Last week I asked my social media friends whether their churches use wine or grape juice for communion. Many people shared not only their church’s practices but stories as well. I promised to tell one myself, about the inventor of grape juice.
When my mom was buying Welch’s grape juice and jelly during my childhood, I had no idea how this product had been invented. Its name only signified my favorite juice, and the free glasses featuring cartoon characters that came with the preserves.
Thomas Bramwell Welch, the guy behind those products, was a fascinating man. Born in England, he came to the United States in 1831 when he was six. The Welch family were Wesleyan Methodists, who had broken away from the main denomination over the issue of slavery. (Wesleyans were abolitionists.) At the age of nineteen, Thomas started preaching, but he was forced to stop two years later because, as Jennifer Woodruff Tait put it, “his vocal chords were no match for his religious fervor.” Instead, the young man became a physician, but he didn’t fare well because rural house calls also proved injurious to his health.
Not one to cave in to a setback, Welch became a dentist and moved to Vineland, New Jersey in 1869. I love his advertisement: “good choppers or no sale.” A true innovator, he not only made dentures, he began using nitrous oxide when he pulled teeth to control the pain.
Thomas was disturbed by another kind of affliction, the kind that came from alcoholism, which was rampant in his day and age. He worried about the widespread practice of using wine for the Lord’s Supper, especially because he was part of a “temperance” denomination. He knew what a temptation the wine could pose towards Christians who struggled with over imbibing. In 1864 the Methodist Church called for the use of “the pure juice of the grape” to be used, but this didn’t solve the problem. Grapes were only in season late in the summer, and any juice that was preserved would start fermenting weeks later.
Welch became interested in Louis Pasteur’s work in pasteurizing liquids to make them last longer and wondered whether the Frenchman’s process might work with grapes. Thomas and his son Charles started experimenting with home-grown grapes. They cooked and filtered the fruit, then bottled the juice and put it into boiling water. When they tasted the juice after a specified period, the product had not fermented. Voila! Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine. (The company’s website says juice processors around the world continue using the same process.) In 1892 the juice “went viral” after crowds at the Chicago World’s Fair tried it and liked it. Welch’s Grape Juice—it wasn’t just for communion anymore.
Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch (Wikipedia)