Surprising 5,000-Year-Old Beer Recipe Discovered in China

May 24, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Malted grain seeds
Photo credit: Peter Schill/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Not exactly what you’d find on tap at your local pub.

Homebrewers — grab your buckets and bottles and fall back in time. Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient beer recipe that was brewed 5,000 years ago by the Yangshao people in northern China.

While combing through reports of an excavation of a Neolithic site northeast of the Chan River, Dr. Li Liu from Stanford University noticed that two subterranean pits described in the reports contained remnants of what sounded like an early beer-brewing facility.

The telltale signs included a pottery stove and a “beer-making toolkit,” complete with wide-mouth pots, funnels, and tall jugs. Writing in the journal PNAS, the researchers speculate that based on the shapes and styles of the vessels uncovered, the beer-making process at this site would have involved three distinctive stages: brewing, filtration, and storage.

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Lab analysis of some of the vessels unearthed from site revealed residues of starch grains and fossilized plant tissue particles, which Liu and a team of researchers carefully examined to reconstruct what is now the oldest beer recipe on record in China.

The recipe might sound a bit unusual to modern-day beer drinkers. The main ingredients that they recovered were millet, barley, and Job’s tears (a grain used in China and Korea for making distilled liquors). Present in smaller amounts were some surprising additions: yam, snake gourd root, and lily root.

On closer look at the starch grains, the researchers found that many exhibited signs of damage that closely matched the changes that occur during “malting” — the process of allowing the grain to germinate, and then drying it — and “mashing” — the application of heat to a mixture of malted grain and water, which breaks the starches down into sugars.

“Our data show that the Yangshao people developed a complicated fermentation method by malting and mashing different starchy plants,” the researchers wrote.

Their analyses did not pick up on yeast, but it’s likely that the Yangshao people exposed their wort to the air to achieve spontaneous fermentation, similar to the process used today in some Belgian brews. “We think the Yangshao brewers probably relied on naturally available yeasts to ferment beer,” study lead author Jiajing Wang told The Science Explorer. “Airborne wild yeasts exist in many environments.”

The discovery of barley remains in the 5,000-year-old beer residues account for the earliest occurrence of this crop in China. It wasn’t until the Han dynasty — three millennia later — that barley became an important food crop in the Central Plain.

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The practice of beer brewing was tied to the increasing social complexity that was emerging in this region during the late Yangshao period. But which factions of society were actually drinking the beer is still a mystery.

“Beer might have been an important part of ritual feasting,” said Wang, proposing a scenario where “local leaders maintained their authority by reciprocally providing beer in exchange for labor, allegiance, and loyalty.”

Alternatively, she noted: “It is also possible that beer was treated as an elite food.”

For the researchers, the newly discovered recipe is only the start of an unfolding story about the origins of alcohol production in ancient China. Next, they plan to further explore how alcohol production was related to ritual practice, plant domestication, and changing social complexity during this period.

“Alcohol production and consumption might have promoted social competition and the rise of social hierarchy in the past, and it is likely to have played a role in the formation of Chinese civilisation,” said Wang.

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