A new study of 5,000-year-old pottery shards found in China provides some insight on the earliest beer brewing practices in the area, and may also provide some information on the history of Asian agriculture.
In a report by the Washington Post, Jiajing Wang of Stanford University, who led the study, says, “This beer recipe indicates a mix of Chinese and Western traditions — barley from the West, millet, Job’s tears and tubers from China.”
Wang and her team analyzed the alcohol by scraping yellow-colored residue from the pottery fragments, which were remains from vessels they theorized to have been used for beer-making. The pottery pieces were found in an underground location in Shaanxi province.
The study’s results indicated a brew made from different wild and cultivated grains, plus tubers like yam and lily that would have sweetened the sour taste of the grains.
Unfortunately, the researchers were not able to identify the exact ratios of the ingredients, meaning any replication of this beer is out of the question.
At the dig site, the scientists reported finding the kind of grain husks expected in an ancient brewery. Microscopic analysis of the residue in the vessels revealed starch grains that had been mashed, as they would have been during malting. They also found what is believed to be ancient stoves used to heat the mashed grains, which is important in transforming the grains into sugar. The location would also have fit the ideal for a brewery, as it was underground and therefore, cool enough to store beer.
All these point to what Wang and her team believe to be the oldest known beer brewery in China. Archaeologists had previously found evidence of rice fermentation dating to 9,000 years ago but barley beer, which was found in the Middle East some 5,400 years ago, was originally thought to have found its way to Chinese culture much later.
In fact, this discovery of barley pushes back China’s grain history some 1,000 years, the researchers say. Their findings suggest that barley was brought into China for beer brewing specifically, then was made into a food crop about 3,000 years ago.
“It is possible that when barley was introduced from western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China, it came with the knowledge that the grain was a good ingredient for beer brewing,” Wang tells Live Science. “So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the knowledge associated with the crop.”
The researchers noted that beer may have been considered a foreign drink and would have helped in social interactions and in reinforcing hierarchies. Their dig site also indicates that Chinese brewers had already mastered many of the beer making techniques used today.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.