Celebrating botanical discoveries

Fermented Drinks Span Way Back to Ancient China


By Christian Hammer

If you’re into beverages that aid in healthy digestion, you’ve probably tried popular drinks such as kombucha, ginger beer, or even alcohols like kvass. The taste of these drinks for many people might be sweet and sour– or if you’re like me, ascribe most as really bitter. Ever since trying these types of beverages, I’ve wondered what’s responsible for their taste. The leading explanation involves fermentation. Fermented beverages include any drinks that involve complex sugars breaking down into simpler ones. Yeast and non-harmful bacteria aid in accelerating this process to create a fermented drink. Thus, the end result usually produces a liquid with vinegar, B vitamins, and other building blocks essential for proper cell function. We know this information usually because of the content label on bottles… but in the distant past, civilizations were masters in making these fermented drinks.     

Fermentation, overall, is not a new process. In fact, many ancient civilizations valued fermentation more than just wanting a healthy gut. Many of them used fermented drinks for economic gain, ceremonial and celebratory practices, and general health. One of the leading ancient civilizations best known for their fermented beverages comes from the Shang Dynasty (1200-1046 BCE), one of the more significant dynasties of ancient China. Ancient writings from the Shang Dynasty give a detailed account of the value of fermentation.

These writings indicate that the ancient Chinese made these drinks for health benefits. However, they also valued these beverages as extremely sacred, offering them to deceased royal ancestors in elaborate bronze vessels. Royal ancestors were thought to offer empowerment to the living, supposedly enjoying offerings ranging from food and drinks. Three of the most common drinks during this period included chang (a herbal wine), lil (a low-alcoholic millet beverage), and jiu (a rice-alcoholic drink consisting of 10-15% alcohol by volume). The three Chinese drinks are significant to modern-day fermentation practices, as the ancients found one of the best ways to make these drinks: through sealed-tight jars, natural sugars, and time! These types of commonly fermented drinks during the Shang period are now known to span back at least 9,000 years BCE.  

Given how far back fermentation practices in ancient China took place, modern scientists used highly-precise techniques, including Infrared Spectroscopy (IR) and High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). Essentially, both IR and HPLC determine an unknown compound. IR correlates firm peaks falling within a specific range to the known literature values of an element of that range. HPLC simply separates and quantifies components of a mixture. Both techniques are important in discovering how food and fermented drinks were stored and mixed.  Modern IR data of rice and rice wine, grape wine, and other preservatives matches that of ancient ones. This means that the process of fermentation has relatively remained the same. Anyone wishing to ferment drinks does not need high-tech machines in a factory but can use sugars, and yeast to accelerate this process in a seal-tight jar, wait for a couple of weeks, and then boom: a healthy concoction of vitamins needed for healthy digestion.

If an ancient civilization had the bare means to make these drinks, so can you!

The above graph reveals that the sharp peak between 1740 -1720 cm shows the presence of tartaric acid, the principal organic acid in grape wine–so the leading source of sugars was from grapes. Beeswax, a further material used in fermented drinks shows its presence in the range of 1720-1710 cmand 730–720 cm. Other lesser peaks correspond to the presence of mostly carbohydrates, common sugars found in honey, rice, and other drinks containing sugars. Another potential source of sugar was the Chinese hawthorn tree, which the fruit has 4x tartaric acid amounts than grapes. Strong acids are left behind for longer periods of time than weaker ones, making it easier for scientists to spot. Chemical analysis also shows that vessels stored fermented drinks since yeast occurs in honey and sugar-rich fruit. These sugars are broken down by yeast, thus showing remaining yeast cells still left in vessels found in analyses.

The ancient Chinese would use these sugars from grapes and water to create drinks deemed high-esteemed by their royal class. This relates to us modern fermented drinkers because making these types of drinks can be made using fruit found at your local store–no need to travel back thousands of years in the past to do so!

Overall, the ancient Chinese had a stronghold on fermentation practices. Most of which, such as waiting on sugars to break down in a sealed jar, can be done easily in the comfort of your own home. So the next time you slurp your favorite fermented drink,  think of the many great civilizations in the past who valued them just as much as we do in the modern world.


 McGovern, Patrick E., et al. “Fermented Beverages of Pre- and Proto-Historic China | PNAS.” Edited by Eric D. Butrym, PNAS, 8 Dec. 2004, 

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