Chateau Jiahu

An extreme beverage like Midas Touch, once lost and now rediscovered, made me wonder: just how early were humans making and drinking fermented beverages and why have humans had a seemingly millennia-long love affair with alcoholic beverages around the world?

If you think about it and even if you don’t have any firm chemical evidence, you might surmise that members of our species, even 100,000 years ago, were probably already making beers, wines and extreme beverages from wild fruits, honey, chewed grains and roots, and all manner of herbs and spices culled from their environments. After all, our ancestors had much the same sensory organs and brains as we do, and they would have known what they liked.

We are narrowing in on the prospect of discovering fermented beverages from the Palaeolithic period, and one recent discovery illustrates how you should never give up hope and that research very often has big surprises in store. You might think, as I did too, that the grape wines of Hajji Firuz, the Caucasus, and eastern Anatolia would prove to be the earliest alcoholic beverages in the world, coming from the so-called “Cradle of Civilization” in the Near East as they do. But then I was invited to go to China on the other side of Asia, and came back with samples that proved to be even earlier–from around 7000 BC (that’s 9000 years ago). There, at the Neolithic site of Jiahu in the Yellow River valley, the people were making, enjoying, and using what is so far the earliest chemically attested fermented beverage in the world in their burial and religious ceremonies. Like Midas Touch, it was another take on an extreme fermented beverage, and it illustrates once again the hold that alcoholic beverages have on the human race.

Most importantly, China began making pottery earlier than in the Near East (as early as 13,000 BC versus 6000 BC), and this was crucial to our discovery. Pottery is virtually indestructible, and liquids are absorbed into the pores of the pottery. As a result, ancient organics are preserved for 1000’s of years until we come along to extract and analyze them.

The pottery that we analyzed from Jiahu were jars with high necks, flaring rims and handles, which were ideally shaped to hold and serve liquids. Again, we used a whole battery of chemical tests to ferret out the original beverage (see pdf).

You could call this extreme beverage a “Neolithic grog.” It was comprised of honey mead and a combined “beer” or “wine” made from rice, grapes, and hawthorn fruit. Rice is a grain, like wheat and barley, so by that definition it makes a beer (of about 4-5% alcohol), but when it’s fermented to 9-10% and has pronounced aromatic qualities, then it’s more like a wine. Maybe, the best modern comparison is with an aged Belgian ale or a barley wine. Although some ingredients have been interchanged, it’s also not all that different from Midas Touch in combining a wine, beer and mead, even if Jiahu precedes Midas by some 6000 years.

One topic ripe for discussion is how did it happen that China now has the earliest chemically attested instance of grape being used in a fermented beverage? Of course, the use of grape this early–likely a wild Chinese species such as Vitis amurensis with up to 20% simple sugar by weight–came as a great surprise. As far as we know–but continued exploration may change the picture–none of some 40 grape species found in China, the highest concentration in the world, were ever domesticated. Yet, this is the earliest evidence of the use of grape in any fermented beverage. And high-sugar fruit, with yeast on its skins, is crucial in making the argument that the liquid in the vessels wasn’t just some kind of weird concoction but actually was fermented to alcohol by the yeast.

We don’t know at this point whether hawthorn fruit or grape alone or in combination were used. After we announced that these were the most likely fruits based on our chemical results, a study of the botanical materials at the site–a discipline that has recently begun to be practiced in China–seeds of just those two fruits and no others were found. Although not helping us to decide whether either or both were used for the beverage, this provided excellent corroboration for our findings.

We could debate whether the rice in the Jiahu beverage was wild or domesticated, and whether its starch was broken down by chewing or malting. Chewing or salivating a grain, stalk or tuber to break down its starches into sugar appears to the be earliest method that humans employed for preparing their beers around the world. An enzyme–ptyalin–in human saliva acts to cleave the larger molecules into simple sugars. In modern Japan and Taiwan, communities of women still gather around a common vessel, and chew and ferment rice wine for marriage celebrations. Corn beer or chicha in the Americas is still made this way.

However the rice was broken down and fermented, it still leaves lots of debris that floats to the surface, and the best way around that is to use a drinking-tube or straw, the time honored method to drink beer in ancient Mesopotamia and here rice wine in a traditional village of south China.–what you might call extreme beverage-drinking.

Jiahu wasn’t just your run-of the-mill early Neolithic site. It has yielded the earliest playable musical instruments in the world, three dozen of them made exclusively from one wing bone of the red-crowned crane. The flautist for Beijing’s Central Orchestra of Chinese Music has shown that the flutes will play the traditional Chinese pentatonic scale and its music. The flutes might well have played a role, along with the fermented beverage, in ceremonies to the ancestors, just like music and rice and millet wine were closely associated with ancestor worship at the fabulous Shang Dynasty capital cities, such as Anyang, from about 1600 to 1050 BC, and up to present.

Our re-created Neolithic beverage, which is called Chateau Jiahu, is of course named after the site in China where the pottery was excavated that led to our analysis and reconstructing the ancient recipe. And at the recent 2009 Great American Beer Festival, it garnered a gold medal in a blind tasting competition. This is very appropriate as the earliest alcoholic beverage in the world. Sam and I went together onto the podium to receive the medal, and it’s now set up as a small shrine in my laboratory.

Its label, inspired by a dream Sam had, clearly pushes the envelope visually, as does the extreme beverage inside the bottle. The seemingly enigmatic tattoo that graces the lower back of our celebrant on the bottle is actually the Chinese sign for “wine” and other alcoholic beverages. It shows a jar with three drops of liquid falling from its lip. The sign dates back to the Shang Dynasty and has been in continuous use ever since.

Fresh whole hawthorn fruit, muscat grapes (since we have not yet been able to obtain wild grapes from China), wild flower honey, and rice malt with their hulls were brewed together and fermented with a sake yeast. You’ll be glad to know that the rice was not saccharified by chewing–Sam said he was ready to do that if that was what they did in antiquity. But they could also have malted the rice, so we went with that. The beverage has a marked sweet-and-sour profile, which goes extremely well with Chinese cuisine.