We don't often think of China when we look for the origins of beer, but an archeological analysis published by Stanford researchers last year shed light on ancient brewing history that points to the Chinese as some of the earliest people to brew beer—around 5,000 years ago.
The findings inspired Barry Chan, brewmaster for Lucky Envelope Brewing, to start experimenting and figuring out how that ancient beer would have tasted. The researchers were able to use chemical analysis of those brewing vessels to give rudimentary ratios of the different grains and starches that were used. So Chan had a basic guide to the beer's content that included barley but also more unusual ingredients like Chinese squash, a grain called Job's tears, and dried lily flowers.
"It definitely gives us a sense of place, and the fact that it goes so far into the beginnings of barley as a fermented beverage—it brings things full circle for me personally," said Chan, who is acknowledging this connection to the past while putting out his brewery's own version of that ancient beer for the Lunar New Year.
"The cool thing, especially with the lily flowers and Job's tears, is those are used in Chinese food. So I would eat Job's tears growing up," Chan said. "To find it so interconnected with the food that is traditionally eaten, there was this kind of weird, cool connection with history."
What Chan ended up with is an incredibly balanced beer despite a pretty crazy set of ingredients. It's reminiscent of a light cream ale but with an earthier sweetness. Dried lily flowers on their own have the aroma of an earthy raisin, and those flavors really come through in his beer.
Chan named it the Mijiaya Historic Chinese Beer, after the archeological site where researchers found the brewing remains, and is releasing it for a short run at Lucky Envelope that starts this Saturday, January 28, to kick off the Lunar New Year. Chan wanted to release a more mainstream beer with Chinese roots, so he also brewed a citron IPA flavored with the fruit Buddha's hand (aka fingered citron).
Buddha's hand is a freakishly gnarled type of citrus from China that looks like a bunch of mutated yellow fingers branching off a small gourd. It's a shock to behold when you first come across it in person, and the juice-less citrus has a pungent lemon aroma. Chan combines the Buddha's hand flavor with an aggressive hopping of Citra hops—which have their own lemon aromas—making this Buddha's Hand Citron IPA burst with lemon-drop zest.
Citra hops and citrus-forward IPAs are everywhere these days, but the Buddha's hand makes this beer feel distinctly different from the rest. Chan said that is thanks to the fruit's white flesh, which tastes similar to lemon pith but lacks the bitterness.
"It's so unique, and a lot of people would think that you added some artificial lemon flavor, but no, it's just the labor-intensive process of cutting that thing up and zesting it and throwing it in the beer," Chan explained. "It does have that lemon flavor in there, but it's an interesting fruit because of the pith. You can be a little bit more liberal in adding it to the beer because it's not overly bitter. You definitely get some of that white part of the citrus peel flavor, but it's not unpleasant."
Lucky Envelope is the only brewery in Seattle owned by two Chinese Americans, Chan and business partner Raymond Kwan, and the two new beers they'll unveil this weekend are a great representation of the direction that the industry should be headed to make itself more diverse.
The popular misconception about diversity is that it must have a moral objective, that embracing diversity is the "right" thing to do. But Chan's development of the two Lunar New Year beers reveals how important it is to encourage a more diverse marketplace, not just because inclusion is the right thing to do but also because it's a highly effective way of bettering our society and expanding our experiences. Chan was looking for a connection between the citrus-forward IPAs Seattleites love and Chinese culture and, voilà, he conceived a couple of amazing new tastes for our local market.
There is plenty of research that demonstrates how diversity can make groups of people smarter and industries more innovative, and craft brewing—an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white males—should be embracing diversity whenever possible.
Annie Johnson, a nationally recognized legend in the home-brewing world and master brewer at Seattle start-up PicoBrew, said she sees the industry slowly becoming more diverse. "I see more and more people of color, and they are focusing on the beer. When people see that there are people like them, it makes them feel more included," she said.
Johnson is also the first woman and first person of color to win the prestigious Homebrewer of the Year Award from the American Homebrewers Association, and she agreed that diversification can only make the beer industry better. "When you include everybody, you get all of that nice diversity and you have the experiences that they are going to be bringing in that allow a new perspective on a style of beer," she said.
But both Johnson and Chan are quick to point out that everything they do is aimed at making sure the beer is actually good. "I've only ever cared about beer. Because beer doesn't care what color you are," Johnson said. "If you can achieve that greatness or make that great beer—that has always been my focus."
And Chan's work on Lucky Envelope's two Chinese-inspired brews affirm that his compass is still pointed in the direction of great beer making. When those ancient brewers in China set out to make beer, they were calling on their own experiences to decide how to create the best beer they could. Chan did the same with his own experiences—be it childhood memories of eating soups with Job's tears or desserts with lily flowers—and has gifted Seattle with some great new beers.