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The secrets of some of the oldest beer brewers have been unearthed with ancient pottery in China.
Chris Baraniuk

New Scientist
24 May 2016 - 11:47 AM  UPDATED 24 May 2016 - 11:47 AM

Anyone for a Stone Age pint? We now have some idea of how the beer would have been made 5000 years ago, thanks to the residue left on an apparent beer-making toolkit uncovered in Shaanxi, northern China.

Jiajing Wang at the University of Stanford and colleagues found remnants of wide-mouthed pots, funnels and amphorae that would have been used for beer brewing, filtration and storage.

They analysed traces of the pottery’s former contents – microscopic starch fragments and phytoliths, silica structures found in cereal husks.

They identified these deposits as having come from broomcorn millet, Job’s tears, barley and tubers such as snake gourd root.

“Many of the starch grains were damaged, and the damage patterns precisely match the morphological changes developed during malting and mashing,” says Wang.

What’s more, the team found oxalates, organic compounds associated with the mashing and fermentation of cereals.

The oldest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world, dating to 7000-6600 BC at nearby Jiahu in the Yellow River valley, was found by Pat McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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Specialised beverages

McGovern says Wang and colleagues have made a compelling case for the emergence of more specialised beverages during succeeding millennia. The only other chemically confirmed evidence for barley beer brewing at a similar time comes from sites in Egypt and Iran, he adds.

It certainly seems as though early societies were experimenting with how to produce the best-tasting beer – as we still do today.

“Tubers were probably used, as the authors point out, for their fermentable sugars and sweet flavour,” says Max Nelson, author of The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of beer in ancient Europe.

Tantalisingly, Wang adds that there may be a case for suggesting that beer drinking influenced the social structure of the Neolithic Chinese. The production and consumption of beer may have been important within newly forming hierarchical societies in the Central Plain – a region known as “the cradle of Chinese civilisation”.

McGovern thinks there could be a kernel of truth in this hypothesis.

“The introduction of Middle Eastern barley into a Chinese drink fits with the special role of fermented beverages in social interactions, as an exotic ingredient that would appeal to emerging elite individuals,” he says. “Much like when we serve up that $7000 bottle of 1982 Pétrus from Bordeaux to impress our friends.”

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1601465113

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