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China science

How beer brewed 5,000 years ago in China tastes today

Stanford archaeology students recreate recipe based on discovery at the Mijiaya site in Shaanxi province

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 February, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 11:10pm

Stanford University students have recreated a Chinese beer using a recipe that dates back 5,000 years.

The beer “looked like porridge and tasted sweeter and fruitier than the clear, bitter beers of today”, said Li Liu, a professor in Chinese archaeology, was quoted by the university as saying.

Last spring, Liu and her team of researchers were carrying out excavation work at the Mijiaya site in Shaanxi province and found two pits containing remnants of pottery used to make beer, including funnels, pots and amphorae. The pits dated to between 3400BC and 2900BC, in the late Yangshao era. They found a yellowish residue on the remains of the items, including traces of yam, lily root and barley.

The finding suggests that the Mijiaya site was home to China’s earliest brewery.

Liu published research on the finding, saying ancient Chinese made beer primarily with cereal grains, including millet and barley, as well as with Job’s tears, a chewy Asian grain also known as Chinese pearl barley.

Ancient Chinese pottery shows 5,000-year old beer brew

Liu taught her students to recreate the recipe as part of her archaeology course. “We include two different kinds of beer making – one is by chewing, and the other one is by sprouting the cereals.”

Madeleine Ota, an undergraduate student, tried both methods. For her first drink, she adopted the sprouting method and used red wheat as her core ingredient. The university quoted her as saying the beverage had a pleasant fruity smell and citrus taste, similar to a cider.

Ota also recreated another beer by using a vegetable root called manioc, which required chewing and spitting out manioc before boiling and fermenting the mixture. The end result smelled like funky cheese and Ota herself had no desire to check how it tasted, the university quoted her as saying.

Ota said the beers the students created had “sort of a sour taste” in general. Students had to use straws to drink them, which ancient would have done as the ingredients used for fermentation were not filtered out.

The research team was surprised to find barley in the ancient Chinese beer as barley had not become a staple crop for another 3,000 years.