5,000-Year-Old Chinese Beer Recipe Had Secret Ingredient

A stove fragment from the Mijiaya site that was probably used to heat the fermenting grain mash through the beer-brewing process.

(Image: © Fulai Xing)

Barley may have been the «secret ingredient» in a 5,000-year-old beer recipe that is reconstructed from residues on prehistoric pots from China, according to new archaeological research.

Scientists conducted tests on ancient pottery jars and funnels bought at the Mijiaya archaeological site in China’s Shaanxi province. The analyses revealed traces of oxalate — a beer-making byproduct that forms a scale called «beerstone» in brewing equipment — and also residues from a number of ancient grains and plants. These grains included broomcorn millets, an Asian wild grain referred to as «Job’s tears,» tubers from plant roots, and barley.

Barley can be used to create beer since it has high degrees of amylase enzymes that promote the conversion of starches into sugars through the fermenting process. It had been first cultivated in western Asia and may have already been used to create beer in ancient Sumer and Babylonia a lot more than 8,000 years back, according to historians. [See Photos of Ancient Beer Brewing in China’s ‘Cradle of Civilization’]

The researchers said it really is unclear when beer brewing started in China, however the residues from the 5,000-year-old Mijiaya artifacts represent the initial known usage of barley in your community by about 1,000 years. In addition they recommend that barley was used to create beer in China a long time before the cereal grain became a staple food there, the researchers noted.

Surprising ingredient

The prehistoric brewery at the Mijiaya site contains ceramic pots, funnels and stoves within pits that date back again to the Neolithic (late Stone Age) Yangshao period, around 3400 to 2900 B.C., said Jiajing Wang, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University in California and lead author of a new paper on the comprehensive research, published today (May 23) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wang told Live Science that the discovery of barley in such early artifacts was a surprise to the researchers.

Barley was the primary ingredient for beer brewing in other parts of the global world, such as for example in ancient Egypt, she said, and the barley plant may have spread into China together with the understanding of its special use to make beer.

«It’s possible that whenever barley was introduced from western Eurasia in to the Central Plain of China, it was included with the data that the grain was an excellent ingredient for beer brewing,» Wang said. «So that it had not been only the introduction of a fresh crop, however the knowledge linked to the crop also.»

A map of the positioning of the Mijiaya archaeological site in the Shaanxi province of northern China. (Image credit: PNAS)

The ancient art of beer

The Mijiaya site was uncovered in 1923 by Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson, Wang said. The website, located close to the present-day center of the populous city of Xi’an, was excavated by Chinese archaeologists between 2004 and 2006, before being developed for modern residential buildings.

Following the full excavation report was published in 2012, Wang’s co-author on the brand new paper, archaeologist Li Liu of Stanford, pointed out that the pottery assemblages from two of the pits might have been used to create alcohol, because of the existence of funnels and stoves mainly.

Wang said that some Chinese scholars had suggested in the past that the Yangshao funnels may have been used to create alcohol, but there have been no direct evidence as yet. [Raise Your Glass: 10 Intoxicating Beer Facts]

In the summertime of 2015, the Stanford researchers traveled to Xi’an and visited the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology, where the artifacts from the Mijiaya site are kept now.

The scientists extracted residues from the artifacts, and their analysis of the residues proved to prove their hypothesis: that «people in China brewed beer with barley around 5,000 years back,» Wang said.

Reconstructing the recipe

The researchers found yellowish remnants in the wide-mouthed pots, amphorae and funnels that suggested the vessels were used for beer brewing, storage and filtration. The stoves in the pits were used to supply heat for mashing the grains probably, based on the archaeologists.a variety was utilized by

The beer recipe of starchy grains, including barley, in addition to tubers, which could have added starch for the fermentation sweetness and process to the flavor of the beer, the researchers said.

Wang and her co-authors wrote that barley have been within a few Bronze Age sites in the Central Plain of China, all dated to around or after 2000 B.C. However, barley didn’t turn into a staple crop in your community before Han dynasty, from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, the researchers said.

«Together, the lines of evidence recommend that the Yangshao people may have concocted a 5,000-year-old beer recipe that ushered the cultural practice of beer brewing into ancient China,» the archaeologists wrote in the paper. «It’s possible that the few rare finds of barley in the Central Plain through the Bronze Age indicate their earlier introduction as rare, exotic food.»

«Our findings imply early beer making may have motivated the original translocation of barley from western Eurasia in to the Central Plain of China prior to the crop became part of agricultural subsistence in your community 3,000 years later,» the researchers wrote.

It’s even possible that beer-making technology aided the development of complex human societies in your community, the researchers said. «Like other alcohol consumption, beer is among the hottest and versatile drugs in the world, and it’s been used for negotiating different types of social relationships,» the archaeologists wrote.

«The production and consumption of Yangshao beer may have contributed to the emergence of hierarchical societies in the Central Plain, the spot referred to as ‘the cradle of Chinese civilization,'» they added.

Follow Tom Metcalfe @globalbabel. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Initial article on Live Science.

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5,000-Year-Old Chinese Beer Recipe Had Secret Ingredient