• The World’s Oldest Beer Came from China…?

Ion Chromatography (IC)

The World’s Oldest Beer Came from China…?

Jun 13 2016

What is believed to have been one of the oldest breweries in the world has been unearthed on an archaeological site in China. The site, in the Central Plain of China and stretching back as far as 5,000 years, contained fragments of tools used to make what we know as beer. Furthermore, the underground chamber in which they were discovered is thought to have been specifically designed as a beer-brewing room.

The artefacts were found at the Mijaya dig site in the north of the country and have been placed at anywhere between 2,900 BC and 3,400 BC. Their discovery not only signals that the Chinese have been brewing beer for millennia, but also gives us an idea of the ingredients used.

A momentous find

Fragments of pottery were discovered, including funnels, pots and amphorae, pointing to their use as beer-making tools since they are tools used in modern brewing. This was confirmed when ion chromatography was used to analyse residue found on the interior of the pottery.

The tests revealed the presence of oxalate, a substance often created as a by-product during the beer-making process. It also gave an insight into what the beer might have tasted like by identifying some of the ingredients, including barley, Job’s tears (an Asian grain), broomcorn millet and tubers.

It’s not the first time that chromatography has been used to identify the compositional makeup of alcohol in China — as Chinese customs officials use the process as discussed in the article, Analysing Imported Wine and Sparkling Wine: a Semi-Automated Laboratory Measuring System in use for Customs Checks in China.

Barley used to make beer before bread

It had been thought that the ancient Chinese must have brewed beer beforehand. “Beer was probably an important part of ritual feasting in ancient China,” explained Jiajing Wang, lead author of the study at Stanford. “So it’s possible that this finding of beer is associated with increased social complexity and changing events of the time.”

What’s more surprising is the presence of barley in the beer. Up until this point, researchers and archaeologists had not found any traces of the grain in China until at least 1,000 years later. Its discovery at the Mijaya site strongly suggests it was used to make beer long before it was developed as a crop and a foodstuff in its own right.

The world’s oldest beer?

The provenance of beer is an oft-disputed topic. There are 6,000-year-old drawn depictions of figures drinking a beverage through reed straws on Mesopotamic tablets — and recently chemical tests have pointed to beer residue on fragments of pottery from 7,000 years ago in what is now Iran.

While this latest discovery from China might not definitively be the oldest beer in the world, it certainly throws a new hat into the ring. So what did it taste like? According to Wang, “it would taste a bit sour and a bit sweet”. Is that Cantonese or Hong Kong style, Jiajing?


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