What is the malted liquor,

what makes you drunker quicker

what comes in bottles or in cans?

BEER!

In addition to being delicious, beer is ubiquitous. There is evidence of beer production almost as old as grain cultivation in the Middle East and in China. Beer-like beverages were made from any grain available; wheat and barley in the Middle East and Europe, rice in China, and maize in Pre-Columbian America. Other alcoholic beverages, such as wine and mead have origins almost as early, although more restricted in range.

One reason for the widespread success of beer is that drinking water has been generally unsafe for much of human history. The alcoholic content of beer, wine, or mead make it less prone to spoilage; therefore preserving it for long trips. Beers moderate alcohol content combines with its preservation to make it suitable for drinking every day. Studies have even found a negligible difference between hydration with water and a beverage with 2% alcohol (Medieval beers were probably pretty weak).

But what if the microbes that produced alcohol from sugars didn't exist? What else could humanity drink instead of beer?

Conditions

  • Alcoholic beverages do not exist. However, microbes that do some other reaction are acceptable.
  • Just as beer can be made in almost any part of the world, the replacement beverage must be easily producible worldwide, with Neolithic technology.
  • Just as beer resists spoilage, the replacement beverage must have some sort of chemical makeup that keeps it germ-free relative to pure water.
  • Just like beer, it must be palatable to humans. Acquired tastes will make it delicious.
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – L.Dutch Sep 11 at 18:05
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    Note that from what we know of microbial ecology, it is probably impossible for a stable ecosystem to exist which does not contain microbes that can break down sugars. They do not necessarily have to turn the sugars into ethanol, but they have to turn them into something simpler. For the trioses, in particular, there aren't a huge number of other options. – Securiger Sep 13 at 12:37
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    You want to replace... beer??!! That's blasphemy!! "Into the lion pit you go!" – ivan_pozdeev Sep 13 at 17:50
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    Can't get enough of it. Beer! How we really love it, beer makes me think I'm a man! – Persistence Sep 13 at 23:52
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    This is a hopeless pursuit. If the world ever had a new big war or a world revolution or whatever caused us to go post apocalyptic, what would become world currency is with 99% likelihood beer. Some societies have realized this, and some haven't. ;) – mathreadler Sep 15 at 8:44

11 Answers 11

up vote 38 down vote accepted

The obvious answer is vinegar. Most vinegars resist spoiling even better than alcoholic beverages. And, unlike wine, where you have to worry about the alcohol turning into vinegar, with vinegar, the vinegar already is vinegar.

Vinegar is also reasonably hydrating, and easy to make.1 And, while it's definitely an acquired taste, there are people who chug vinegar and seem to enjoy it, so it is acquirable.2

There are definitely some side effects. For example, vinegar may be even worse for the teeth than sour juices and soft drinks. (Then again, I can't actually find any studies on this, just random internet sites asserting that it's true, so it may not be.) It's also hard to drink when you're suffering from conditions like acid reflux.

Still, I think it fits all of your criteria.


Other options worth looking into:

  • Cider-style juices. Resist spoiling, taste great, easy to make. The problem is that in our world, the way they resist contamination is that they're ridiculously easy to ferment, so a colony of E coli will quickly kill itself off with alcohol poisoning. I have no idea what would happen in a world without alcohol. Maybe vinegar?

  • Citrus juices. They aren't nearly as resistant to contamination as ciders, but they're still a lot better than water. When attacked by bacteria, they often just turn even more sour. (Not necessarily pleasant, but we're talking acquired tastes here.) In our world, you ideally want the less-sweet ones, but that's because the sweeter ones ferment into alcohol, sometimes with unhealthy byproducts; in your world, there might not be a similar issue.


1. I'm not at all sure how the biochemistry works in your world. In our world, the simplest paths to converting sugar to acetic acid go through alcohol along the way—but there are other paths, taken by other common bacteria in the same family, such as Gluconobacters—that go directly from sugar to acetic acid. And my guess is that there would also be alternative paths in your world. Without alcohol, the standard Krebs cycle doesn't even exist, so, forget about how these bacteria would live, animals would be impossible, unless either existing alternatives (like the modified Krebs cycle used by Gluconobacters) were more prevalent, or there were new alternatives to replace it. But the details are up to you.

