Archaeologists Draft Ancient Chinese Beer Recipe

An international group of scholars has discovered the earliest evidence of beer production in China, dating back 5,000 years. Their reconstructed recipe includes the well-known grain barley, plus a few more ingredients that may seem odd to our modern, hops-loving tastebuds.

In an article out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jiajing Wang of Stanford University and her colleagues report the results of tests on pottery from the Mijiaya site in China. The site was first settled between 3400 and 2900 BC, and included public buildings with hearths and variously sized and shaped pottery. It is likely that the local elite in the region engaged in competitive feasting — essentially, providing parties for the locals.

Wang and colleagues took samples of yellowish residue from the inside of seven pots, three funnels, and an adze found in an underground brewing site. But in order to compare the ancient residue to modern phytoliths — microscopic pieces of plant matter — they first experimentally re-created the ancient beer and studied its starches.

Based on analysis of the starches and the phytoliths in the residue, Wang and colleagues concluded that four different ingredients were brewed together: barley, millet, some kind of tuber, and a grain known as Job’s tears.

While millet and Job’s tears make sense, as they are indigenous to this area of the world, the finding of barley is a surprise. Archaeologists previously thought that barley didn’t reach China until about 4,000 years ago. This means that it “may have been used as a beer-making ingredient long before it became an agricultural staple,” Wang and colleagues write.

This early Chinese beer, Wang told the AFP, is “a mix of Chinese and Western traditions–barley from the West; millet, Job’s tears, and tubers from China. My guess is that the beer might have tasted a bit sour and a bit sweet.”

With Wang and colleagues’ new study comes the knowledge that beer has been lubricating social interactions among humans for even longer than we’d previously thought.

Interestingly, though, it seems that wine made from fermented rice, fruit, and honey actually pre-dates this beer by several millennia in China. If you want to try a taste of this most ancient concoction, check out Dogfish Head’s Chateau Jihau, a brew that replicates the archaeological rice wine discovery.

Perhaps we can look forward one day to trying this ancient multigrain beer as well. Until then, bottoms up!

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