Archaeologists discovered pots, jugs and funnels dating between 3400 B.C. and 2900 B.C. in the archaeological site Mijiaya at the Shaanxi province of northern China. The team believes that these artifacts could have been used for brewing, filtering and storing beer.

The findings mark the oldest evidence of brewery in ancient China. The objects were apparently excavated between 2004 and 2006 but further residue analysis by researchers from Stanford University, Brigham Young University, and two Chinese institutes now explain that the main ingredient for the 5,000-year-old beer was barley.

“China has an early tradition of fermentation and evidence of rice-based fermented beverage has been found from the 9,000-year-old Jiahu site,” notes Jiajing Wang, the study’s author from Stanford University. “However, to our knowledge, [the new discovery] is the first direct evidence of in situ beer making in China.”

5,000-year-old beer

This is the funnel used for beer making in northern China. Credit: Jiajing Wang/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The study implies that barley was introduced in 1,000 years earlier than assumed in China and was used for beer brewing before it was grown for food purposes. The researchers also found that ancient Chinese people also incorporated broomcorn millet, Job’s tears and tubers in their beer. The archaeological site also contains stoves, which probably heated these grains for mashing. The artifacts are described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which was published on May 23.

Moreover, this suggests that production and consumption of beer could have ushered the development of society in China’s Central Plain. The study authors point out that the region is known as the cradle of Chinese civilisation.

“Beer was probably an important part of ritual feasting in ancient China,” adds Wang. “So it’s possible that this finding of beer is associated with increased social complexity and changing events of the time.”

Wang adds that they are unsure how the beer could have tasted. The archaeological team plans to investigate other sites in China to understand further how societies in China began making beer.