Ancient Beer Kits Show Chinese Brewers Were Making Beer 5000 Years Ago


Beer has played a large role in history. The beverage deserves a footnote in the creation stories of everything from the Pet Rock to the early American settlement of Plymouth.

According to new archaeological evidence, the brewed beverage has been around in China for even longer than previously thought. Brewing artifacts—ancient beer kits—discovered by an international team of researchers point to the existence of Chinese beer as long as 5000 years ago, 1000 years earlier than previous estimates of barley cultivation in the region.

Two pits at a northern Chinese archaelogical site called Mijiaya, dating back to as early as 3400 BCE, contained wide-mouthed pots and funnels that seem to have been used for brewing beer. Analysis of residue on the interiors of the vessels showed that they were filled with barley, millets, tubers, and other starches that could be used in the beer-making process. The researchers also found oxalate, a buildup that can form during the fermentation process. Calcium oxalate is known as beerstone, and stoves within the pits that would have been integral to mashing, which requires precise temperatures to convert starch into simple sugars.

An ancient funnel. Image credit: Jiajing Wang

The evidence shows that “the Yangshao people [at this site] brewed a mixed beer with specialized tools and knowledge of temperature control,” the researchers write. The combination of different starches used in the beer, indicates a recipe that was tested over repeated experiments. Tubers would have added a sweet flavor to the beer, for example (though a recent recreation of a 2000-year-old beer recipe suggests that we would not consider it delicious today).

This find, predating agricultural production of barley in China, provides evidence that barley was imported an ingredient for alcohol production rather than as a subsistence crop.

China isn’t the only place where people have been sipping brewskies for millennia. In the 1990s, scientists including University of Pennsylvania biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern found the residue of barley-based beer in Iran dating back to 3500 BCE. Since then, McGovern has continued to find ample evidence of our ancient fondness for fermented beverages across the world, with the earliest booze dating back 9000 years. Made of rice, honey, and fruit, it was also found in China.