Ancient beverage expert Patrick McGovern refers to it as a "grog." It's technically a mixed beverage made with rice, fruit (hawthorne and grapes), and honey, which by todays standards would be a sake-wine-mead type of brew. Nowadays, we drink mostly specialized single-base beverages which makes mixed-base fermented drinks seem culturally odd (and commercially illegal in many countries), but thousands of years ago these types of drinks were the norm.
Allow me to present ancient beverages in broad strokes: our ancestors didn't have our fancy modern fermentation techniques and in-depth understanding of yeasts and fermentation that give modern day winemakers (or sake makers, or beer brewers) tight control over the final product. When the grapes weren't ripe enough our ancient ancestors may have added honey (yeasts present in the honey would have bolstered and fed the fermentation while helping to sweeten the final product). When they came to understand that grain wouldn't ferment on its own they may have malted or chewed grain to activate enzymes before mixing it with fruit and honey (the fruit and honey would have natural yeasts present to jumpstart fermentation). The choice to mix bases was partly prescribed by cultural & geographic norms (these grogs were local recipes based on available fruits and grains), and and partly due to need because the mixing helped achieve a better fermentation (which probably informed the recipes).
The modern chapter of ancient Chinese grog is twofold. On one branch, we have American interest spurred by archeologist Anne Underhill (Field Museum in Chicago). In the 1990s she initiated some of the first American-run archeological expeditions in China and felt that we would soon discover that "fermented beverages were an integral part of the earliest Chinese cultures" (McGovern 2009:28). In 1995 she enlisted the help of Patrick McGovern and his laboratory in the excavation of Liangchengzhen (a Neolithic site in Shandong Province). With his interest in Chinese Neolithic beverages piqued, McGovern went to the Yellow River basin (the birthplace of Chinese culture) with Changsui Wang (professor at University of Science & Technology in China). On one of their trips along the river they stopped at Zhengzhou and met Juzhong Zhang (of the Institute of Archeology which houses many Chinese artifacts).
This leads us to the second part of the modern chapter of ancient Chinese grog. The Institue of Archeology at Zhengzhou houses many artifacts from an incredible nearby Neolithic excavation site known as Jiahu. At Jiahu scientists have uncovered the earliest known mixed fermented beverages (long before what we once thought were the earliest fermented beverages in the fertile crescent), but also much more: multiple interdisciplinary findings have unlocked many secrets about the dawning of Chinese culture (instruments, eating habits, animal and plant domestication, early characters, shamanism, etc). The large site has given us a perspective of how many people of different classes lived together. Within this larger context, McGovern collected samples from jars and sherds, enlisted the help of collaborators worldwide, and began analysis to see what may have been in the jars.
He and his colleagues discovered that many liquid-bearing vessels found throughout Jiahu in different dwellings carried a similar chemical imprint, which indicates that a popular beverage was consumed by many people throughout the village. This chemical imprint turned up traces of:
indicates the presence of fermented grapes, hawthorne, longyan, Asiatic cornelian cherry, geraniums, and/or a byproduct of rice fermentation. They narrowed this list down to hawthorne and grapes after finding seeds from both fruits at the Jiahu site.
chemical imprints from beeswax
indicates the presence of honey
specific ones indicate rice
indicated what type of climate the rice came from
This finding is groundbreaking: it's the earliest known and documented evidence of a fermented beverage made with grapes. Most wine primers state the the first wine was made from V. vinifera grapes in the fertile crescent about 6,000-8,000 years ago, but this evidence suggests that much earlier (about 9000 years ago) people along the Yellow River were fermenting wild grapes of a different species, possibly V. amurensis or V. quinquangularis (albeit with other products blended into the fermentation).
Fascinated by this, Sam Calagione and Mike Gerhart (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery) worked with McGovern to attempt a recreation of the popular Jiahu beverage. They found the ingredients to the best of their ability, decided to use both grapes and hawthorne (unsure if one or both were used based on the tartrate residue), and added a bit of light barley to satisfy the government's requirements for a commercial product made in a brewery. Read the article Stone Age Brew for a play-by-play of the first Chateau Jiahu attempt.
The result is stunning- one of the most interesting and tasty drinks I've had in a long time.