Another Historic Beer: Chateau Jiahu

Apparently, we’re not the only ones interested in historic beer.

Since the Black Creek Historic Brewery is closed until May, your trusty beer journalist has gone international. While staying in Virginia, I’ve had the chance to try some of the offerings from Dogfish Head Brewery: a craft brewery based in Delaware. They’ve been on the American craft brewing scene since 1995, and in 1999 they started a line of “Ancient Ales.” On board, they have Dr. Patrick McGovern (Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum). With his expertise, Dogfish Head crafts recipes based on chemical analyses of residue found on ancient drinking vessels.

I tried the Chateau Jiahu, released 2006. Jiahu is a Neolithic site in China’s Yellow River Valley, dating back to approximately 7000 BCE. Excavated mostly through the 1980s, it is home to some of the oldest known written records, the oldest playable musical instruments…

…and the oldest fermented beverages.

Jiahu at lower centre (courtesy www.naturalhistorymag)
Jiahu at lower centre (courtesy http://www.naturalhistorymag)

Excavations at the Jiahu site yielded pottery vessels with high necks, handles, and flaring rims: perfect for storing and serving alcoholic beverages. Because pottery is porous, organic material can seep into the ceramic. Thousands of years later, researchers are still able to analyze that material.

McGovern describes the Jiahu beverage as a sort of “grog,” made from rice (acting like barley), honey, grapes, and hawthorne-tree fruit. So, it was probably like a cross between mead, beer, and wine. However, it’s not quite clear how the rice was used. As with barley, the starches need to be broken down into simple sugars. It may have been malted, but McGovern notes that human saliva has the same effect, meaning that the rice could also be chewed to prepare it for fermentation (this is still done in parts of Asia). Either way, you’d get a lot of husks and debris floating in your brew—hence why a lot of ancient beers were drunk through straws.

Look closely, upper right... (courtesy
Look closely, upper right… (courtesy

I didn’t have to worry about that. While Dogfish Head Ale may be going to older sources than we do at the Black Creek Historic Brewery, they do use modern methods and equipment.

The Chateau Jiahu was a pale golden colour, with a bit of cloudiness and a small, fine head. I smelled fruitiness right away and caught more on the aftertaste, but the sweetness really surprised me. There are no hoppy notes. That’s not surprising, since they wouldn’t be using hops in 7000 BCE China, I’ve just grown accustomed to that type of bitterness. Instead, the honey comes through quite strongly. Mild carbonation was pleasant, and you definitely notice the lightness in flavour and body—something quite different from our barley-based ales.

A note of caution: this beer is 10% ABV. It doesn’t feel like it.

Jiahu isn’t the only site Dogfish Head has explored; they’ve taken inspiration from sites ranging from Turkey to Egypt to Finland. Now, if only we could pair their recipes with our 1860s brewery…that would be one truly historic ale!

For more, check out:

Dogfish Head Brewery

The Jiahu Excavation


Bright Beautiful Bottles!

Whether it’s a stubby or a slender 500-mL vessel, few things are more familiar or ubiquitous than a bottle of beer.

Yet this wasn’t always the case. Until the late nineteenth century, beer was mostly sold from casks, with a very small percentage of output bottled.

But there were some bottles to be found, mostly for export beers. Some of the earliest beer bottles used in the United States were stoneware. Pottery bottles tended to be two-toned, but there are a few examples of solid cream-coloured bottles as well. They were particularly used for storing porter, but as you can imagine, they were very heavy and difficult to transport. Nevertheless, they exemplified what we think of as a “proper beer bottle shape.” That is, they were relatively low-shouldered, with shorter necks than wine bottles.

Two-toned stoneware bottle, Black Creek Pioneer Village collection.
Two-toned stoneware bottle, Black Creek Pioneer Village collection.

Though glass wasn’t quite as strong, it proved a lighter alternative. Britain’s abolition of taxes on glass in 1845 added to their popularity as well. Some green, blue, and clear glass bottles survive, but most early beer bottles were brown: the better for keeping out light that might spoil the beer. Many bottles were made from three-piece moulds with a “blob” top: a rounded lobe at the mouth of the bottle, which was stoppered and wired shut. By the mid-nineteenth century, ale bottles tended to be shorter, squatter, with abrupt shoulders and straight necks.

"Blob" top.
“Blob” top.


Corked ale bottle.
Corked ale bottle.

As beautiful as these early bottles are, they proved a massive inconvenience for both brewers and drinkers. Prior to the development of automated bottling lines, bottling had to be done by hand. As the Black Creek Historic Brewery knows first-hand, bottling by hand is a difficult, time-consuming endeavour – but so is corking! The bottle would be held between the knees and the cork knocked in with a “flogger.” Alternatively (or perhaps, additionally), the cork could be secured with a wire.

While the corkers and bottlers probably needed a brew themselves after all their hard work, drinkers were little better off. These early beer bottles needed to be opened with corkscrews and couldn’t be resealed. Once drinkers cracked one open, they were committed to it!

Bottled beer really got a boost in the 1870s, particularly from the advent of pasteurization in 1876. Following Louis Pasteur’s methods, glass bottles were heated to 50 degrees Celsius for thirty minutes, thus killing any lingering microbes and ensuring a longer shelf life. At about the same time, the railways boomed, allowing this more stable beer to be sent further, faster. The decade ended with Englishman Henry Barrett’s invention of the screwtop bottle in 1879. Now, finally, bottled beer could be resealed.

Further developments followed in the 1890s with American William Painter’s invention of the crown cap in 1892. Moreover, by the late 1890s, beer was being chilled, filtered, and artificially carbonated so that it would stay “bright” in the bottles, thus resembling our modern beers more and more closely.

The good old days: an assortment of glass ale bottles in the taproom at Black Creek Pioneer Village.
The good old days: an assortment of glass ale bottles in the taproom at Black Creek Pioneer Village.

However, despite all of this, bottled beer only became ubiquitous (and indeed, taken for granted) after World War I. The Canadian stubby was invented in 1961, and the rest, as they say, is history…

…until 1984, when the stubby was discontinued. But that, alas, is ale for a different tale.

– Katie

(With thanks to Martyn Cornell of Zythophile and the Society for Historical Archaeology. Both go into great depth, for those interested in exploring this topic further!)