5,000 years ago, on a terraced slope above the Chan River in Shaanxi Province, China, some enterprising villagers built two sophisticated beer brewing kits. Part of the Mijiaya site, once the site of a thriving civilization, both kits were housed in pits sunk 2 to 3 meters into the ground, lined with rocks and accessed by stairs. One is equipped with a shelf and both have ceramic ovens for brewing in wide-mouthed pots that hold once-cooked barley. Archaeologists found other telltale beer-brewing tools (all covered in an ancient yellow residue), including funnels for filtration and amphorae, or cocoon-shaped containers, for fermentation. After careful analysis of plant and chemical residues found on the inside of these storage containers, the scientists reported Procedures of the National Academy of Sciences that they had a pretty good idea of what kind of ingredients went into this old beer.
Most of these ingredients will sound familiar to beer lovers. The scientists found traces of broomcorn millet, barley, Triticeae (wheat) and Job’s tears (a grain plant often referred to as Chinese pearl barley, although it is not actually barley), plus small amounts of snake gourd root and lily (both are often tubers). used in Chinese medicine), as well as yam. It’s possible the yam was added to enhance what was probably already a slightly sweet concoction because of the barley. What impressed the archaeologists was that people who lived 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic Yangshao period had already mastered quite a sophisticated brewing system, including temperature control. This finding dates back thousands of years before the earliest writing on beer fermentation, which comes from manuscripts from the Shang dynasty around 1240-1046 BCE.
In their paper, the researchers write that all of the evidence they examined indicates that “the Yangshao people brewed a mixed beer using specialized tools and knowledge of temperature control. Our data shows that the Yangshao people developed a complex fermentation method by mixing various starchy plants.” This discovery may also shed light on a long-standing mystery about how barley got to eastern China from western Eurasia. By the time of the Han dynasty, about 200 BC, barley was already a popular crop. But what might have motivated early farmers to bring this grain all the way across the Central Plains? Apparently it was for partying, not eating. Write to the archaeologists:
It is possible that the few rare finds of barley in the Central Plain during the Bronze Age indicate their earlier introduction as a rare, exotic food. The Mijiaya farmers probably received small amounts of barley grains through barter or cultivated the plant along with other grains. We suggest that barley was initially introduced to the Central Plain as an ingredient for alcohol production rather than subsistence.
This also suggests that competitive partying and relatively complex social structures were already present during the heyday of the Mijiaya site. These brewing kits and the beer recipe itself appear to be the result of many generations of people testing recipes to create the perfect Neolithic alcohol-making system.
Procedures of the National Academy of Sciences2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1601465113