beer
February 10, 2017

Stanford students recreate 5,000-year-old Chinese beer

Making craft beer isn’t typically considered part of an archaeologist’s job description, but that hasn’t stopped a team of researchers from Stanford University from recreating a 5,000-year-old Chinese brew from residue gathered from the inside of ancient pottery containers.

The recipe, which was detailed in a study published last summer in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, included ingredients such as barley, broomcorn millet, a type of Asian grass known as Job’s tears, and other grains. It was said to be the first direct evidence of in situ beer production in China, as well as the earliest known evidence of barley use.

Now, as reported earlier this week by Engadget and Tech Times, Stanford Chinese archaeology professor Li Liu and her students successfully recreated the brew – which was said to be sweeter, thicker, and less bitter than modern beers while having a fruity aroma – as part of the professor’s Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual coursework.

“Archaeology is not just about reading books and analyzing artifact. Trying to imitate ancient behavior and make things with the ancient method helps students really put themselves into the past and understand why people did what they did,” Liu, who was a member of the team which made the initial discovery of the pottery and beer residue while working at a site in northeastern China, explained earlier this week in a statement.

So how did they do it, and why (hint: because it’s beer)

In addition to cereal grains and Asian grass, the researchers found yam and lily root among the beer’s ingredients – although it was the barley that Liu said she sound most surprising because the use of barley seeds had previously only dated back 4,000 years. The discovery suggests that barley was first used in China for alcohol, not for food, the professor explained.

The ancient brew was not only sweeter and fruitier than modern beers, but was also thicker and was said to resemble porridge, the researchers said. The ingredients that were used to ferment it were not filtered out, and straws would have been used to consume the beverage. Unsurprisingly, the brew captured the attention of homebrew experts and craft beer aficionados, so in addition to having her students recreate it, Liu has posted a video explaining the process.

To begin with, each of the students chooses to use either wheat, millet or barley seeds to create an imitation of the ancient brew. The selected grain is then covered with water and given time to sprout (a process called malting). Afterward, the seeds are crushed, once again placed in water and placed in an oven, where they are heated to 149 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius) for one hour, and then they are sealed with plastic and allowed to ferment for about a week.

Each of the various concoctions that the students come up with are ultimately going to be used as part of ancient alcohol research that Liu and her colleagues are currently working on, Stanford said in a statement. The beers will be analyzed and incorporated into the ongoing study, research team member and doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang noted, allowing students “experience what the daily work of some archaeologists looks” and “contribute to our ongoing research.”

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Image credit:  Jiajing Wang et al