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The basic alcoholic beverages are beer, wine, and spirits. All three are consumed in massive quantities worldwide. Many countries and regions brew or distill their own special brands of alcoholic beverages, which become a matter of local pride. The active ingredient in alcohol is ethanol, a psychoactive chemical with depressant qualities. In excess, alcoholic beverages can cause addiction and liver damage, but in moderation, they can be a wonderful form of recreation and a social lubricant.
Alcoholic beverages have been produced by humans since at least 7000 BCE. Alcohol is produced through fermentation, where yeasts, under anoxic (oxygen-free) conditions break down pyruvate in the feedstock material into carbon dioxide and ethanol. The feedstock can be practically anything organic: honey, grains, and fruit, especially grapes. During the brewing process, special yeasts are introduced to a slurry of the organic material, and a number of weeks pass until the beverage ferments. As long as oxygen is prevented from entering the fermentation medium, the "bad bacteria" that produce rot and toxins cannot survive, and a relatively palatable alcoholic beverage can be produced.
The world's most popular alcoholic beverage is beer, usually brewed from malted (slightly sprouted) barely, but sometimes wheat, corn, and rice are combined with the barely. The barely is malted because this helps release enzymes that make it possible for the starches in the grain to be converted into sugars. The barely is steeped in water to create wort, a sweet slush. The wort is then combined with hops, little flowers that have a variety of positive effects on the mix, including adding a bitterness that cancels out excessive sweetness, acting as a natural preservative, and adding flavor. The "hopped wort" is then fermented to brew beer.
At around 15% alcohol, the yeasts use to ferment beer or wine die off. The process of further concentrating ethanol in the beverage is called distillation. There are a variety of techniques for distillation, and the simplest involves merely warming the mix and siphoning off the alcohol, which evaporates more readily than the water in the mix. The distilled beverage is then passed through charcoal filters to ensure it is pure. Some distilled alcoholic beverages include whiskey, vodka, gin, brandy, and Everclear.
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