2. Vinegar is pretty easy to flavor, too, but that probably wouldn't be helpful until long after the neolithic period.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – L.Dutch Sep 11 at 19:06
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    Re vinegar and teeth - the acidity of vinegar depends on what exact kind of vinegar you're working with (and obviously with different production processes, the vinegars of the world in question will be different to the vinegars of our world), but some of the more "drinkable" vinegars (e.g. cider vinegar, which is probably the most common type to use for drinking) can have a pH of up to 3.5 when diluted to the minimum concentration that has antibacterial effect, which is comparable to many soft drinks, e.g. ... – Jules Sep 13 at 16:07
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    Diet Coke at 3.3 or orange juice at 3.7, so the use of vinegar as a way of flavouring and preserving drinking water wouldn't necessarily cause any more damage to teeth than other things we drink in large quantities. – Jules Sep 13 at 16:08

Water

The idea that medieval people drank beer because they did not have access to safe drinking water is a complete and unfounded myth.

To quote Steven Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby in their book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use."

There are plenty of articles out there discussing this topic.

Small beer/ale (the type of beer drunk regularly in the Middle Ages) had a small alcohol content, typically less than 1% and never more than 3%. This would have had some anti-bacterial effect, but in given the life-span of small ale in the Middle Ages (it was usually drunk as soon as it was ready with little to no ageing process) I doubt it would have had too great an effect on the liquid's propensity to spoil (See Jack's link in comments on alcohol affect on bacteria over time). As a brewer of regular strength beer, I can tell you that some bacteria will infect a barrel of ale just as readily as a barrel of water.

Having said that, small ale in the medieval period was on some level less likely to make the drinker ill, solely for the fact that the water/wort used to make the ale was boiled before fermentation. But this pales in comparison to the real reason small ale was drunk in such quantities in the Middle Ages: Medieval people drank small beer because it was a great way to squeeze as many calories out of their grain as possible. Off-cuts of stale bread, spare unusable grain were all 'recycled' back into small ale in an attempt to fuel a hungry population.

Without the invention of small ale/alcohol, medieval society would simply just continue drinking water, but in larger quantities. The two articles I have linked do a good job of explaining this, and if you want to make water safer in your world, just make boiling it more prevalent. It is already theorized that medieval folk knew that boiling made water safe through holistic means, just didn't know why :)

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    +1, I've always been puzzled by the argument that "beer doesn't spoil as easily as water". Wouldn't logic suggest that beer would spoil MORE readily simply because it has a considerable amount of metabolisable biomass suspended (hops, sugars etc) in it for the bacteria to absorb? – Wossname Sep 11 at 9:46
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    @Wossname During the fermentation process this is the case yes. Once all your sugars have fermented out you can usually stop worrying as long as it's stored in a sterile bottle/keg. – Korthalion Sep 11 at 9:49
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    The comparison to lab cleaning is misleading. We spray 70% alcohol onto the surface and then wipe it off; this is very different to long term survival in alcohol and what is needed to make something safe to drink. In fact, while foodborne pathogens can survive in some beer, the alcohol prevents their growth even in low alcohol beer, and has a strong killing effect at room temperature at more normal alcohol levels: see jfoodprotection.org/doi/pdf/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-10-546 – Jack Aidley Sep 11 at 12:32
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    @JackAidley Great find - would be perfect if it had a few more intermediate strengths between 0.5 and 2.3. All medieval small ale recipes I've seen and tasted have been between 0.5 -1.5, so I wonder at which point the bacteria begin to die rather than multiply. – Korthalion Sep 11 at 12:41
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    Your spoilage argument isn’t quite correct; first off, weak ethanol contents are nevertheless antibacterial and antifungal (see Jack’s comment). Secondly, the yeast and bacterial cultures living in weak beer are an effective safeguard against some other, potentially harmful life forms, taking root (through good old natural selection). Just because it’s not a complete safeguard doesn’t mean it’s ineffective (and it’s far from it). The claim that drinking water was ubiquitous throughout history is also not quite correct but this is a more complex topic. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 11 at 17:30

Brew a nice cup of tea.

