A very, very old beer recipe has been discovered in China, and it is notable for its use of barley, which scientists had previously thought ancient Chinese did not have access to, according to a paper published Monday.
But let’s get to the important part first. How did it taste? “A bit sour and a bit sweet,” Jiajing Wang, the researcher leading the study, told NPR.
In other words: drinkable enough. Its ingredients? Barley, Job’s tears, broomcorn millet, and tubers, which were fermented in subterranean rooms, sometime between 3400 B.C. and 2900 B.C., in central China.
How was it brewed? Probably in very similar ways as we make beer today, Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist and the so-called “Indiana Jones” of ancient beer, told NPR. That would include stringent controls on temperature—the Chinese brewery was underground, likely to keep conditions cool.
Researchers also found tools that may not be out of place in a brewery today: a stove, a funnel, lots of jugs.
The Mijiaya site was discovered in 1923 by Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson, Wang said. The site, located near the present-day center of the city of Xi’an, was excavated by Chinese archaeologists between 2004 and 2006, before being developed for modern residential buildings.
After the full excavation report was published in 2012, Wang’s co-author on the new paper, archaeologist Li Liu of Stanford, noticed that the pottery assemblages from two of the pits could have been used to make alcohol, mainly because of the presence of funnels and stoves.
Wang said that some Chinese scholars had suggested several years ago that the Yangshao funnels might have been used to make alcohol, but there had been no direct evidence until now.
In the summer of 2015, the Stanford researchers traveled to Xi’an and visited the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology, where the artifacts from the Mijiaya site are now stored.
The scientists extracted residues from the artifacts, and their analysis of the residues turned out to prove their hypothesis: that “people in China brewed beer with barley around 5,000 years ago,” Wang said.
The researchers found yellowish remnants in the wide-mouthed pots, funnels and amphorae that suggested the vessels were used for beer brewing, filtration and storage. The stoves in the pits were probably used to provide heat for mashing the grains, according to the archaeologists.
The beer recipe used a variety of starchy grains, including barley, as well as tubers, which would have added starch for the fermentation process and sweetness to the flavor of the beer, the researchers said.
The finding was also significant, the researchers said, because it shows that China had access to barley previously than initially thought. The grain is now common across the country.
“Our findings imply that early beer making may have motivated the initial translocation of barley from Western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China before the crop became a part of agricultural subsistence in the region 3,000 years later,”the researchers wrote.
The Chinese beer is among the earliest documented beers to have been produced. McGovern told NPR that they weren’t the only ones, adding that, around the same time period, there’s evidence of breweries in Iran and Egypt, in addition to wine making in Armenia.