A man studying a glass of beer. A man studying a glass of beer. Have you studied your beer lately? (Photo: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

Stanford researchers discover a 13,000-year-old beer brewery in Israel

And the taste? More like thin oatmeal than the crisp, refreshing brews we enjoy today.

Have we been drinking beer longer than we've been eating bread?

That's the question emerging from an exciting find in a cave near Haifa, Israel, from a team of archaeologists from Stanford University, the University of Haifa and the Polish Academy of Sciences. The team, led by Chinese archaeology professor Li Liu, found a 13,000-year-old stone mortar that "accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” Liu said.

Now, her team believes the beer-brewing structures predate the cultivation of grains and cereals – in other words, the beginnings of farming for food.

Under a microscope, Professor Li Liu finds and records starch grains. Photo: L.A. Cicero) Under a microscope, Stanford Professor Li Liu finds and records starch grains. Photo: L.A. Cicero)

This finding supports a hypothesis proposed more than 60 years ago: Beer may have been a motivating factor for the original domestication of cereals in some areas.

"This discovery indicates that making alcohol was not necessarily a result of agricultural surplus production, but it was developed for ritual purposes and spiritual needs, at least to some extent, prior to agriculture,” Liu said.

The researchers originally set out to investigate which plant-based foods ancient people were eating, Liu explained. So the discovery of alcohol in the residue of the 13,000-year-old mortars was pretty astonishing.

A building in a Neolithic archaeological site. A building in a Neolithic archaeological site. (Photo: Anton Ivanov / Shutterstock)

“Beer making was an integral part of rituals and feasting, a social regulatory mechanism in hierarchical societies,” said Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student at Stanford's Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and a co-author of the study.

Furthermore, the researchers explained, the beer consumed in the period in question was a far cry from the brews we now enjoy. It's more like a thin oatmeal, Wang said.

That texture, they said, is similar to what the Natufians, a group of ancient hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean, concocted for their "rituals and feasting."

Last year, the same researchers actually brewed their own version in a class at Stanford, based on extensive research on the brewing techniques of early human civilizations. A couple years before that, another group of archaeologists uncovered an ancient brewing vessel in Tel Aviv, Israel, surmising that the beer they stored there was at least 5,000 years old.

The yellow, foamy liquid produced by the Stanford team, led by Liu herself, was a bit harder to swallow and looked more like porridge than beer, since the ingredients (barley, millet, a type of ancient grass called Job's tears and traces of yam and lily root) were not filtered out. When it came down to actually drinking it, the Chinese-inspired mixture was actually quite pleasant; tones of citrus shone through, almost like a cider.

"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.

Archaeological researchers, from left, Dani Nadel, Li Liu, Jiajing Wang and Hao Zhao, stand in the entrance to Raqefet Cave near Haifa, Israel, where they found evidence for the oldest man-made alcohol in the world. Archaeological researchers, from left, Dani Nadel, Li Liu, Jiajing Wang and Hao Zhao, stand in the entrance to Raqefet Cave near Haifa, Israel, where they found evidence for the oldest man-made alcohol in the world. (Photo: Li Liu)

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