Some background on wine and other drinks:
Wine and other drinks
The Israelites usually drank water drawn from wells, cisterns or rivers. They also drank milk (for example, as mentioned in the Bible in Judges 5:25), often in the form of sour milk, thin yogurt or whey, when it was available in the spring and summer. They drank fresh juices from fruits in season as well. The most strongly preferred beverage was wine, although some beer may have also been produced and wine was an important part of the diet and a source of calories, sugar, and iron. Making wine was also a practical way to preserve fruit juices for long-term storage. Usually, wine was made from grapes for everyday use, as well as for rituals, such as sacrificial libations. Less often, wine was made from pomegranates and dates.
The Mediterranean climate and soil of the mountainous areas of the area are well suited to viticulture, and both archaeological evidence and written records indicate the significant cultivation of grapes in ancient Israel and the popularity of wine-drinking. The production capacity apparent from archaeological remains and the frequent biblical references to wine suggest that it was the principal alcoholic beverage of the ancient Israelites. Based on the remains of wine production facilities and storage rooms, it has been estimated that on average, people could have consumed one liter of wine per person per day.
Ancient Israelite wine press at Migdal HaEmek.
Many rock-hewn winepresses and vats, dating to the biblical period, have been found. One typical example at Gibeon has a wide surface for treading the grapes and a series of collecting vats. Archaeological finds at Ashkelon and Gibeon indicate large-scale wine production in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, which most likely developed to supply the Assyrian empire, and then the Babylonians, as well as the local population. Vineyards are mentioned many times in the Bible, including in detailed descriptions of the method for establishing a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-2) and the types of vines (Ezekiel 17:6-8). The Bible refers to several types of wine and one of the Arad ostraca also mentions wine among the supplies being sent to a garrison of soldiers.
Another indication of the importance of wine in ancient Israel is that Hebrew contains numerous terms for various stages and types of vines, grape varieties and words for wine. The word yayin was used both as a generic word for wine and as a term for wine in its first year, once it had undergone sufficient fermentation from the initial stage, when it was called tirosh. The type of wine was determined by the grapes, the time allowed for fermentation, and the age of the wine.
The often coarse and unrefined taste of ancient wine was adjusted to make it more drinkable. Spices were added directly to the wine to improve the aroma, and other ingredients, such as honey, pepper, herbs and even lime, resin or seawater were added to improve the flavor or disguise a poor-tasting wine. Wine was also sweetened by the addition of grape juice syrup. Wine was also sometimes given an aroma by rubbing the winepress with wood resin. On the other hand, wine could also be added to drinking water to improve the taste, especially towards the end of the summer when rainwater had been standing in a cistern for at least six months. This also had the beneficial effect of lowering the bacteria content of the water.
Grapes were important for the production of wine in ancient Israel
After the grape harvest in mid-summer, most grapes were taken to wine presses to extract their juice for winemaking. Once fermented, wine was transferred to wineskins or large amphorae for storage. Israelite amphorae were typically tall with large handles and little decoration, and the handles were often inscribed with the name of the city in which the wine had been produced, the winemaker’s stamp and sometimes the year and the vintage. Amphorae made long term storage possible, especially in caves or cool cellars. Glass bottles were introduced only in the 1st century CE by the Romans.
The insides of amphorae were often coated with a preservative resin, such as from the terebinth, and this imparted a pine flavor and aroma to the wine. Before the jars were sealed with pitch, they were filled completely and often topped with a thin layer of olive oil to prevent spoilage due to exposure to air.
During the Greek period, the style of winemaking changed. Ripe grapes were first dried to concentrate the sugars, and these then produced a much sweeter and higher alcohol content wine that needed to be diluted with water to be drinkable. Before this, watered-down wine was disparaged, but by the time of the Talmud, wine that did not require dilution with water was considered unfit for consumption.
Beer, produced by brewing barley, was another alcoholic beverage common in the ancient Near East. Beer was the primary beverage of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and it can be assumed that in Israel, which is located between the two, beer was also known. The biblical term sekhar may refer to beer or to alcoholic drinks in general.
The production of bread and beer were closely linked, since barley was the same key ingredient used for both, and most of the tools used in beer production, such as mortars, querns and winnowing baskets were also the same as for bread making. Archaeological evidence specific to beer making is thus uncommon, and earlier indications were that the ancient Israelites did not often drink beer. More recently, Iron Age sites in Israel have produced remains such as beer jugs, bottles, strainers and stoppers, all of which provide evidence that the Israelites drank beer. Nonetheless, the widespread cultivation of grapes, used primarily for winemaking, indicates that wine drinking was probably far more common than beer drinking.