Stone Age Beer (from Discover)

November’s issue of Discover Magazine has an article titled "Stone Age Beer" (unfortunately, the full article is only available to subscribers) about Dogfish Head Brewery‘s attempt at brewing a 9,000 year-old beer from China. (Other articles are here and here.) It’s a pretty interesting story, beer brewed with rice, grapes, hawthorn berries, honey, and such, emulating as closely as possible the conditions they guess the beer was brewed under. But I found myself wondering about how authentic such a beer could be, especially when (by federal law) they were required to use 25% barley malt, so I was delighted when the author chronicled his own experience attempting to brew the beer in a more authentic fashion.

McGovern, Calagione, and Gerhart seemed satisified with the day’s brew. I was not… Château Jiahu, it seemd to me, was still too burdened by the present….

Two technological hurdles stood between me and quality. One was starch conversion; starches are long chains of sugars and can’t be consumed by humans until first broken down. The second challenge was attracting enough wild yeast to ferment those sugars quickly, before marauding hordes of bacteria and fungi turned the brew into a frightful and possibly hazardous libation….

I was down to my last option: chewing the grain and spitting it out. Horrifying, perhaps, to our fussy 21st-century sensibilities, this Neolithic technology is still very much alive today. In Africa they do it with manioc roots; in the South Pacific they do it with kava. The idea is simple: Digestion begins in the mouth. Saliva contains, among other things, ptyalin, a form of amylase. By chewing the grain, I myself would initiate the starch conversion.

So, to remain authentic, he chewed the rice to produce the mash, added raw honey and crushed grapes (for the wild yeast), and added hawthorn berries. Some of you are cringing, no doubt, and his first attempt tanked, but the second was drinkable… or at least drinkable enough.

Lacking an oenophile’s nomenclature and nuance, I can only describe it as a sort of Flintstones wine cooler: sweet and sour, with a honey funk and blurry sight lines. With a second glass I proved to myself that it was drinkable and caught enough of a buzz to trip over the border in my garden.

In the end, I was more entertained by the homebrewing portion of the article than the rest. Someday I might try brewing an historical beer like this… without the chewing, though. I’m not that authentic.