Long before bearded hipsters started experimenting with brewing cinnamon IPAs in their parents’ garages, ancient civilizations had figured out the art of homebrewing. As far back as 5,000 years ago, budding brewers in northern China were raising pints in a primitive, subterranean brewery. Now, thanks to fancy, science things like “phytolith morphometrics,” researchers have figured out how to recreate the ancient brew.
Li Liu, a professor in Chinese archaeology at Stanford University, was part of a research team that deciphered the ingredients of one of the world’s oldest beers by studying the inner walls of pottery vessels found at an excavated site in Shaanxi province.
After uncovering the recipe, she did what any good teacher would: she made her students brew it.
As a final project for one of Liu’s courses, Stanford students were required to brew a batch of ancient tipple using a recipe that dates back 5,000 years. Beer was a little different back then. Forget the enticing hue and bubbly perfection of modern craft beer, this old-school booze looked more like porridge, and it had to be sucked through a straw to avoid the chunky bits.
However, much like modern beer, the core ingredient in the Neolithic sludge was cereal grains, including millet and barley. Instead of hops, the pioneering Chinese brewers used Job’s tears (a type of grass found in Asia), as well as traces of yam and lily root parts for added flavor.
The brewing process hasn’t really changed much in 5,000 years, so the students stuck to the basics when recreating the old Chinese happy-sauce. In a process called “malting,” the grains were submerged in water until they began to sprout. After malting, the grains were milled (or crushed) before being placed back in water and heated to a specific temperature to draw out the fermentable sugars. Next, the mixture was cooled and yeast was added to work its magic. A week or two later and the ancient brew was ready for gulping. Straw, anyone?
Despite its moldy appearance, the concoction tastes a bit like cider and has a pleasant, fruity smell according to Madeleine Ota, an undergraduate student who brewed her version of the recipe using red wheat. Of course, the students were merely imitating the ancient brew, and Professor Liu suspects that the flavor of the bygone beer would also have been a bit tart: “I think it would be slightly sour, but also a little sweet with very low alcohol level.”
Liu and her colleagues plan to use the results of the students’ experiments to learn more about the ins and outs of long-forgotten brews. “We want to reproduce the ancient beer by our own experiment, and also analyze the starch morphology after fermentation,” she explains.
So, what’s the point of brewing beer from the past? “Archaeology is not just about reading books and analyzing artifacts,” Liu explains. “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’s research also adds fuel to the fiery argument that booze was more than just a mind-altering drink, but rather that it played a pivotal role in thrusting society towards modernity. It’s possible that the sludgy barley juice (and other, similar sludgy barley juices) helped shape the human experience by sparking the growth of agriculture, and the development of arts, religion and language.
It’s a topic that has been debated in archaeological circles for some time. “Alcoholic production may have been one of the forces behind the Neolithic [agricultural] revolution,” says Liu. As far as we know, barley seeds arrived in China about 4,000 years ago. But the artifacts analyzed by Liu and her team suggests that the vital grain was being used 1,000 years before that.
Is it possible that the crops may have been used for making booze before they were domesticated for food? It’s an interesting hypothesis, and although proof remains elusive, Liu also points out that booze is probably not the only reason that people accepted new crops. Regardless, it’s nice to think that the beer of today is a kind of an ode to the porridge-like stuff that helped shape human society. I’ll drink to that.
Check out the video Stanford made about the project here.