People all around the world found and used all kinds of herbs and other plants with antibiotic properties since prehistoric times. Popular examples for Europe and North America include sage, mint and blueberry. Adding parts of the plant to cold water not only flavors it, but also kills bacteria in the water. But the antibacterial properties might not be enough, so you want to boil the water first.

The disadvantage of tea is that it spoils a few days after brewing, so you always have to make it fresh.

Even in neolithic times people probably had the tools to boil water and cook a soup by lining a pot-sized hole in the ground with leather, filling it with water and putting a hot stone from the fire into the pot.

If you're hunting or travelling and do not have the time or the fire to brew tea, first drink the (untreated) water and then chew the herbs.

Yogurt (etc)

Milk contains lactose, also known as milk sugar. There are bacteria that ferments this into lactic acid.

Depending on exactly which bacteria and what else you do with it, you get a lot of different products from yogurt to cheese. Wikipedia has a list. (Not all of these are drinkable, but many are)

Goats were the first domesticated milk giver. Cows and sheep soon followed. Check Wikipedia's List of Domesticated Animals for details.

Note that people who can't digest lactose have no problem with lactic acid.

Vaelus pointed out in a comment that these bacteria can process other sugars too. This means that in a world without any no alcohol-producing yeast, grain and fruits would ferment into lactic acid instead.

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    Do you have any examples of fermented milk drinks? They would really improve your answer :) I seem to recall Kazakhstan/Iceland/Nordic countries might have some traditional drinks like this – Korthalion Sep 11 at 10:12
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    @Korthalion There are very many to choose from. Added a Wikipedia link. – Stig Hemmer Sep 11 at 10:49
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    This is a great answer, because many cultures actually did use yogurt this way, going back into neolithic Mesopotamia. And they developed the same kinds of mythical stories about yogurt as about beer. (For example, see the Shia/Persian legend that the reason the patriarchs lived so much longer than their neighbors is that Abraham invented yogurt and passed it down through his descendants.) And, while it may not have spread to cold climates immediately, it certainly took hold in places like Scandinavia and Outer Mongolia once it arrived, so it obviously can work in any part of the world. – abarnert Sep 11 at 18:21
  • Perhaps you should add that lactic acid isn't just a product of lactose. Lactic acid producing bacteria can use other sugars to produce lactic acid, so fermented grains could still be used where milk is too expensive or unavailable. – Vaelus Sep 12 at 16:35
  • @Vaelus Good point. Added paragraph. – Stig Hemmer Sep 13 at 7:22

(Spicy) Soups

Spices have been used around the world, but particularly in hot countries, for their antimicrobial properties (food spoils more quickly in hot weather) for thousands of years.

A soup or broth made with some of the more antimicrobial herbs and spices (the source linked above suggests garlic, onion and allspice are particularly good, as well as the more widely known capsicum) would be sterilised by boiling, and the spices would probably work to keep it safe for a couple of days after cooling down (remember that until the introduction of hops, beer could only be kept a short time too).

Another advantage of this process is that a wide variety of herbs and spices - with a range covering most of the planet - have antimicrobial properties, so such an approach would work be feasible even in places that don't have a suitable climate for growing certain plants (e.g. tea, as suggested above).

