A 5,000-Year-Old Beer Recipe

Archeologists in the Shaanxi province of China discovered proof that the Chinese began brewing beer at least 5,000 years ago. What’s more, the find proves that ingredients and brewery methods changed little in the intervening millennia. You know what they say: if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!

Scientists had already learned that Chinese people began fermenting rice-based beverages approximately 9,000 years ago, so the idea that the ancients had a love of alcoholic drinks was no surprise. This new find is the earliest evidence of Chinese beer making, though. The archeologists dated the beer-making equipment to the late Yangshao period, approximately 3400 to 2900 BCE. How, though, do they know the period, the ingredients, and the methods used to make the ancient brew? Luckily, these brewers were no better at washing dishes than your first roommate. Residue left in the equipment helped identify not only the plants used but also the mashing techniques.

It All Starts with the Right Equipment

Brewery equipment found at the dig site includes funnels, pots, and jugs shaped especially for beer brewing, filtration, and storage. They also discovered a pottery stove so the brewers could heat ingredients to turn carbohydrates into sugar. The site’s underground location, though, explains how ancient brewers controlled temperatures during storage. All home brewers recognize the importance of this step in the fermentation process.

This evidence shows that even ancient brewers used specialized tools to brew their beer and had knowledge of temperature control in the beer-making process.

The Ingredients

Testing the traces found in the ancient equipment, archeologists discovered a variety of ingredients that today’s beer makers will recognize: barley, broomcorn millet, Triticeae (wheat), and Chinese pearl barley (called Job’s tears). Additionally, they found tubers such as snake gourd root, lily, and yam. Why yam? Researchers believe ancient brewers used it for its flavor, which would enhance a sweet brew.

Brewmeister Techniques Remain the Same

Besides an impressive brewing system and temperature regulation, archeologists’ examination of the ingredients revealed brewing techniques have changed little in 5,000 years. They proved that they knew the importance of controlled lighting and consistent temperatures, but the grain residue also shows evidence of smashing and malting, the two key components in making beer.

The Social Implications

The archeologists believe that this finding predates previous discoveries of barley by about 1,000 years. What’s more, it reveals how barley first came to Eastern China through the Central Plains. Researchers believe the reason the Chinese imported barley was specifically to make beer, not as a food source, since at least 2,500 years passed between the recently discovered beer making kit and the period when barley became a popular crop (approximately 200 BCE, during the Han Dynasty). Archeologists suggested that, “barley was initially introduced to the Central Plain as an ingredient for alcohol production rather than for subsistence.”

They further theorize that the development of beer-making technology influenced “the development of complex human societies in the region.” Beer would even be a sign of status and a method to build relationships and wield influence. Sounds like happy hour after work to us.

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