An 8,000-Year-Old Homebrew Recipe Should Be Familiar to Modern Beer Snobs

"Our findings account for the earliest known examples of this technique." 

Inverse illustration. Original: Unsplash / Frank Luca

Eight thousand years ago, there was no roadside liquor outlet stocked with cheap beer. But humans living in China came up with a pretty good workaround to get their fix of low-proof booze. It may have required globular pots and some moldy wheat, but a new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday shows that they got the job done, leaving behind some of the earliest evidence of an ancient Chinese homebrewing technique.

Humans have been making alcohol for over 13,000 years, so ancient Chinese brewers weren’t exactly treading on new territory when they set out to make their own homebrews. But it was new for them. Plus, there’s a certain allure to doing it yourself that grips DIY brewers, whether those with lab-quality setups or the Neolithic Chinese who lived in the Wei River Valley — a region in west-central China.

This team of scientists, led by Stanford archaeologist Li Liu, Ph.D., analyzed the ancient remains of these home breweries: a collection of specialized pots that yielded evidence of two home-brewing methods that were used between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago.

Pots from the Wei River valley that were used to brew alcohol in Neolithic China. 

Li Liu/ Stanford 

These pots form part of an ongoing story in the history of brewing in the Wei River valley, which has also yielded a 5,000-year-old beer recipe. Roughly 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, these scientists noted, the types of different ceramic pots seem to diversify very quickly as people molded them into a variety of shapes, each serving a different purpose.

These pots were used to store food and liquids, and as soon-to-be ancient homebrewers searched for ways to turn basic liquids into something a little more fun, they developed pots with a small mouth, a large spherical body, and a thin neck. This design turns out to be very good for fermenting grains because, as they authors write, it “can be effectively sealed, to exclude as much air as possible and encourage anaerobic conditions.”

Liu’s team’s analysis of these pots revealed traces of starches, fungi, and phytoliths (plant tissues) that provide evidence that fermentation was taking place inside those jars — suggesting that Neolithic humans were better at making alcohol than we realized. The trick was that Neolithic humans had to find a way to induce a crucial process called saccharification: degradation of a starch into sugars that can then be consumed by yeasts that produce alcohol. Fortunately, they found two crucial ways to make this happen in their specialized vessels.

The first was the use of cereal malts — including broomcorn millet. The team found evidence that, as early as 8,000 years ago, Neolithic humans in China had figured out that malt contains enzymes which breaks down starch into sugar. But Liu and her team report that they found some more evidence of a China-specific brewing technique.

This techniques uses fungi, herbs, and grains to make a starter called Qu. The fungi present in the starter secrete enzymes that break down starches into sugars. Then, those sugars are converted into alcohol by yeasts. The authors write that Qu is an agent for “simultaneous saccharification and fermentation.”

Liu has identified ancient beer recipes before, and in a class at Stanford, had students brew it and try it out. Her new work examines exactly how Neolithic humans figured out how to make ancient alcohol using their limited resources. 

Kurt Hickman/ Stanford 

This, they argue, is some of the earliest evidence of Chinese home brewing using that traditional starter, which was “arguably a unique invention initiated in China” and a predecessor of brewing techniques that would start to emerge later in Chinese history. “Our findings account for the earliest known examples of this technique,” they add.

As resourceful as these early brewers may have been, they were doing a lot of work for not a lot of payoff, at least in terms of alcohol content. These drinks were probably “low-alcohol” beverages. But as any college student who has been sprinkled with a thin film of Natty Light can attest, sometimes it’s not about the alcohol content, but about the environment. To that end, these early forms of alcohol may also have had important medicinal, social, or even spiritual purposes.

So although our methods of brewing may have changed a lot over thousands of years, our reasons for doing it may remain largely the same.

In China, pottery containers first appeared about 20000 cal. BP, and became diverse in form during the Early Neolithic (9000–7000 cal. BP), signaling the emergence of functionally specialized vessels. China is also well-known for its early development of alcohol production. However, few studies have focused on the connections between the two technologies. Based on the analysis of residues (starch, phytolith, and fungus) adhering to pottery from two Early Neolithic sites in north China, here we demonstrate that three material changes occurring in the Early Neolithic signal innovation of specialized alcoholic making known in north China: (i) the spread of cereal domestication (millet and rice), (ii) the emergence of dedicated pottery types, particularly globular jars as liquid storage vessels, and (iii) the development of cereal based alcohol production with at least two fermentation methods: the use of cereal malts and the use of moldy grain and herbs (qu and caoqu) as starters. The latter method was arguably a unique invention initiated in China, and our findings account for the earliest known examples of this technique. The major ingredients include broomcorn millet, Triticeae grasses, Job’s tears, rice, beans, snake gourd root, ginger, possible yam and lily, and other plants, some probably with medicinal properties (e.g., ginger). Alcoholic beverages made with these methods were named li, jiu, and chang in ancient texts, first recorded in the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions (ca. 3200 cal. BP); our findings have revealed a much deeper history of these diverse fermentation technologies in China.
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