed with animal waste. The PCs are sent to answer the slander and promote their favorite local beer, wine or spirit to save face and get back lost revenue.
-Before the festival to honor the dead, all the appropriate spirits for libations are discovered to be missing. No other type of alcohol has been tampered with. The PCs must find the missing alcohol and if they can, figure out who stole it and why.
-When local alcohol distillers go missing, the PCs are sent to find the missing persons and figure out why they were kidnapped. Do the kidnapped people know something the rest of the population doesn’t?
-A local cult/sect that encourages drunkenness takes the city by storm. When an important person’s child takes up with the debauching youths, the PCs are hired to get the child back.
-When the local crops are threatened by drought or plague, the PCs are send to a neighboring country to learn how to make a new kind of alcoholic beverage. What do they learn? How is it taught to them? Is anyone opposed to this new knowledge being shared? Anyone opposed to foreign spirits infiltrating the country?
-A religious minority uses a certain type of red wine for their religious ceremonies. When the government passes laws stripping it of its religious significance, the spiritual leader calls down a curse that causes no beverages to ferment and says it will only be lifted when their god is sated with blood. The PCs must deal with the religious leader and potentially the angry deity.
-Does your character drink? How often?
-What is their favorite bar? Favorite drink?
-How do they feel about drunkenness?
-Are you part of any organizations or have taken any vows that forbids you or requires them to drink?
-How do you feel about liquor? Beer? Wine? Any predispositions? Stigmas?
-Someone they just fought alongside in a terrible battle hands them a flask. Do they take a sip?
-Do they pour libations for the dead?
-Your character is offered a flask of whatever they want as part of their reward. What do they request?
Food for thought, drink for thought. What say you?
Also, drink responsibly.