This Is What 5,000-Year-Old Beer Tastes Like

Stanford University researchers discovered the ancient recipe in northwest China—and now a Beijing brewpub is serving their own version.

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May 22 2017, 4:00pm

Having seen a video online recently showing Stanford University archeology students straw-sucking "spit beer"—a porridge-textured, cheese-scented concoction—I hadn't expected any drink related to it to taste particularly good.

The students made the drink earlier this year for an archeology-based exercise, taking reference from what professors claimed was a method for creating the oldest known beer in China. Stanford researchers discovered a 5,000-year-old beer recipe via tests on ancient brewing artifacts in China's northwest Shaanxi province, and they wanted to taste a similar tipple themselves.

So did Alex Acker and Kristian Li, the owners of Beijing's Jing A brewery. Having read about the Stanford exercise, they travelled to the region of the discovery to work with an archeology team and garner ingredients for their own reproduction, in collaboration with Hong Kong brewery Moonzen. The result is the light yellow liquid I'm sipping in Jing A's brewpub in the Chinese capital.

Kristian Li sifts through a handful of broomcorn millet, one of the primary ingredients in the beer. All photos by Arron Berkovich.

The brew is exceptionally dry, but refreshing—decent for summer sipping. Unlike the Stanford students' efforts, it doesn't resemble porridge or stink of cheese, due to creative recipe interpretation from the Jing A guys to make it sellable.

"The closest thing I'd connect it to is a Berliner Weiss beer," says Acker, joining me for a glass. "That's a kettle-soured light style of German ale. I almost consider this a Neolithic Berliner Weiss."

A local farmer needs the dough base for his traditional hunjiu as the Jing A team collects ingredients and wild yeast for the beer recipe.

The roots of the recreation sprouted into a proper project in 2014. That year the Stanford team, in collaboration with the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology, examined jars found on the grounds of what they identified in 2006 as a 5,000-year-old brewery, at the Mijiaya archeology site in Shaanxi.

Intrigued by a yellowish residue inside the jars, they analyzed it and found traces of barley, millet, yam, snake gourd root (a vegetable), and Job's tears (a grain). In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Stanford team said their findings were the "earliest direct evidence of in situ beer production in China, showing that an advanced beer-brewing technique was established around 5,000 years ago."

Laszlo Raphael of Moonzen brewery in Hong Kong, along with Kristian Li and Alex Ackers of Jing A, take turns churning the ingredients for the hunjiu, an ancient drink still prepared in rural areas of China.

The most significant finding was barley, as previously archeologists believed that it was introduced to the region 1,000 years later. "We recognised the equipment but we didn't know it'd be for beer—we just thought it would be some kind of alcohol," says Li Liu, professor of Chinese archeology at Stanford, who headed up the research. "But we reached the conclusion that it was a millet- and barley-based beer [after the surprise finding of the barley]."

The Shimao Site, a large Neolithic city from the same time period as the Mijiaya beer discovery.

Inspired by Professor Liu's findings, last March Acker and Li went on what they call a "whirlwind trip" to rural Shaanxi to source ingredients that were as close as possible to the originals. Through archeologists they met a home brewer of hunjiu, a drink with crossover ingredients with the ancient recipe, and sourced wild yeast through him.

To make their brew more palatable than the drink the students made, the brewers used Jing A's modern brewing equipment in Beijing. They added ingredients, such as honey and hawthorn berry, that would have been available in the area at the time the original was made, but that wouldn't have been picked up in analysis of its residue 5,000 years later.

The Jing A team collects wild yeast samples from a home-brewed alcohol at the Shimao site

"It's an interpretation, for sure," says Li when I ask if adding these ingredients takes away from the recreation's authenticity. "But these things would have been available—it was all made within the confines of what was happening at the time."

The teams from Jing A and Moonzen pose for a picture with the archaeology team from the Shimao Neolithic site.

The Stanford team's findings were historically significant—particularly the barley element. But they beg the question: What was a beer session in Shaanxi province like, 5,000 years ago? Presumably different to a session in Jing A's brewpub, where you can knock back the recreated beer with a burger and a piped soundtrack of Modest Mouse and The Strokes.

Liu says that ethnographic data from Taiwan and studies of Neolithic buildings and artifacts in the Yellow River region suggest that the drink was largely consumed during rituals. "Chinese rituals are seasonal celebrations and life cycle rituals: new year, birth, marriage, death," she says. "The most common and highly-celebrated ritual would have been death. It would last for days and involve a lot of feasting, with guests coming to eat and drink."

Kristian Li and Alex Ackers add the broom corn millet to the fermentation vat as they work to recreate the 5,000-year-old beer recipe.

She added that making the ancient beer would have been seen as a symbol of wealth and status—an indicator that a person had enough labor in hand to produce it then offer it up it for feasts. You would probably have had to drink a lot of it to get drunk, though. "Ancient alcohol wasn't necessarily clear. It was more like porridge and would have been nutritious and low in alcohol," says Liu. "It would even have been drunk by children."

The Jing A team sources local ingredients from a street market, which would have been available 5,000 years ago, including hawthorn, sugar, and honey.

Dismissing the suggestion that the Stanford research has been used as a gimmick by Jing A, Liu said that she was happy for the Beijing-based brewers to use creative license to make a beer palatable enough to sell over the bar. It still had a strong link to archeology work, she said.

Staff at the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology work to restore ancient artifacts recovered from sites in the region.

"Archeology findings should be meaningful for the public—it's the best way to publicize scientific funding," she added. "Archeology used to be viewed as an ivory tower, only understood by a small group of people. Through this recreation more people understand what we're doing, and what ancient people were doing.

"It's a new dimension in archeology; people are fascinated to understand what our ancestors drank. People feel closer to the past through it."

She passionately makes a great point, and provides us with the best excuse imaginable for a massive beer-drinking session.