The Earliest Known Alcoholic Beverages Sound Kind Of Gross

CORRECTION 7/18/23: A previous version of this article named the U. Penn researcher as Dr. Robert McGovern. The biomolecular archaeologist is named Dr. Patrick McGovern.

What comes to mind when you think of the oldest known prehistoric alcohol? Perhaps it's an ancient wine from Greece, or a primitive version of beer from Egypt? The answer is actually somewhat of a combination of both — a mixed fermented drink of rice and honey that featured hawthorn berries and/or grapes as detailed by research on the Penn Museum website. 

Dr. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and a team of international researchers uncovered evidence of this Neolithic concoction from pottery unearthed in the village of Jiahu in Northern China. Chemical analyses of these samples indicate that this alcoholic beverage was brewed roughly 9,000 years ago, which predates the barley-based beers and grape wines that started appearing in the Middle East soon after. And while a roughly filtered fermented drink of rice, honey, and fruit may sound gross by today's brewing standards, it's actually pretty awesome to think about how much ingredient DNA it shares with modern alcohols. After all, rice is still used for sake, honey is used for mead, and grapes are grown all over the world for wine.

How the earliest known alcohol was made

As detailed in the Penn Museum research, the Jiahu beverage and other prehistoric alcohols from China were likely made through a process called saccharification. This process was unique to the people of early Yellow River Valley civilizations, which used clusters of different mold species to break down carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. From there, natural yeasts in the environment would penetrate the liquid and start the fermentation process that turned the simple sugars into ethanol, resulting in the Jiahu alcoholic beverage that Dr. McGovern helped uncover for the modern world.

By now you're probably wondering, is there any way to experience what this drink might have tasted like? Well, you're in luck — sort of — because east coast brewery Dogfish Head makes a beer called Chateau Jiahu in tribute to the flavors of the ancient drink. It may not be completely faithful to the original recipe or fermentation method, but it does deliver the essence of the original Jiahu flavor components into a very enjoyable modern ale. For fans of history, beer, and humanity in general, this brewery has given us an opportunity to crack open a cold one and share a drink with our Neolithic ancestors. Cheers to you, Dogfish Head!