Bottoms up! Beer is an undeniable part of our culture and has been that way for a long, long time. Humans have been making delicious ale practically since the time we figured out how to gather grains. Beer recipes change over time; they grow, ferment and decompose much like the brew itself. Studying the history of beer allows us to understand certain facets of past societies and how something as simple as a beverage can come to shape them. According to a recent research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chinese archaeologists made a groundbreaking discovery when they stumbled upon evidence of a 5000-year-old beer recipe in China’s Central Plains. Why is this important? Read on.
This 5000-year-old beer recipe was deduced after archaeologists unearthed ancient beer-making toolkits from the Mijaya dig site in the city of Xian, China’s Shaanxi province.
The items belonged to the period between 3400 and 2900 BC and scientists were able to deduce the recipe for the beer based on the shape and probable functionality of the utensils. Among the intriguing artifacts, they found a stove, pottery shards from specialized jugs and pots and an item shaped like a funnel. As per the study,
“To our knowledge, our data provide the earliest direct evidence of in situ beer production in China, showing that an advanced beer-brewing technique was established around 5,000 years ago.”
University of Pennsylvania Museum’s biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern (who has no involvement in the research) says that there is a plausible reason why the brewery was so far underground – location and a controlled temperature are extremely important for storing beer. If there is too much heat, it can destroy the enzymes that ferment the beer. He explains that these speculations are leading researchers to believe that these 5000-year-old brewmasters used rather advanced techniques to whip up batches of beer, efficient enough to give us tough competition.
“All indications are that ancient peoples, [including those at this Chinese dig site], applied the same principles and techniques as brewers do today”
Upon inspecting the pots and jugs, they found grains inside that had somehow weathered the centuries, even though they showed some wear (possibly due to the malting and mashing).
Ion chromatography was used to test the residue from the uncovered funnels to figure out what the ancient brew was made of. As it turned out, the recipe was a mixture of tubers, starchy plant parts (added to sweeten the beer flavor) and fermented grains like broomcorn millet, barley, and Job’s tears, also known as Chinese pearl barley. What surprised the scientists most, however, was the evidence of barley in the beer, as it was generally agreed-upon China did not have barley this early.
According to researchers, Western Eurasia takes the credit for domesticating barley and didn’t appear as a staple food in China until roughly 2000 years ago. Based on these dates, it was suggested that the crop may have stepped foot in the region as beer brewing fodder, not as food. Barley is fairly common in China now, although a lot remains to be discovered about when and why it made its way to the orient.
Naturally one would wonder how a 5000-year old beer would measure up against today’s tipple. It’s difficult to hit the bulls-eye, but a Stanford University archaeologist and the study’s co-author Jiajing Wang speculates that it probably had a sweet-n-sour taste. In an interview with The Salt, she says,
“Barley was one of the main ingredient[s] for beer brewing in other parts of the world, such as ancient Egypt. It is possible that when barley was introduced from Western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China, it came with the knowledge that the crop was a good ingredient for beer brewing. So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the movement of knowledge associated with the crop.”
“They were making barley beer in the same period as the earliest chemically attested barley beer from Iran and the earliest beer-mashing facilities in Egypt, as well as the earliest wine-making facility in Armenia.”
The evolution of beer-making and its recipes has happened alongside human history, according to some scholars and historians.
Wang and her co-authors propose that the consumption and production of beer may have facilitated the shaping of Central China’s hierarchical societies many thousands of years ago. This region is now known as the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization. Elites and important officials could have used beer as a social ritual; to impress their acquaintances and demonstrate their power in the community.(1,2)