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Gan Bei! Chinese Brewed Beer 5,000 Years Ago

Researchers analyzed deposits on ancient pots and jugs to find out Chinese brewers made sophisticated barley beers 1,000 years earlier than thought

A beer funnel, one of the pieces of equipment used to make beer in China 5,000 years ago (Jiajing Wang)
smithsonian.com

Beer has been important to people throughout history—in fact, many researchers believe brewing beer is the cornerstone of civilization and stimulated humans to settle down and start farming. Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, the Inca and the Chinese were all brewing thousands of years ago. Now, after researchers analyzed 5,000-year-old brewing equipment unearthed in China, the earliest direct evidence of brewing in that region, archaeologists know what those early brew masters were making, and it doesn’t sound half bad.

According to the research published in PNAS, the archaeologists excavated a stove, pottery shards from specialized jugs and pots and an item shaped like a funnel from the Mijaya dig site in the city of Xian in northern Shaanxi Province. The assortment of items indicated they might be part of an ancient brewery. So Stanford professors Jiajing Wang and Li Liu traveled to China and scraped a yellowish residue off the vessels.

Analysis showed that indeed, the vessels were used for brewing, filtering and storing beer 3,400 to 2,900 years ago. According to Madeline Sofia at NPR, the residue, which contained bits of ancient grains, showed evidence that they had gone through a mashing and malting process that a craft brewer might recognize. "All indications are that ancient peoples, [including those at this Chinese dig site], applied the same principles and techniques as brewers do today," Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum tells Sofia.

Using ion chromatography, the researchers were also able to suss out the ingredients in the beer, and recently published the “recipe” in PNAS. According to Nicola Davis at The Guardian, the brew contained broomcorn millet, a type of grain called, Job’s tears, lily, yam, barley and snake gourd root.

It’s hard to say how a pint would compare to a German pilsner or Oregon IPA. “I really have no idea,” Wang tells Davis. “That is beyond our research methods.”

But the taste is not the important part. The find also shows that barley made it China 1,000 years before previously thought, and it was likely primarily grown not as a food crop, but rather to make beer. "Barley was one of the main ingredient[s] for beer brewing in other parts of the world, such as ancient Egypt,” Wang tells Sofia. “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."

And like in other parts of the world, where beer was used as currency and for social status, the authors of the study argue that beer likely pushed development of more complex societies in China. “The production and consumption of…beer may have contributed to the emergence of hierarchical societies in the Central Plain, the region known as ‘the cradle of Chinese civilization’,” the researchers write.

It’s not too surprising—in the last few years there have been a series of studies claiming many of the foods we eat and drink now got their start in the stone age, including cheese, soup and sliced meat. Even beer wasn’t the first alcohol made in China. Researchers previously found remnants of 9,000-year-old hooch made with rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and wild grapes in the Yellow River Valley.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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