  • This one could be made to resemble the flavor of beer. – can-ned_food Sep 11 at 18:08
  • Hmmm. You could certainly put hops in for the bitterness, but I'm not sure how you'd get the fermented malt flavour. – walrus Sep 12 at 8:13
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    @walrus Fermented, no. But malt flavour isn’t a problem at all. Malt beer is a popular (children’s) beverage in some parts of the world. Now, conventional malt beer is fermented but the taste is almost exclusively due to the malt, and not due to the fermentation. You can just drink the malt soup (wort), optionally flavoured with hops or other aromatics. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 12 at 8:31
  • @KonradRudolph of course you can put malt in the stuff, but unfermented wort bears very little resemblance to a finished beer. – walrus Sep 12 at 8:34
  • @walrus Depends on the beer. The more malted ales aren’t all that dissimilar to wort. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 12 at 8:38

Blood.

blood for drinking http://basia.typepad.com/india_ink/2007/09/got-blood.html

Many cultures drink the blood of livestock. Currently the Maasai are the ones famous for it, but horsemen throughout history drink the blood of their horses. If you have big tame animals around it makes sense. Blood is sterile when it comes out. The animals can spare you some now and then in exchange for your good care and concern. Blood is very nutritious. Plus as opposed to milk, male animals can contribute too.

However, microbes that do some other reaction are acceptable.

no need.

Just as beer can be made in almost any part of the world, the replacement beverage must be easily producible worldwide, with Neolithic technology.

you can bleed an animal with a sharp rock.

Just as beer resists spoilage, the replacement beverage must have some sort of chemical makeup that keeps it germ-free relative to pure water.

The immune system of the animal keeps it germ free.

Just like beer, it must be palatable to humans. Acquired tastes will make it delicious.

from above source:

I know I'm looking kind of bug-eyed in these photos, but it actually wasn't that bad. It was very thin and bland. It tasted just like human blood. (Not that I'm in the habit of drinking human blood. But if you've ever cut your lip or had a tooth bleed, you know the taste). There was actually very little taste as I was drinking it, but for several minutes afterwards I had strong blood aftertaste.

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    Just gotta worry about all those blood born illnesses. – Steve Sep 12 at 17:27
  • @Steve It is a much wider thing: Wikipedia - Blood as food – CodeMonkey Sep 12 at 19:32
  • @CodeMonkey I know. It's just that blood isn't safe right out of the animal. You still have to cook it. – Steve Sep 12 at 21:42
  • Whoa — if someone had their teeth bleed, that's some serious dental injury right there! They probably meant the gums or other periodontal structures. – can-ned_food Sep 13 at 6:03
  • I think it's unlikely blood could be harvested at the same scale that beer is produced. – Vaelus Sep 13 at 16:35

carbonated malt beverage

So, your two societies — the hunter–gatherer types and the agrarian types — don't have any naturally–occurring way to obtain alcohol in their foodstuffs. Disregarding, for the moment, how exactly that can be, let's consider the other aspects of the question.

You are looking for a beverage which — correct me if necessary

  • Is sourced from a malt of grains and other starchy foodstuffs.
  • Is prepared using such techniques that do not involve metalworking nor any undue labor or time.
  • Is prepared in a way which sterilizes the water so as to kill any microbes which either cause disease or which produce waste products noxious to health.
  • Contains a substance that renders the beverage unsuitable to the future growth of any such microbes as per the stipulation listed above.
  • Is itself not hazardous to health — at least not in quantities that are necessary to satisfy the requirements of adequate hydration.
  • Is not seriously unpalatable. Not an ipecac or anything like that.

Running through various possibilities, I wonder if something like aqueous carbon dioxide could be made tenable?

First, you'd have an aerobic reaction which converted most of the sugars to carbon dioxide and water.
Carbonic acid would retard the growth of most disease–causing micro-organisms and would not affect the flavor of the beverage all too much — indeed, many people like the tingly effect, and it is otherwise almost tasteless.
It would be much like non-artificial soda water: Sodium carbonate was dissolved in a solute of subterranean water which then emerged from springs; it was long believed to possess various health benefits — many of them probably exaggerated, of course.

