Champagne, legend has it, is the invention of a Benedictine monk named Dom P?rignon, after whom one of the world’s most famous brands of bubbly is named. His invention has produced a slew of imitation sparkling wines, a term that refers to champagne-like drinks made outside the Champagne region of France.
Before P?rignon pioneered his peppy libation, bubbles in wine were actually the bane of winemakers’ existence. Occasionally, residual yeast would find its way into wine, causing the bottles to shatter or their corks to shoot out. Somewhere along the line, though, P?rignon must have discovered the wine from these “defective” bottles tasted pretty good. Realizing this, he began to employ strong bottles and good, solid corks in order to make a purposefully sparkling wine.
It is little wonder no one discovered this carbonation method, called the m?thode champenoise, before P?rignon; it is a very complicated process. Because most champagnes are dry — that is, they have almost no residual sugar — and because winemakers filter out yeast before bottling, it is necessary to add sugar and yeast to the bottle to produce carbonation. This mixture is called the liqueur de tirage, which is French for “bottling liquor,” and the marriage of its two ingredients produces the tiny bubbles immortalized in a Don Ho song and fuzzy memories of countless New Year’s Eves.
The yeast live a very good life in the bottle, blithely eating nothing but sugar and producing gas all day. Indeed, it is a life I have long dreamed of living, but it cannot last forever. Eventually, the yeast die, and they sink to the neck of the bottle due to a process called riddling, which involves manually turning the bottles or having a machine do it.
Once the wine has aged enough and the riddling has pushed all of the dead yeast to the neck, it is time for disgorging. Although this sounds like something that should be kept oneself, it really just involves dipping the neck of the bottle into a very cold solution to freeze the yeast and force it out of the bottle.
At the end of this long process, the m?thode champenoise produces an almost ethereal beverage, one that is prickly on the palate but smooth and refreshing in the throat.
Not to be outdone by champagne (or “sparkling wine,” if you want to be proper), beer also became carbonated at around the same time. Traditionally, the tasty barley sodas had been fermented in large vats, allowing all the precious bubbles to escape. However, brewmasters of the 17th century discovered their ales would have a pleasant effervescence if they put them into sealed containers. It took a while for the bubbly, bottled beer to catch on, but once it did it quickly dominated the market.
The history of carbonated soft drinks is about a hundred years shorter than the history of bubbly booze. By the turn of the 18th century, there were plenty of sparkling wines and fizzy beers available, but it would be a long time until teetotalers would be able to enjoy carbonated drinks.
In 1772, an English chemist by the name of Joseph Priestly discovered the process for capturing carbon dioxide in water. Just 11 years later, Jacob Schweppe, of ginger ale and tonic water fame, began selling fizzy water in the U.K.
Sparkling water is not the only application of Priestly’s invention, however. In fact, much of the beer and sparkling wine sold in the world has at least some artificial carbonation in it. Priestly’s process allows brewmasters and sparkling winemakers to use carbon dioxide to correct for batch-to-batch differences in effervescence, producing a consistent mouthfeel consumers can identify with a brand.
But the most important application of artificial carbonation came in 1819, when an American named Samuel Fahnestock started the world’s first soda fountain. His pioneering mixture of the bubbly stuff and flavored syrup produced the delicious, tooth-rotting nectar on which so many of us grew up.
The American soda market would not be complete until 1886, however, when an enterprising pharmacist named John Stith Pemberton invented a syrup that would come to define the world’s soft drinks. He dubbed his mixture of sugar, vanilla, the kola nut, the coca leaf (the source material for cocaine, which is no longer in the soda’s recipe) and other flavorings of Coca-Cola, and it quickly proved to be a hit. In fact, one could make the case that Coke has done more than any other beverage to spread fizzy drinks to the world.
Whether in champagne, beer or soft drinks, carbonation makes otherwise pedestrian potables far more interesting. Especially on the beautiful, sunny, warm days that inevitably accompany spring finals week, a cold, carbonated drink can refresh and rejuvenate like no still beverage can.
Jason Engelhart is a senior majoring in economics and history. He enjoys long walks on the beach, sparkling water and e-mails at [email protected]