Tag Archives: Archaeology

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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Brewing a Drink of Kings

Brewing an Ancient Irish Mead:
Continuing with the popular brewing series “Ale through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing” on December 2nd we brewed a heather mead inspired by the drink imbibed by the ancient kings of Ireland. Having just returned from Ireland the day before, I was pleased to share photographs from Tara and other ceremonial sites in Co. Meath where ritual feasting and consumption took place as early as the Neolithic Period. We brewed 10 gallons of mead which consisted of 22lbs of honey (10 pounds were generously donated by kind folks at the Urban Apiculture Institute, three pounds of honey malt, six ounces of heather tips and two ounces of elderflowers.

We boiled the wort for a total of 20 minutes, but added the local raw honey from the Urban Apiculture Institute during the last couple of minutes to ensure maximum flavor retention. A specific gravity of 1.078 was obtained, indicating a maximum alcoholic potential of ca. 10%. Normally mead should stay in the fermenter for several months, however we will try to speed up the fermentation process and then stop it in its tracks in two weeks before bottling. Currently the mead is in a vigorous state of fermentation with blow-off hoses attached in case it overflows. These hoses will eventually be replaced with airlocks, once the rate of fermentation decreases. This mead is sure to be sweet with subtle floral hints of heather and elderflower. As with any beer or wine, aging will only improve its character and illicit visions of its glorious past.

A Mead By Any Other Name:
Mead is a wine-like alcoholic beverage principally made of fermented honey. It continues to be enjoyed around the world under different names. It can have a wide range of flavors, depending on the source of the honey, additives, the yeast, and aging procedure. A mead that contains cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg or herbs is called a metheglin. A mead containing fruit, such as raspberries, blackberries, etc. is called melomel. Meanwhile, a mead fermented with grape juice is called a pyment.

Human Procurement of Honey:
Human’s love affair with honey extends back into the unknown depths of time. Exactly how far back may never be known, however one of the earliest examples honey collecting is depicted in Matopo Hills of Zimbabwe that is circa 10,000 years old (Pager 1973:54(2)).

When it comes to apiculture, i.e. keeping bees for their honey and wax, the earliest examples come from Egypt. One notable example of beekeeping can bee seen in a stone bas relief in the tomb of Queen Pabasa at el-Asasif Egypt that is dated to ca. 2400 BCE. Moreover, in 2007 archaeologists from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University were excavating the ca. 3,000 years old ruins of Tel Rehov in northern Israel, when they uncovered the earliest archaeological evidence of beekeeping. In all, there were 30 intact beehives made of straw and unbaked clay, with a hole at one end to allow the bees in and out and a lid on the other end to allow beekeepers access to the honeycombs inside.

Etymology of “Mead”:
The earliest surviving written notation of mead comes from a hymn in the Rig-Veda, one of the sacred books of Hinduism dated around 1700–1100 BCE, in which it states “In the wide-striding Vishnu’s highest footstep, there is a spring of mead.” The etymology of the word mead can be traced to the Sanskrit word, madhu, which became the Old English word Medu and the Irish word Miodh, the precursor to “mead.” Indeed, the term “honeymoon” is considered to be derived from the tradition of newlyweds drinking mead for one month (one moon) following their wedding to ensure fertility. In pre-historic Europe, mead was considered the drink of Celtic royalty and has been found in many archaeological contexts from Germany to Ireland.

Two Archaeological Examples of Mead:

While there is abundant written evidence of meads importance in Europe, from Shakespeare’s Beowulf to Odin’s thirst for mead the in Viking Sagas, there are also several archaeological sites that have yielded empirical data. One noteworthy example comes from a Celtic chieftain’s burial at the site of Hochdorf in southwestern Germany. This burial mound (tumulus) dating to ca. 550 BCE was excavated by Jörg Biel in 1978-79. Beneath the mound a log chamber was found, which held the remains of an elite male laid out on a bronze bench surrounded by drinking and feasting equipment. Of particular note was huge bronze cauldron imported from northern Italy, which contained the desiccated remains of an estimated 92 gallons of mead. Moreover, there were nine large gold decorated drinking horns, (likely from the extinct auroch), the largest of which hung above the chieftain’s head and could hold 10 pints of mead.

An example of the importance of mead in Ireland can be seen at the ancient royal site of Tara in County Meath, which at one time was the royal seat for the high-kings of Ireland. Most of the archaeological remains at the site were used as burials and open-air enclosures for ceremonial purposes. Today there are around thirty visible earthworks immediately around the hill of Tara’s summit and at least 30 more have been revealed through aerial photography and geophysical prospection (Fenwick and Newman 2002). Of specific interest is the presence of a huge banquette hall called Tech-Midchuarta or “Mead Hall.” Built around the 5th – 8th Century, this massive structure was 250 meters x 30 meters and was intended to unite the ceremonial landscape of Tara. An illustration in the Book of Leinster (AD 1100) shows a seating arrangement at the great mead hall, highlighting the entrenched social stratification during this period.