Ale Through The Ages: Brewing the Oldest Known Fermented Beverage in the World

Now in the third season of the Ale Through the Ages brewing series here at Discovery World, the latest brew turned out to be one of the most challenging and unique fermented beverages we’ve attempted thus far. The challenge was to brew as authentic a version as we could of the oldest known fermented beverage in the world, found at the site of Jiahu in the Henan Provence of eastern China, which turned out to be at least 9,000 years old!

Henan Ancient Ale Recipe

The following recipe for a 5 gallon batch of Henan Ancient Ale as I’ve dubbed requires first malting the rice using Aspergillus mold (Koji) much like making Saki, followed by the use of Saki yeast to begin the  initial fermentation, followed by a basic ale yeast to complete the fermentation.  The use of three separate yeast strains was necessary to convert this high gravity ale in only two weeks of fermentation. Not surprisingly Dogfish Head Brewery has also previously recreated a limited batch based on this ancient beverage, which they call Chateau Jiahu.  While they stayed true to the research by using honey, muscat grapes, hawthorn fruit, and Chrysanthemum flower, they deviated by using barley malt as the primary fermentable.  I like to think this recipe without barley is an even more accurate recreation. Nevertheless, there is a great interview about Dogfish Head’s recreation on NPR that aired in July of 2010.


Archaeological Evidence at the Site of Jiahu

The modern world owes a great debt of gratitude to China for their contribution to civilization as we know it.  For instance at the site of Jiahu, in the Henan Province of eastern China (east of Fuliu Mountains in the fertile Huai River basin), some of the earliest playable multi-tone instruments, domesticated rice and oldest known alcoholic beverage have been discovered there.  The site was discovered in the 1960s, but only in the past 15 years have significant excavation activities begun. Jiahu is 55,000 square meters, yet only about 5% of the site has been excavated. Thus far 45 house foundations, 370 cellars, 9 pottery kilns, dozens of burials and thousands of artifacts of bone, pottery, stone and other materials have been found. Radiometric dating proved that the site was occupied between 9000-7500 years ago in a period known as the Chinese Neolithic.

Molecular Archaeological Evidence

Molecular Archaeological Analysis of pottery sherds from domestic contexts was performed by Dr. Patrick McGovern (University of Pennsylvania) among others, using Gas and Liquid Chromatography, Mass Spectrometry, Infrared Spectrometry and Stable Isotope Analysis. Compounds identified include those for hawthorn fruit and/or wild grape, beeswax associated with honey, and rice.  The results published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences hit the archaeological community and global media by storm.

Following the Neolithic Period, there is much more evidence of ancient alcohol during the Chinese Bronze Age, specifically during the Shang 商 Dynasty (1600 BCE and ca.1050 BCE).  The reason for this is because preserved alcoholic beverages have been excavated in many burial tombs in the Henan Province such as at Fuhao, Jiazhuang and Changzikou.  These bronze vessels were hermeneutically sealed with lids after thousands of years in the ground. In fact. inside a tomb at Changzikou, 52 bronze lidded vessels were discovered, which still contained the original liquid rice wine.  Subsequent analysis of these beverages showed that wormwood, chrysanthemum, and/or tree resins (e.g., China fir and elemi) had been added, perhaps as preservatives or flavorings.  Surprisingly after 3,000 years they still smelled and tasted very good!!

Du Kang: The Father of Chinese Wine

Du Kang (the father of Chinese alcohol) living during the Xia 夏 Dynasty (2100-1600 BCE) and is credited with first discovering alcohol by accident.  The story relates how Du Kang stored some cooked Chinese sorghum seeds inside a hollow tree stump on a winter day. In the spring of the following year, a fragrant aroma wafted from the tree stump into the nostrils of Du Kang. Afterwards, Du Kang found that it was the fermented sorghum seeds which gave off the alluring fragrance.  It was this node to Du Kang that I decided to use malted sorghum instead of barley malt in this ancient Chinese recreation.

The Results from this Rare Recreation:

The results of this experimental archaeological fermented concoction were surprising indeed.  After vigorously fermenting for two weeks and undergoing four racking episodes to clarify the suspended yeast and rice, the time came for bottling this Henan Ale on October 20th.  The original gravity was 1.084 and final at bottling was 1.014, meaning it was already at 9% ABV before bottle conditioning with 1 cup of wildflower honey.  To all of our astonishment it tasted just like fermented grapefruit wine!  I think the reason for this was the combination of hawthorn berries and the bitter wormwood.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this session and all were rewarded with at least three take home samples apiece, which are sure to age splendidly and continue to render a powerful punch that is perhaps an accurate rendition of the authentic ancient alcoholic beverages brewed in this region of eastern Asia 9,000 years ago!干杯 gan bei “cheers”!

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One response to “Ale Through The Ages: Brewing the Oldest Known Fermented Beverage in the World

  1. Reblogged this on Argent Cellars and commented:
    Excellent research on this ancient grog (fermented grape, fruit and grain beverage)!

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