The prehistory of beer in Asia (China and Mesopotamia)


The Chinese beer brewing basin and its two great rivers Huang-He and Yangtze


The two great rivers of China are linked during the Chinese Neolithic (7000-3000 BC) by a common phenomenon. Around 6000-5000 BC, each was the focus of domestication of the two main cereals of Chinese culture, namely millet for Huang-He and rice for Yangtze[1]. Between these two rivers, which flow from west to east, a strip of land about 200-300 km wide was a region of mixed millet-riz culture throughout the Neolithic period. This fact is fundamental for understanding the formation of the Chinese beer brewing basin.

Millet, like the other cereals used to brew beer along the Huang-He, barley in particular (Mijiaya), lends itself to the malting technique. This technique is attested by the excavations of Neolithic sites carried out since 1995 and the analysis of starch residues.

On the other hand, the rice, once husked, lends itself to the technique of amylolytic ferments, a brewing method itself identified by archaeological excavations. The same analyses of brewing residues detected the use of starchy tubers: the "snake gourd" (Trichosanthes kirilowii), lily bulbs (Lilium sp.) and yam (Dioscorea sp.), tropical plants whose northward expansion of cultivation was favoured by the warmer and more humid climatic episodes of the Holocene. These same tubers could be brewed like rice thanks to various brewing methods, except the malting reserved for cereals.

Rice and millet mixed farming sites in neolithic ChinaDistribution of rice, millet and mixed farming sites in Neolithic China (He K, Lu H, Zhang J, Wang C, Huan X. Prehistoric evolution of the dualistic structure mixed rice and millet farming in China. Holocene, 2017)


Neolithic China thus offers a very contrasted brewing landscape as early as the 6th and 5th millennia. It is characterised by the great diversity of brewing ingredients, the full range of the 6 brewing methods[2] and a social evolution which leads beer to separate itself very early from the base of mixed fermented beverages. The differentiation of beer is probably accomplished between the 4th and 3th millennia. Chinese archaeologists have indeed identified that the brewing equipment (filters, funnels, size and shape of the fermentation jars) specialised at that time along the Huang-He river. Ancient globular jars gave way to large jars with pointed bottoms (Neolithic Beer in China). This brewing equipment optimises the fermentation and conservation of the beer, whose large-scale brewing sidelines the production of the other fermented beverages. The volume of the beer brewing vessels increases. These technical innovations are a response to social changes: the widespread use of agriculture, more complex and hierarchical societies, and the specialisation of artisanal production.

After having differentiated itself from other fermented beverages and having become the main beverage, beer began a new evolution in China around 1500 BC. During the Bronze Age, social structures became more complex and human relations of domination hardened. The Shang Dynasty made beer a beverage emblematic of power relationships. Beer accompanied the rites addressed to the ancestors of the dynasty, human sacrifices, banquets or military expeditions. According to the later texts of the Zhou dynasty, the dominant families of the Shang used to brew a strong and special beer jiu with sophisticated methods and amylolytic ferments for religious cults and ancestors worship. Another beverage, the beer li, is served for daily use, probably made from millet malt (Beer brewing under the Shang dynasty). We know nothing about the beer brewed and drunk by the majority of the population, its brewing techniques or the ingredients used. The evolution of what can be called the Chinese brewery since the Shang dynasty offers an exemplary case of specialisation of brewing methods determined by social and political evolution, and no longer by natural factors such as the nature of the starch resources, the climate or the type of agriculture.

It should always be borne in mind that the informations provided by the Shang and Zhou dynasties come from a social elite that has seized political power. The beers and brewing techniques of forcibly subjugated peoples and marginalised ethnic groups remain in the shadows. One has to go to the indigenous population of Taiwan or to the southern regions of present-day China to find out more. It is likely, for example, that the method of brewing cooked starch paste by insalivation has long persisted among non-Han ethnic minorities and peoples living on the margins of the Chinese empire.

It will still take several millennia before the technique of brewing with amylolytic ferments will marginalise or make all other methods disappear in China, especially malting between 1000 and 1500. This technical predominance of the beer ferments will lead to confusion when the first Europeans will believe finding a kind of "rice or millet wine" in China, because of this particular technique, the high alcohol content of the traditional Chinese beers and their lack of sparkle. This confusion is still alive nowadays.

The Mesopotamian (Western Asia) beer brewing basin

According to the latest archaeological discoveries, the first fermented beverages preceded the domestication of plants in the Near East (Natufians and the Raqefet Cave). Natoufian hunter-gatherers fermented grains and fruits to prepare an alcoholic beverage around 11,000 BC near Jericho in the Levant. The protohistory of this beer brewing basin is to this day the oldest on the surface of the Earth. It is also the oldest documented base of the primeval mixed fermented beverages today.

