A few years ago, Stanford professor Li Liu discovered a beer recipe, and now her students have brewed it for the first time. What's the big deal? This recipe is over 5,000 years old, and represents the earliest direct evidence of beer-brewing in China. The end results were reportedly mixed.
Liu and her team found the recipe by analyzing artifacts uncovered at an archaeological dig in northeast China over a decade ago. By scraping residue off the insides of pottery vessels found at the site, the researchers found remnants of cereal grains like millet and barley, and grasses like Job's tears. When brewed into beer, the team says the resulting beverage would likely be sweeter than modern beer, but have a lumpier texture due to the grains being left in the mix.
As the final project for a course on the Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual, Liu put her students to work recreating the ancient brews using either wheat, barley or millet. First, the grains are malted, by immersing them in water to sprout. Once the seeds have sprouted, the students crushed them, mixed it with water and heated the concoction in an oven at 149° F (65° C) for an hour. Then, the not-quite-beer is poured into a container, sealed up and left to ferment at room temperature for a week or two.
After that, the class members were able to taste-test their homebrews. According to Madeleine Ota, one of the students, her concoction, made with red wheat, had a pleasant fruity smell and a cider-like citrus taste. A second ancient technique was tested simultaneously, made with a vegetable root called manioc, but the results of that were harder to swallow: "funky cheese," as Ota described it, is not what a good brew should smell like. This second process involved first chewing the manioc, then spiting it out, boiling it and letting it ferment.
"It was a strange process," says Ota. "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."
While it sounds like a great excuse for an end of semester party, the research can help scientists better understand the role that alcohol and food played in ancient cultures, and track the spread of certain ingredients around the globe. For instance, the barley found in the 5,000-year-old pottery predates previous evidence by 1,000 years, suggesting that barley may have been introduced to China earlier than expected and originally used for brewing alcohol, before becoming a staple food.
"The beer that students made and analyzed will be incorporated into our final research findings," says Jiajing Wang, another of the experts who found the recipe with Liu. "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."
This isn't the first time scientists have tried to recreate an old beer recipe: in 2013, a Finnish research center analyzed beer salvaged from a shipwreck, preserved for 170 years at the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately for keen connoisseurs, it doesn't look like they ever succeeded.
The students crack open and taste-test their brews in the video below.