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Stanford University students try their hand at making beer using an ancient Chinese recipe

FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2015 file photo, people celebrate the opening of the 182nd Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich, southern Germany. Image via AP.

Students at Stanford University got the chance to brew beer using a 5,000-year-old Chinese recipe during an Archaeology of Food class with archaeologist and professor in Chinese archaeology, Li Liu.

Liu, doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang, and a group of other experts published their research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which included the earliest evidence of beer production in China so far. One of the their discoveries was the centuries-old beer recipe, which was found to be mainly made of cereal grains, like millet and barley, as well as Job’s tears, a type of grass in Asia.

Job’s Tears. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In class, the students gathered around a large table with beakers and water bottles filled with yellow, foamy liquid to bring the ancient recipe to life.

First, they started with the malting process, where they covered some grain with water and let it sprout. Once it had sprouted, they crushed the seeds and immersed them in water again. Then, the mashing process began – the container with the mixture was then heated to 65 degrees Celsius in an oven for an hour. Later, the students sealed the container with plastic and let it stand at room temperature for about a week to ferment.

The students also tried their hand at making an indigenous South American beer with a vegetable root called manioc or cassava. The shrub is chewed and spit out, then boiled and fermented, resulting in a brew called “chicha”.

‘Not just about reading books’

Hands-on work like this allows students to put theories they learn into action as well as providing a window into appreciating the ancient world.

“Archaeology is not just about reading books and analyzing artifacts,” said Liu, the Sir Robert Ho Tung Professor in Chinese Archaeology, to Stanford News.

“Trying to imitate ancient behavior and make things with the ancient method helps students really put themselves into the past and understand why people did what they did,” Liu said.

FILE – In this Dec. 17, 2012 file photo, manioc roots of various shapes and sizes are displayed in a supermarket in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Image via AP.

Madeleine Ota, an undergraduate student who took Liu’s course, made beer using red wheat and manioc – each ended up with two contrasting results. The red wheat one had a pleasant fruit smell, like cider, while her manioc beer smelled liked funky cheese.

Ota said she knew nothing about the process of making beer before taking the class and was skeptical that her experiments would work.

The mastication (which means to chew) part of the experiment was especially foreign to her, said the junior, who is double majoring in archaeology and classics.

“It was a strange process,” Ota said. “People looked at me weird when they saw the ‘spit beer’ I was making for class. I remember thinking, ‘How could this possibly turn into something alcoholic?’ But it was really rewarding to see that both experiments actually yielded results.”

“The beer that students made and analyzed will be incorporated into our final research findings,” Wang said. “In that way, the class gives students an opportunity to not only experience what the daily work of some archaeologists looks like, but also contribute to our ongoing research.”

Ota and other students praised Liu’s class for showing them an important, practical view into the ancient culture.

“Food plays such an important role in who we are and how we’ve developed as a species,” said Ota.

“We can use the information that we gain in these experiments to apply to the archaeological record from thousands of years ago and ask questions about what these processes reflect and what we can say about alcohol fermentation and production.”

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