It’s not quite the simple German recipe of hops, barley, water and yeast, but 5,000-year-old Chinese beer comes close.
Researchers from the US and China claim to have found remnants of beer-brewing facilities and grains from a site in north-central China and suggest that, like today, the drink was used to lubricate social gatherings.
The archaeological find, along with ingredient analyses, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Ancient China was no stranger to booze.Rice-based fermented beverages dating back 9,000 years have been found at the Jiahu relic site, around 100 kilometres south of the city Zhengzhou.
But dating beer’s introduction has been trickier. The earliest evidence for beer in China was written in inscriptions from the late Shang dynasty, around 3,250 years ago.
Until now. Jiajing Wang from Stanford University and colleagues describe beer-brewing facilities – two pits, each 5,000 years old (dated using carbon dating and analysis of the ceramics found in the area).
The pits, in the Mijiaya site in Shaanxi, north China, each contained a set of vessels: wide-mouth pots, funnels and pointy-bottom bottles called amphorae.
These, the researchers write, would have been used for brewing, filtration and storage respectively.
Also in the pits was a pottery stove – perhaps used to maintain the breweries’ temperature.
The vessels, the researchers noticed, had a yellowish scum and bits of grain attached to their interior.
These were carefully scraped off with a blade or floated off in a water bath, and analysed.
They found out of the 541 grains they managed to remove, some 488 were identifiable – mostly millet, barley and Job’s tears, which are all used in brewing even today. They also found traces of tubers, such as lily and yam.
Around a third of the grains looked as though they’d been through parts of the brewing process. Some had a pitted or channelled surface, typical of malting when enzymes from sprouting cereals break down starch to make sugars, leaving distinct holes and ridges behind.
Others were swollen and deformed – typical of the mashing process, where malt is heated in water, causing the grains to warp and fold.
Given barley isn’t much found in ancient Chinese archaeological digs, the researchers suggest it may have been a rare, exotic food when it was first introduced, used to brew beer and other alcoholic drinks a millennium before becoming a staple grain.
The timing of the Mijiaya “breweries” also coincides with the proliferation of villages in the region and “social complexity”, they write.
“Like other alcoholic beverages, beer is one of the most widely used and versatile drugs in the world, and it has been used for negotiating different kinds of social relationships.”
Perhaps beer brewed in the area contributed to hierarchical societies, they conclude – and “the cradle of Chinese civilisation”.
Belinda Smith is a science and technology journalist in Melbourne, Australia.
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