Ancient “beer” (except it’s not)

Fermenting is about as ancient a technology as you can get.

The earliest Chinese records describe a cuisine based on dozens–probably hundreds–of different fermented pastes and sauces. I’ll be making a few of these for the blog.

But before there was China, there was beer.

Not exactly beer, though that’s what the scholarly literature calls it. Archeologists analyzed the pottery funnels and pots found at Mijiaya (in today’s Shanxi) and determined that what they had was a brewing kit. Based on chemical residues in the pots, they even know what was inside: broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and tubers.

But how was it made? There are lots of ways to turn grain into beer, but the best way is to cook it and let nature do its thing. And by nature, I mean mold. This is how rice has been fermented for at least 9,000 years. If you go to a store and see the sweet fermented rice called laozao 醪糟, that’s exactly the stuff. History in a bottle, folks.

Making laozao is very straightforward: steam starchy glutinous rice for ten minutes, let it cool and mix in a packet of starter. Poke a hole in the center to increase the surface area, cover with plastic wrap, and wait. After 48 hours or so (depending on temperature, etc.), the liquid has separated from the rice, and the whole mash is tart and fragrant. You are now the proud owner of a bowl of laozao. Well done!

I practiced the laozao method a few times, and decided it was time to try the ancient mixture. Using 1/4 each broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and shanyao yams for the tubers, I followed the same method and waited.

And waited and waited.

After two, three, and then four days, it still wasn’t fermenting. Worse still, the different grains were all being digested at a different rate: the tiny grains of yellow millet had disappeared, but the big pieces of barley were still basically raw. Plus, I was getting a little bored with the whole project. So I dumped it into a Mason jar*, chucked it into the fridge and promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Practice batch of laozao, welcoming the new ancient grains

Two months later, I opened the jar and wow. Just like laozao, but richer and more fragrant. This was an unqualified success, and I can absolutely understand why this would be attractive to ancient people. Fermenting preserves the grain, but also makes it easy to digest and brightens up what was proably a fairly bland diet.

I am really looking forward to using this in place of laozao, especially as a starter for steamed bread. I’ll have a recipe for that as well.

* Never seal up an actively fermenting liquid. Not unless you crave the sound of exploding glass.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s