The one problem with this is the solubility of carbon dioxide in water. Because it doesn't precipitate out in a sludge, which can then be dissolved again, you eventually lose the carbon dioxide through effervescence, or evolution, out from the solution. This would decrease the acidity of the beverage if it was not tightly sealed.
If necessary, I could go through the equations which demonstrate how the solubility of carbonic acid changes with temperature and pressure, and how that changes the pH of the solution. I will summarize with this: the only difference between that and a solution of ethanol — i.e. carbonated beer — is that you wouldn't have any ethanol remaining to retard the growth of unwanted microbes in the beverage.

We can get around that with two other properties of the microbes:

  • They act on starches just as well as they do on sugars. They need to ferment sugars also, but if they produce enzymes that assist them in attacking the long poly-saccharides chains of starch, then they can begin their work when most other microbes — such as bacterial deleterious to human health — haven't had an opportunity yet.
  • They don't need to completely ferment all the sugars in the malt beverage prior to imbibing it. The slurry can be ingested — although it would pay to not drink it immediately if you wished to avoid very unpleasant gastrointestinal pains resulting from the carbon dioxide being released.

Further considerations regarding the microbes:

  • These microbes would need to be much less specialized than any occurring on earth. Not only would they break down starches, but the sugars resulting from that. Furthermore, their rate of fermenting the starchy slurry would be increased chiefly by aeration — mixing in air.
  • To make them easier on the human gastrointestinal tract, simply have them encyst or die at a pH more acidic than their home solution of carbonic acid and within the normal peptic range — somewhere around 1.9 should do the trick.

Kefir or Kumis

Kefir and Kumis are drinks made from fermented milk. Beer may have been ubiquitous among sedentary populations, but in the steppes, there wasn't much in the way of grain. Instead, most of their food game from their herd animals, in the form of meat, milk, and blood. Just like with beer, fermentation happened at some point, and this new drink became popular (I mean, who doesn't like booze?).

As a bonus to whomever may be lactose intolerant, the brewing process breaks down most of the lactose into lactic acid, which shouldn't give you as many stomach problems.

  • The question is specifically asking about a world where alcoholic fermentation doesn't exist. So kefir and kumis wouldn't exist any more than beer and wine would. (There are similar beverages that depend purely on lactic fermentation, with no alcohol, but I think Stig Hemmer's answer already covers those.) – abarnert Sep 11 at 18:24
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    Yup, I answered before I finished reading the prompt. Serves me right for getting too excited. – Nicolas Budig Sep 11 at 18:37
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    A bit too much kefir before going online? We've all been there. :) – abarnert Sep 11 at 18:39
  • @abarnert - the alcohol content of Kefir is < 1%, usually about 0.1%. It's not a critical part of the process (although it does add a quite nice edge to the flavour). Although the bottle I had yesterday that had been left in a hot car for a while may have had a little more ... – Jules Sep 13 at 16:21

Kombucha

Basically fermented mushroom tea tea fermented with a combination of yeast and bacteria. Similar brewing, fermentation, health/calorie traits to beer, but essentially non-alcoholic.

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    I wouldn't call Kombucha a fermented mushroom tea any more than I would call beer a fermented yeast tea. Yes, kombucha uses a fungus (and bacteria) to ferment, but it's a fermented (tea plant) tea. to call it a fermented mushroom tea makes it sound like someone steeped mushrooms in hot water and then fermented that. I don't want to generalize but to me that sounds disgusting. – Sdarb Sep 11 at 20:05
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    @Sdarb Fair enough, mushroom is just the nickname for the yeast/bacteria starter. "Tea Mushroom" and "Tea Fungus" are other names for it though. I'll clarify. – Cain Sep 11 at 22:01
  • Kombucha uses the same alcohol producing yeast as beer, then the bacteria processes the alcohol into acetic acid. This wouldn't work "if the microbes that produced alcohol from sugars didn't exist". – Vaelus Sep 12 at 16:41
  • @Vaelus - other microbes would presumably flourish in order to fill the gap in the ecosystem, probably including some that directly produce acetic acid rather than using alcohol as an intermediary step. – Jules Sep 13 at 16:29
  • @Jules But then you wouldn't really have kombucha, because there wouldn't be a yeast culture; you'd have vinegar. – Vaelus Sep 13 at 16:30

Revised: I'd say fresh juices, like apple juice. There are many medieval or neolithic ways to press for juices; in the end it is just pressure.

