Ancient Beer Recipe Uncovered in China, Archaeologists Say

Image: A server grabs a beer while loading a tray at Hale's Ales brewery and pub in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.
In this June 28, 2013 photo, a server grabs a beer while loading a tray at Hale's Ales brewery and pub in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. In the neighborhood, home to fishing shops, shipyards and boat fueling facilities for decades, six breweries have sprung up in the past 2 years, joining Hale’s Ales and Maritime Pacific Brewing, which both opened in Ballard in the 1990s.Elaine Thompson / AP file

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By Robert Ferris, CNBC

A beer recipe roughly 5,000 years old has been uncovered in China — and researchers call the finding "surprising" because it means people there were importing a critical ingredient from thousands of miles away.

A team of archaeologists from Stanford University, Brigham Young University and two Chinese institutions discovered a cache of ancient brewing equipment — including jugs, pots and funnels — containing remnants of mashed grains and other starches.

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The researchers, who were working at the Mijiaya dig site, say their analysis reveals "a surprising beer recipe" containing a grain called broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), another grain called Job's tears or Chinese pearl barley (Coix lacrymajobi), and some sort of tuber.

The "recipe" they compiled came from the analysis of those grain residues on the interiors of the vessels. Scholars say the evidence points to a culture that understood advanced brewing techniques that are very similar to modern methods.

"All indications are that ancient peoples, including those at Mijiaya, applied the same principles and techniques as brewers do today," said Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved with the research.

The earliest references to beer in Chinese literature do not pop up until the Shang dynasty, which spanned roughly 1250-1046 B.C., the Mijiaya site researchers wrote in their study. Some scholars had believed that this Shang-era beermaking culture may have originated in the Yangshao culture — a Neolithic people who lived near the banks of China's Yellow River. The age of the brewing equipment coincides with the time when the Yangshao were beginning large-scale agriculture in the region.

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"To our knowledge, our data provide 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," the researchers wrote in a study published Monday in the the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One of the most surprising aspects of the find lies in one the ingredients involved: barley. Barley was not grown for food in China at the time — it was first cultivated in western Eurasia, and it would not become an important crop in China until the Han Dynasty era, 3,000 years later.

The researchers think barley was brought into the area specifically for beer-making. The farmers in the region probably either traded their own crops for the grain, or grew small patches of it in their fields.