9,000-Year-Old Beer Re-Created From Chinese Recipe

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2005
A Delaware brewer with a penchant for exotic drinks recently concocted a beer similar to one brewed in China some 9,000 years ago.

Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head brewery in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, used a recipe that included rice, honey, and grape and hawthorn fruits. He got the formula from archaeologists who derived it from the residues of pottery jars found in the late Stone Age village of Jiahu in northern China.

The residues are the earliest direct evidence of brewed beverages in ancient China.

"We can't prove that an alcoholic beverage was definitely produced in the jars—the alcohol is gone—but it's not that difficult to infer," said Patrick McGovern, an archaeochemist at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

McGovern, an expert in the origins and history of alcoholic beverages, performed the chemical analysis on the pottery. He said fruit juices and liquid honey in a temperate climate would easily ferment, allowing for the production of alcohol.

In addition, he said, the setting of the Jiahu site suggests the pottery jugs likely held alcoholic beverages drunk at funeral or religious ceremonies.

McGovern's findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December 2004.

Ancient Brew

In earlier research McGovern found evidence of a similar alcoholic beverage in a 2,700-year-old royal tomb in Turkey—perhaps that of King Midas. He then collaborated with Calagione, Dogfish Head's president, to re-create the drink.

The result was Midas Touch Golden Elixir, a brew that "put us on the map for historical beers," Calagione said. Based on the success of Midas Touch—it has won several beer-festival medals—McGovern again turned to Dogfish Head to brew up the ancient concoction from China.

"Hence Chateau Jiahu," Calagione said, referring to the new-old brew's brand name.

Mike Gerhart, distillery manager at Dogfish Head's brewery in Milton, Delaware, led the Chateau Jiahu project. "It was one of the more creative and exciting projects I've ever worked on," he said.

McGovern, the archeochemist, knew the ingredients of the ancient drink from Jiahu, "but he wasn't sure how to use them or how they would go into action," Gerhart said.

The trick for Gerhart was to mimic the brewing process used in China 9,000 years ago.

To get the fermentation started, McGovern imported a mold cake—traditionally used in making Chinese rice wines—from a colleague in Beijing. Gerhart mashed the cake into the rice. Once that became "funky and began to grow," he added other ingredients, including water, honey, grapes, hawthorn fruit, and chrysanthemum flowers.

"We also turned up the brew kettle much higher than we ever would today—we know back then they would have had some type of earthen pot with a fire burning directly below it—to replicate those flavors we know formed, somewhat burnt and caramelized," he said.

To comply with U.S. federal brewing regulations, Gerhart had to add barley malt, though he said he mashed and fermented out most of the barley flavor.

Defying Description

Given the requisite addition of barley malt to Chateau Jiahu, Dogfish Head's concoction is classified as a beer, Calagione said. However, McGovern said the beverage made in China 9,000 years ago defies description.

"We called it a mixed beverage, because we're not sure where it fits in," he said.

Gerhart too struggled to categorize the beverage. "It wasn't a beer, it wasn't a mead, and it wasn't a wine or a cider. It was somewhere between all of them, in this gray area," he said.

Visually, Gerhart described Chateau Jiahu as gold in color with a dense, white head similar to champagne bubbles. Calagione said the beverage most closely resembles a Belgian-style ale.

According to McGovern, the brew is "very intriguing" with a taste and aroma of the grape and hawthorn fruits. To better match the 9,000-year-old beverage, however, he said it should probably be sweeter.

"Sugar is relatively rare in nature, yet we're very much attracted to it. We're also attracted to alcohol—all animals are attracted to these substances. They [the ancient Chinese] would have wanted to retain as much sugar as they could. They would have had a sweet tooth," he said.

Dogfish Head sold out its first batch of Chateau Jiahu. Most was consumed at a May debut dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, the remainder quickly drunk at the Milton brewery by beer fans of exotic beer.

Calagione hopes to brew up a larger batch this fall and, potentially, to market it widely, as he has Midas Touch.

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