If there are no bacteria that eat sugars, then I'm not sure the fruit would rot as fast, or rot at all. Apples can have a waxy skin that retains moisture, and if no bugs are eating the apple, then the water in it has been very well filtered through the apple tree itself. Also the pulp after pressing still makes for good animal feed, e.g. chickens and goats.

Grape juice and orange juice can provide drinkable filtered liquid, too.

All of these juices can be filtered to remove solids and stored in natural pouches, including animal bladders and stomachs, which is how primitives have carried liquids before. If there are no bacteria that eat sugar, then they will likely not go bad; other than the sugars, without any solids, there should be no caloric content to exploit.

I will take exception to the notion that beer tastes delicious, I hate it. I'm not opposed to alcohol, but beer sucks. Hard cider is good, so is wine and liquers.

  • Bacteria that make alcohol from sugar don't exist, so hard cider, wine and liquors don't exist. – kingledion Sep 11 at 17:01
  • But there are bacteria that eat sugars without alcoholic fermentation. In fact, rotten apples have much more vinegar than alcohol, and some citric acid and other acids as well. This is less true after you've pressed it into cider—in our world, cider usually becomes more alcoholic much faster than it becomes vinegar unless you go out of your way to make it into vinegar—but even then, in a world without alcohol, it would presumably just turn into vinegar rather than not spoiling. – abarnert Sep 11 at 18:31

You do know that the vast majority of natural ways to get high involves a medicinal plant in one way or another, right?

If you are too vegan to lick a toad and think that ecstasy and other synthetic stuff is too industrialized for your tadte, here are some options for your greenhouse:

  • Coffee. See this video from Cracked, 4:55 onwards to see how to prepare real coffee.
  • Poppies. America's number 1 addiction problem (not counting alcohol) has to do with opioids. Think of that.
  • Salvia. Legal in the US and UK today. If you are into neo-spiritual [be nice].
  • Grass. Not the lawn variety.
  • Tobacco. Legal drug everywhere, but everyone only wants to smoke it. It can be used in other ways.
  • Jimson. Not to be confused with Ginseng.
  • Coca.

All of the above can be served in tea. Making it hot will kill germs, just like alcohol would do at room temperature but more efficiently. The last one in the list is also perfect for sodas, for those with a kink for history. Each will have their own extra effects... Some will make you happy for a while, some will clear your mind and ideas, coca helps ignore pain and hunger and tobacco soothens the tremors a psychonaut will get from doing too much of the other items in the list.

I am including only those that are easy to plant or to get in most places. Peyote doesn't grow everywhere, and betel is not a thing in the West.

Finally, as for being germ free... Just use fresh plants to make fresh tea! You don't throw away a good apple just because it has no alcohol in it, the same goes for the plants above.

If you must have a germ-resistant concotion then, stick with coffee, but cook ground beans in a leather bag for a few days before mixing with water and serving. Only the good germs will survive. This is a drug the ancients took to go berserk, so be careful.

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    Coffee doesn't grow all over the world. Opioids are probably too powerful for everyday drink. Teas in general don't store, because they need to be hot? Room temperature tea isn't a thing, probably for a reason. I don't think this answer meets the requirements in the post. – kingledion Sep 11 at 4:03
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    None of these things are replacements for water to handle the spoilage problem, which was the whole point of the OP's question. – abarnert Sep 11 at 4:20
  • Beer is a depressant, but most of the things you suggest are stimulants. That's not a very direct replacement. – David Richerby Sep 11 at 13:54
  • Also, traditional coffee processing does involve some fermentation – David Richerby Sep 11 at 13:57
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    @DavidRicherby So does tobacco. So do almost all other answers here. In fact, around 60% of all of our foodstuff is fermented. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 12 at 8:28

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