Ancient Chinese techniques inspired the Field Museum and Off Color to make an extraordinary new beer | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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Ancient Chinese techniques inspired the Field Museum and Off Color to make an extraordinary new beer

Brewer John Laffler talks about how he used rice and mold—and some help from a Field archaeologist—to create the new, limited QingMing.

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QingMing, a collaboration between the Field Museum and Off Color Brewing - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • QingMing, a collaboration between the Field Museum and Off Color Brewing

A lot of the history of brewing is the history of regulatory headaches," says brewer John Laffler of Off Color. It's a legacy that continues today: Laffler faced bureaucratic setbacks while brewing QingMing, a collaboration beer with the Field Museum inspired by brewing techniques and ingredients from ancient China. For example, because there's evidence that hemp was used as a filtration mechanism, Off Color was planning to replicate the technique. "We talked to the feds and they were like, 'If you get this documentation that all these hemp seeds don't have any THC [you can do it],' " Laffler says. But the supplier of the seeds dragged its feet on responding, and by the time Off Color got the approval it was too late, Laffler says. "We said screw it. We substituted alfalfa."

QingMing is the second historically inspired beer that Off Color has brewed with the Field Museum; the first, Wari Ale, was informed by chicha brewed by the Wari people of what's now southern Peru. Made with purple corn and molle berries (also known as pink peppercorns), it was released last March as a one-off but proved so popular that Off Color is going to brew and release it for a second time later this summer. (The Field Museum's house beer, a lager called Tooth & Claw, is also brewed by Off Color.)

To come up with the recipe for QingMing, Laffler sat down with Field Museum curator of anthropology Gary Feinman, who explained the brewing processes of ancient China. The ingredients and techniques used in making the beer come from source materials discovered at archaeological sites from the Late Shang/Western Zhou dynasties (1600-722 BCE). The types of alcohol produced at two archaeological sites during that time period, Laffler says, "fell into three camps": li, jiu, and chang. "For us, the chang sounded the most interesting. Li was more like a wine, jiu was more like a beer. Chang was kind of like the two of them together, a stronger version of li, which was a semisweet rice- or millet-based fermented beverage, 3.5 percent ABV."

What fascinated Laffler most about the production of alcohol in ancient Asia was the way starch was converted to sugar (a process called saccharification) in the rice that was commonly used in alcohol production at the time. "I think China's really interesting because it has mold-based saccharification as opposed to enzyme-based saccharification, where the enzymes come from the grain itself," Laffler says. Because barley (the most common grain used for brewing in Western countries) has a seed, the malting process involves essentially tricking the seed into sprouting, which releases enzymes that break down starch in the grain into sugar. Rice is a little different. Ancient Chinese brewers would add a fungus called aspergillus to the rice; the spores release enzymes that break down starch into fermentable sugars. The technique is still in use in modern China and other parts of the world: both the fungus and the inoculated rice are called koji in English, and it's the starting point for soy sauce, miso, and sake, among other products.

Koji is not, however, particularly common in brewing. For this reason, Laffler says, fermenting the rice was the hardest part of the process from a technical standpoint. "I started making it in my little apartment. You basically cook rice, add the mold spores—we cooked rice 24 different ways before figuring it out. It was a lot of playing around with my little Instapot trying to figure out the right measurements, time periods [for fermentation]." Then there was the process of scaling up to making 200 pounds of koji at a time. "Fortunately we have a culinary steam generator we use to sterilize our kegs," Laffler says. "We were able to repurpose that with tubing and some ingenuity to make a large rice steamer."

Once the process of making the koji was nailed down, the trickiest part of making QingMing was getting approval from the federal government for the ingredients that they wanted to use. There's evidence that both osmanthus and chrysanthemum flowers were used to make alcoholic beverages in ancient China, but while both flowers are approved for food preparations in the U.S., they haven't been tested with alcohol. "We'd have to prove that it's food safe in alcohol," Laffler says, "because alcohol extracts things that water doesn't. [The federal government is] not saying that it's not safe, just that someone needs to prove it. And for a brewery of our size, we don't have the time and resources." So both osmanthus and chrysanthemum were out—but jasmine, another flower found at one of the archaeological sites, was allowed. So were several other ingredients: honey, peaches, plums, and jujube fruit, also known as Chinese dates. The name "jujubes" couldn't go on the label, though; according to Laffler, the government said they had to change it to "dates" for reasons that remain unclear.

One silver lining emerged from all the bureaucratic hassles: in the process of getting legal approval for the techniques and ingredients used to make QingMing, Laffler learned that he could also legally make sake (with a slightly different license than the one he now holds). "Now we have some idea of how mold-based saccharification works," he says of Off Color's mind-set, "let's push it forward and see where that leads us."

In the meantime, QingMing is set to be released July 13 at the Field Museum's Hop to It event, and will be available thereafter at the museum's Field Bistro and at "select retailers" in Chicago. It's an unusual beer, Laffler says. Besides weighing in at a muscular 9.5 percent ABV, it's more fragrant and floral than most people think of when they imagine beer: "It's very perfumed. There's a lot of fruit and floral character in the beginning." As for the finish, he says, "It's very high in alcohol, so that helps to dry everything off your tongue. As it evaporates, you get all this interesting sake character, fancy perfumed rice—and that's the best part."  v

Hop to It: Release of QingMing by Off Color Brewing Thu 7/13 6-8:30 PM, Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore, 312-922-9410, fieldmuseum.org, $40, $35 museum members.

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