Stanford Students Recreate 5,000-Year-Old Chinese-Beer Recipe
Stanford’s archaeological outfit has immersed itself in an experimental project in order to assess how ancient, Chinese ale might have been made.
Stanford Archaeological Center Professor Li Liu helped her students burgeon some beaker-housed elixirs composed of yellowish liquid topped with white, moldy layers. The plastic-wrap-covered containers were possible recreations of how Chinese, craft beer was concocted. When the students removed the wrap, their sniffers were given a bit of a smack from the smell, and the tastings were on the sour side. These lab-made-lager trials were the tail component of the final phase in the students’ suds-periment for Professor Liu’s course—“Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual.”
The students modeled their archaeological ale after early, Asian-civilization brewing techniques. One of which was an attempt to reproduce a 5,000-year-old beer recipe the professor and her assistants presented in published research in spring 2016.
“Archaeology is not just about reading books and analyzing artifacts,” Sir Robert Ho Tung Professor and Chinese-culture-archaeologist Liu said in an interview. “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.”
Teamed with doctoral-candidate Jiajing Wang and a smorgasbord of other scientists, Liu found the 5,000-year-old recipe in northeast China. This excavation availed pottery possessing remnants found on the inner walls of the relics—antiquated evidence of beer production in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published their research. They discovered Chinese ancients’ ingredients entailed cereal grains (e.g., millet and barley) and Job’s tears—as well as yam bits and a little, lily root.
While barley’s a prime component in contemporary brewing, Liu was taken aback to this ingredient, as the oldest barley-in-China information on file dates to only 4,000 years ago. This new evidence lends to western Asia-domesticated barley spreading to China.
“Our results suggest the purpose of barley’s introduction in China could have been related to making alcohol rather than as a staple food,” Liu said.
Initially, the students made mixtures of grain and water—i.e., malting. Upon the grains giving way to sprouts, students crushed the seeds and again immersed them water. In order to make their mash, they placed that mixture in an oven heated at 65-degrees Celsius (149̊ F). After cooking the containers, they sealed them in plastic wrap, and the beakers fermented at room temperature for almost a week.
Simultaneously, the students used the aforementioned manioc in their homemade-ale effort(s). This brewing technique is also indigenous to a lot of South American cultures. This “chicha” method requires chewing and spitting the vegetable root. Afterward, the human-processed manioc is then boiled and allowed to ferment.
Prior to participation, undergrad and Liu mentee Madeleine Ota was completely unfamiliar with and doubtful of the suds experiment. She expressed being mystified by such an ancient art of using her teeth to grind and crush the ingredients.
“It was a strange process,” Ota said. “People looked at me weird when they saw the ‘spit beer’ I was making for class. I remember thinking, ‘How could this possibly turn into something alcoholic?’ But it was really rewarding to see that both experiments actually yielded results.”
Upon Ota using red wheat in her ancient Chinese brew, she described that passed the mold, the mixture was fruity to the nose and citrusy to the taste. She said it was comparable to cider. But her manioc beer had a boldly cheese-like smell—she wasn’t putting that wash in her mouth.
The students’ research will aid Liu and Wang in their pursuit(s) to deduce more on ancient cultures’ ale-producing practices.
“The beer that students made and analyzed will be incorporated into our final research findings,” Wang said. “In that way, the class gives students an opportunity to not only experience what the daily work of some archaeologists looks like but also contribute to our ongoing research.”
A Glimpse Into the Ancient World
Much time has passed along with archaeologists wanting to further absorb and better understand what ignited the Neolithic Revolution. Liu explained that when examining the evolution of alcohol and food production, they gain better insight into human behavior. The professor has been Stanford’s Archaeology of Foods educator since 2010. She added that simple examination of artifacts lead to difficulties in deciphering exactly how the ancients—organic molecules don’t exactly hold together as times passes. She stressed that experimental archaeology is crucial...
“We are still trying to understand what kind of things were used back then,” Liu said.
“Food plays such an important role in who we are and how we’ve developed as a species,” Ota said. “We can use the information that we gain in these experiments to apply to the archaeological record from thousands of years ago and ask questions about what these processes reflect and what we can say about alcohol fermentation and production.”