How Methodists Invented Your Kid's Grape Juice Sugar High
Image: József Rippl-Rónai / Wikimedia Commons

In this biweekly feature, we seek to encourage the local church by remembering the times when things were much, much worse.

It’s weird to think about, but a lot of the things we take for granted are almost shockingly recent inventions. The can opener didn’t exist until 1870—nearly a full century after canned food was first produced (people ate so much canned food that year, you guys). Doors have been around forever, but doorknobs weren’t invented until 1878 (and people were finally able to leave their houses). And grape juice?

Grape juice wasn’t a thing until 1869.

That may surprise you. There have always been grapes, and they’ve always had juice, right? Well, See, the thing about grapes is that their juice is loaded with sugar, and their skins naturally cultivate yeast, so the moment you squash a grape, the yeast gets in the sugary juice and starts turning it into alcohol. The label on that thousand-dollar bottle of cabernet you’ve got in your cellar might tell you otherwise, but, like most of Francis Ford Coppola’s career, winemaking is something a toddler could do by accident.

Prior to the post-Civil War era, if you wanted your grapes to last past next Tuesday, you only had two options: Dry them out and make raisins, or squash them to make wine—and since raisins are only useful for ruining perfectly good cookies, there was really only one option. This was okay, though, because—according to the psalmist, at least—wine is a gift from God:

He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts. (Ps. 104:14-15)

Christians generally recognized this as true—that is, until Methodists decided it wasn’t true sometime in the early 19th century.

To be fair, alcohol truly had become a blight on society at the time, thanks to the (also surprisingly recent) 1822 invention of the column still, which suddenly made hard liquor plentiful and cheap: destroying entire families, neighborhoods, and cocktails in the process. Horrified by the havoc alcohol was wreaking, Methodists began the Temperance movement and pushed for total prohibition of alcohol. (So, if you want, you could blame early Methodists for Al Capone.)

The problem with the Christian campaign for prohibition, of course, was that throughout the entirety of church history to that point, the most sacred of Christian rituals had involved the consumption of wine. We couldn’t exactly crusade against alcohol while also drinking the stuff, could we?

Enter dentist and ordained Methodist minister Thomas Bramwell Welch. Yes, that Welch.

In addition to having a ridiculous name and a Walt-Whitman-caliber beard, Welch was determined to get alcohol out of Christian worship, and he set out to make an alcohol-free wine. His fix for the automatic fermentation problem was to use pasteurization (invented in 1864) to kill the yeast in the grape juice, and then use refrigeration (invented in 1835 or so, depending on who you ask) to keep that yeast deader than dead.

The result was a totally sterile, Space Age beverage that wouldn’t get anyone sloshed, no matter how many thimblefuls they swiped off the Communion tray. He called the result “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine,” because in the 19th century no one would buy a product that didn’t have at least nine syllables and an honorific in its brand name. The drink, which his son later renamed Welch’s Grape Juice, became a success, at first because it made a nonalcoholic Eucharist possible, and later because it became a guilt-free excuse to sell sugar-water to toddlers.

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How Methodists Invented Your Kid's Grape Juice Sugar High