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Ancient Brewery Residue Reveals Unique Ingredients of 5,000 Year Old Beer

5,000-year-old Chinese brewing techniques were strikingly modern, based on an ancient brewery discovered by archaeologists.

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next
Chemical analysis of the remains of an ancient brewery reveal one of the earliest uses of barley in China.

It was probably a beer unlike any on the market today, but the techniques used to brew it 5,000 years ago in China were strikingly modern.

Archaeologists discovered the brewery and its special recipe by combing through artifacts unearthed a decade ago. Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student at Stanford University, and her colleagues noticed a collection of funnels, containers, and stoves that together suggested the site once housed a brewery.

Looking more closely, they noticed a residue encrusted on some of the artifacts. After chemical analysis, it revealed that not only were people at the site brewing beer, they were using barley to do so, the first known case in China and some 3,000 years before the grain became a staple crop in that part of the world.

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“The discovery of barley is a surprise,” lead author Jiajing Wang of Stanford University told the BBC in an email, as it was previously thought the grain arrived in China 1,000 years later.

“This beer recipe indicates a mix of Chinese and Western traditions—barley from the West; millet, Job’s tears and tubers from China.”

The appearance of barley so early—and so many years before it was used for food—suggests that the thirst for alcohol may have been what brought the grain to China from the Middle East.

In addition to the complex pottery found at the site, Wang and her colleagues also noticed that the brewery was underground—likely an effort by the ancient brewers to control the temperature of the fermenting beverage, which modern brewers use to prevent off flavors and limit the growth of detrimental bacteria.

The ancient Chinese brew was a melange of ingredients both familiar—wheat, broomcorn (a type of sorghum), and barley—and exotic—snake gourd root, lily root, yam, and a type of grain known as Job’s tears.

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The grains found inside the various pots showed signs of malting and mashing, two techniques still used today to break down the grains’ starches into sugars. Both help yeast do its job in then transforming the sugars into alcohol and various congeners, which help contribute to the character of the beer.

How did it taste? Given that the yeasts used today differ significantly from the wild varieties that fermented the ancient beer, we’ll likely never know for sure. But the ingredient list is remarkably complete, so it’s possible that any home brewer could recreate it in their basement. Just be sure to give us a heads up if you do.

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