Göbekli_tepe. 6 barrels (upper right) and a trough-like

Göbekli Tepe. Tank (top right) and a trough (bottom right) in situ (left)(Dietrich et al. 2012 fig. 11 )

A little later, between 8500 and 6400 BC (PPNB), another site on the upper reaches of the Euphrates, this time in Turkey, provided 6 troughs and large stone vats in a ceremonial context. Göbekli Tepe is now known for its monumental structures, stone carvings and what appears to be a centre for community festivities in which fermented beverages play their part.What beverage was contained in these stone troughs with a capacity of up to 160 litres? Beer from einkorn and emmer wheats, cereals of which one of the domestication centres is nearby in Karacadag. Preliminary analysis of the grey-brown residues deposited at the bottom of the troughs detected the presence of calcium oxalate, an indication of a grain-based fermentation, and therefore of a beer-type beverage. Two nearby sites, Tell 'Abr 3 and Jerf el Ahmar (Syria, PPNA, 9500-8500 BC) provided fairly similar data (stone basins with onager scapulas used to stirup liquids, millstones), a simulacrum close enough to suggest the preparation of beer. Beer from fattening and starch, cereals of which one of the domestication centres is nearby in Karacadag. Preliminary analysis of the grey-brown residues deposited at the bottom of the troughs detected the presence of calcium oxalate, an indication of a grain-based fermentation, and therefore of a beer-type beverage.Two nearby sites, Tell 'Abr 3 and Jerf el Ahmar (Syria, PPNA, 9500-8500 BC) provided fairly similar data (stone basins with onager scapulas used to stirrup, oven, millstones), a similarity obvious enough to suggest the preparation of beer there on these two sites[4].

As in the Raqefet cave, we are in Göbekli Tepe in the presence of a fermented beverage produced before or on the eve of the domestication of food plants and in a clearly ritualised context. A beer without a doubt, but how it has differentiated from the other groups of fermented beverages, especially dairy products and above all wines from wild grapes, which are known to be consumed in this region at the same time (Körtik Tepe, PPN, McGovern 2009). In Göbekli Tepe, the harvesting of food plants still plays an important role, even though the most productive ones are already being domesticated. The composition of the beers had to vary significantly according to the seasons and ecosystems. The devices associated with rituals or stimulated by a collective dynamic of a "religious" character seems to have played an important role in the preparation and consumption of fermented beverages, which had to be subject to collective organisation and rules.

Regarding the brewing techniques used at Raqefet or Göbekli Tepe, it is illusory to think of reconstituting them without the help of in-depth residue analyses such as those carried out in China. It should always be remembered that malting is only one of the six possible methods for brewing beer.

We then have to skip some 5 millennia to find the traces of beer in Mesopotamia around 3500-3100 BC (Godin tepe). The main cereals of this region were then fully cultivated (two-row and six-row barley, einkorn, emmer-wheat) alongside leguminous plants (peas, chickpeas, lentils, vetches) and flax. In the meantime, the first cities, social hierarchies and politico-merchant expansions were born. During this long period, all groups of fermented beverages coexisted, although beer gradually became more and more prominent. The prevalence of agriculture based on productive and resistant cereals such as barley or emmer-wheat explains why in the great plains beer became the preferred type of fermented beverage. This general trend is demonstrated by the situation of the brewery as we discover it in the 4th millennium with the help of the first written documents of the planet.

Beer enters a new phase of its evolution from the 4th millennium. Brewing methods are becoming more specialised. The first archaic Sumerian or Iranian writings tell us that beer has become an independent fermented beverage. It and its ingredients are designated by specific terms and are already the subject of rudimentary accounts on clay tablets. There is therefore an economic system of beer production, a real Mesopotamian brewery from the end of the 4th millennium. Of course, such a regular production on the scale of cities like Uruk or Susa presupposes more or less stabilized and reliable brewing methods. Which brewing techniques exactly?

The malting by germination of the grains is attested very early, end 4th millennium. The malt (sumerian MUNU4) is based on emmer wheat or barley. The rich cuneiform documentation allows us to go further. The brewing process uses raw grains and baked or half-baked breads. Mixing them with malt to brew beer does not raise any technical questions.

