World / Reporter's Journal

Chinese beer is thousands of years older than anyone ever thought

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-05-25 11:41

Benjamin Franklin said it best: "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

There's new evidence that the ancient Chinese knew the wisdom of that saying 5,000 years ago.

Archaeologists from Stanford University have unearthed what they believe to be an ancient brewery in China's Central Plain, one that exhibits advanced barley beer brewing techniques, including flavoring. Their study - revealing a 5,000-year-old beer recipe in China - appears in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The earliest written reference to beer in China is on oracle bone inscriptions from the late Shang Dynasty (about 1250 to 1046 BC). They talk about the Shang people using malted grains, including millet and barley (or wheat - they're the same character, mai, in the language of the day), as the main ingredient.

Scientists had speculated that the technique and recipe came from even earlier - the Neolithic Yangshao period (5000 to 2900 BC) and the suggestion was reasonable because there was plenty of evidence from Jiahu that rice-based fermented beverages were being produced 9,000 years ago.

Chinese beer is thousands of years older than anyone ever thought

What the Stanford diggers found at the Mijiaya Site, near the Wei River in Shaanxi province, was complete sets of brewing pottery, what they called "beer-making tool kits", that date back to 3400 to 2900 BC. The shapes and sizes of the vessels suggested the three stages of beer making: brewing, filtering and storage.

Luckily for the scientists, the ancient brewers hadn't cleaned their pots and funnels after the last time they used them. They were still gunked up with yellowish residue on their inside surfaces.

Using state-of-the-art identification techniques, the researchers pinpointed broomcorn, millet, barley and Job's tears, with smaller portions of tubers like snake gourd root, yam and lily, probably added as flavoring for their sweetness.

There were even enough samples of the starches to see the "damage" that malting and mashing does to the grain.

"The Yangshao people developed a complicated fermentation method by malting and mashing different starchy plants," the study says.

Further evidence that the site was a brewery include a nearby stove for heating their brew to start the process of breaking down the carbs into sugar and underground areas for the cooling stages, as well as storage.

The Job's tears grain -also known as Chinese pearl barley - is a chewy, sweetish Asian grain that is gluten free. But the abundance of regular barley in the recipe deepens the historic mystery surrounding the grain.

Barley was known to have been cultivated in Western Eurasia and later introduced into China and scientists had seen plenty of evidence of it, but never this early before. There had been sporadic finds in Bronze Age sites (2000 BC and after) but it wasn't until the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) - 3000 years after the Mijiaya brewery - that barley had become a staple part of the diet in central China.

The researchers think that the Mijiaya farmers probably got small amounts of the grain through barter and may have started growing it along with other cereals, but for one specific purpose.

"We suggest that barley was initially introduced to the Central Plain as an ingredient for alcohol production rather than for subsistence," they write.

More proof that "man does not live by bread alone."

The findings do put the Chinese in the hall of fame of brew meisters, standing shoulder to shoulder on the ancient time line with the beer mashers of Egypt and Persia and the wine-makers of Armenia.

The study's authors take it all one step further by suggesting that the practice of brewing beer "is likely to have been associated with the increased social complexity of the Central Plain during the fourth millennium BC".

To ingratiate themselves with the people they ruled over, elite individuals held large-scale feasts where the beer flowed. And they competed to outdo each other.

"Like other alcoholic beverages, beer is one of the most widely used and versatile drugs," they write. "And it has been used for negotiating different kinds of social relationships."

"The production and consumption of Yangshao beer may have contributed to the emergence of hierarchical societies in the Central Plain, the region known as 'the cradle of Chinese civilization,'" they conclude.

I'll drink to that.

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