Surprising ancient beer recipe revealed by Chinese pottery shards

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By Rachel Feltman May 24 at 9:04 AM

New research on 5,000-year-old pottery fragments found in China shed
light on the region's earliest beer brewing practices — and may
provide new insight into the history of Asian agriculture.

"This beer recipe indicates a mix of Chinese and Western traditions —
barley from the West, millet, Job's tears and tubers from China,"
Jiajing Wang of Stanford University, who led a study published Monday
in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, told Agence

Wang and her team analyzed this ancient alcohol by scraping yellowish
residue out of the pottery remains — fragments of vessels they think
were shaped for the various stages of beer making. They were found in
an underground site in Shaanxi province. Their results indicate a brew
made from a variety of wild and cultivated grains, plus a few tubers,
such as yam and lily, that would have made the sour suds a bit
sweeter. Unfortunately, we won't get to try this historic beverage for
ourselves, because the researchers don't know the exact ratio of
ingredients used in the recipe.

At the dig site, they report, they found the sort of grain husks one
would expect to see scattered around an ancient brewery. Microscopic
analysis of the residual gunk inside the vessels revealed starch
grains that had been mangled as they would be during malting and
mashing. They also found what they believe to be ancient stoves used
to heat mashed grains — important in the process of transforming the
carbs into boozy sugar. The would-be brewery's underground location
would also have been ideal, as it would have allowed beer makers to
keep their product cool.

With that evidence, Wang and her team think they've found the oldest
known beer brewery in China. Archaeologists have found evidence of
rice fermentation dating to about 9,000 years ago (which may actually
be the first evidence of humankind's tendency to tipple), but barley
beer, which showed up in the Middle East about 5,400 years ago, was
thought to be a more recent addition to Chinese culture.

In fact, the researchers say, the presence of barley at their
archaeological site pushes the grain's Chinese history back by about
1,000 years. Their discovery suggests that barley, which contains high
levels of a protein that converts carbohydrates into sugar during the
fermentation process, was actually brought into China for the purposes
of beer brewing, then slowly made a transition into use as 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 told Live Science.
"So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the
knowledge associated with the crop."

The exotic foreign drink may have helped to foster social interactions
and reinforce hierarchies, the researchers wrote in the study. And
their dig site indicates that Chinese brewers had already mastered
many of the beer making techniques used today.

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