But brewing accounts for certain types of beer do not mention malt. The hypothesis of acid hydrolysis comes to mind, i.e. brewing without malt. Even more interesting, a bread named BAPPIR and baked in the oven contains unspecified herbs (sumerian ŠIM). This is an indication of brewing with amylolytic ferments. Some ingredient accounts delivered for brewing beer list only raw grains (akk. še), baked bread (akk. nig-gar-ra) and BAPPIR. Conclusions: in the absence of malt, it is the BAPPIR which ensures the conversion of starch into fermentable sugars. How is this done? By adding amylolytic plants to the composition of the bread-BAPPIR whose baking in the oven does not destroy the precious natural amylases, therefore a partial and superficial baking. These BAPPIR breads have a long shelf life, are sold later, are valuable and have a weight of between 1 and 5 kg of crushed grains. We do get here the technical portrait of an amylolytic ferment which corresponds to what the brewers on the banks of the Indus and Ganges rivers would later call kinva.

There remains the technique of insalivating cooked starch. Technical documents (accounts, technical or medical procedures, lexicons, legal texts, hymn to Ninkasi, etc.) do not mention it. However, the exposition of certain beliefs gives a singular part to saliva and its powers in relation to food and fermentation. Among the Hittites, in the north of the Mesopotamian domain, saliva plays a role in sworn oaths with explicit mention of beer and leaven.

The importance of beer and the economic role of the Mesopotamian brewery continued to grow until the first millennium BC. In more recent times of Mediterranean antiquity, an evolution occurs, which testifies to the intensification of economic and cultural exchanges that accompany the formation of huge empires, sometimes bringing together the Near East and Egypt, then Persia. Between the first millennia before and after our era, barley or wheat beers are sweetened with the pulp (raw or cooked) of very sweet fruits (dates, figs, dried grapes, etc.). This cooperation/recombination of brewing and winemaking techniques is motivated by the search for more alcoholic beers, which before that time did not exceed 3%-4% alcohol. The addition of fruit pulp, palm sap or cane sugar increases the density of fermentable sugars in the wort, which in turn generates more alcoholic beers.

The generalisation of this technique will not go without causing disorders: the increasing alcoholisation is an evil denounced and fought against by all the monotheistic religions emerging at that time.

This evolution seems paradoxical: after millennia of specialisation and technical refinements in West Asia, the brewery is becoming hybrid with the field of date, fig or grape wines, to the point that certain fermented beverages are once again becoming undifferentiated, half beer half wine, as they were 5 to 6 millennia earlier in this region of the world. In the meantime, this same region has been covered with fields, canals, domesticated animals, cities, palaces, temples and large human crowds.

The beer brewing basin in West Asia has a long protohistory which has clearly separated beer and wine. Its recent history is very special in that it culminated between 1000 BC and 1000 AD in the re-hybridization of the two main families of fermented beverages, beer and wine. They recombine to give rise once again to mixed fermented beverages, a sort of date or fig wine with added beer wort of various origins and compositions, alongside grape wine, whose importance in the mediterranean cultures is gradually increasing beyond its cradles (Northern Zagros, Anatolia, Levant, then Cyprus, Crete and Greece).



[1] Xiaoyan Yang et al. 2012, Early millet use in China, PNAS 109 (10) 2012. Early millet use in China
Choi, Jae; et al. 2017, The Rice Paradox : Multiple Origins but Single Domestication in Asian Rice. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 34 (4) 2017. The Rice Paradox

[2] The analyses of starch residues and microorganisms by Li Liu's teams aim primarily to detect the work of amylases from malting and the presence of amylolytic fungi such as mucor or aspergillus. So 2 brewing methods among the 6 existing or possible in ancient China. What about the 4 others? Insalivation is attested by documents from ancient times in Japan, the Ainu, Taiwan and China itself. There is no direct proof to date for the Chinese Neolithic period, due to the lack of an appropriate analysis technique. Acid hydrolysis naturally accompanies other brewing methods by the action of lactic acid bacteria or the addition of acid juices from fruits or berries. The use of amylolytic plants (roots) is more than likely and is part of the later Chinese brewing tradition (Jia Sixie, Chi min Yao Shu or Essential Techniques for the Well-Being of Beings written around 544, cf. Brewery under the Han dynasty). But again, no direct evidence for the Neolithic. Finally, over ripening addresses the brewing of starchy fruits such as acorns or leguminous plants, such as beans, of which there is a trace for the Chinese Neolithic.

[3] Vaughan Duncan A., Lu Bao-Rong, Tomooka Norihiko 2008, The evolving story of rice evolution, Plant Science 174.

[4] Dietrich O., Heun M., Notroff J., Schmidt K., Zarnkow M. - The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86- 2012.
The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Gobekli Tepe

08/11/2020  Christian Berger