Even by the famously anything-goes standards of Parallel 49, the Chinese Mixed Culture beer series is an adventurous one. The East Vancouver craft brewery is famous for giving Lotusland offerings like El Matador Purple Corn Cerveza, Salty Scot Sea Salted Caramel Scotch Ale, and Barrell Aged Rose Sour.
With its new initiative, it ended up reaching into the past. And by past, we mean truly ancient history. The Chinese Mixed Culture series features three beers, all of which take their inspiration from a 5,000-year-old recipe unearthed in pottery vessels by Stanford archaeologists.
The Hunan is a honey-and-rhubarb sour, the roots of which date back to sometime between 3400 and 2900 B.C in Shaanxi. The Fujian is a sour combining peach, oolong tea, and Neolithic wild yeast for a tribute to the southeastern Chinese province. And the Sichuan Peppercorn Sour uses the same yeast as the others in the series, with peppercorns added. All three have been barrel-aged at Parallel 49, with the brewery's wood cellar manager Miki Goda overseeing things.
The modern roots of the series can be traced back to 2017, when Moonzen Brewery in Hong Kong and Jing-A Brewing in Beijing created a sour ale using yeast based on a recipe from centuries ago.
“The recipe was actually discovered by archeologists from Stanford University,” Goda says, interviewed on the patio at Parallel 49.
“They found it inside these pottery vessels that were buried in a Neolithical archeological site in China—it was the first evidence of barley based beer in China. So they followed that recipe. To ferment the beer they used an indigenous wild yeast from a spontaneously fermented hazy wine called hunjiu. It’s the yeast that gives the beer a tart, fruity flavour.””
Parallel 49 brewmaster Graham With forged relationships with Moonzen and Jing-A, and visited them pre-COVID-19.
Based on that relationship, the two breweries gave With permission to obtain and use the re-created yeast. During the brewing process at Parallel 49, there were curveballs. These began with the fact of working with something of an unknown product after getting the starter from the States, where it had been banked.
“We were able to obtain the yeast with permission from Moonzen, but we actually had no idea what the characteristics of the yeast were going to be or what was in this mixed culture,” Goda says.
After the brewing using flaked rice (to lighten the body of the beer) and sorghum (a nod to the distilled Chinese beverage baijiu) as well as barley, beers were fermented in tanks and then aged between four and seven months in French-oak wine barrels. The rhubarb, peppercorn, and peach additions were made as a way to pay tribute to the regions the beers were named for.
“Basically, what we did is we made three different barrel-aged beers, each inspired by the agricultural products of certain provinces in China.”
Normally, after going into bottles, there would eventually be refermentation, leading to carbonation. That wasn’t the case this time. As a result, get ready for a beer that challenges your traditional ideas of what beer is, with the Hunan, for example, having a complexity, not to mention a strength, that almost puts it in glorious barleywine territory.
“We tried to bottle condition, but it didn’t carbonate, so this is a still, uncarbonated style. It refermented, but it didn’t produce carbon dioxide. It’s actually what the beer tastes like straight out of barrels, so it’s interesting to try it still. And I doubt the ancient Chinese carbonated their beers, so it’s really kind of authentic.”
Along the way, there were fears that things had gone south.
“Initially, we didn’t even know if we could release this beer,” Goda reveals with a laugh. “When we first tasted it, there was no carbonation, and strange slick-mouth feel with a vinegary taste."
But fittingly, given the back story, it turned out that patience was key.
"We kept tasting it, popping open a bottle every month,” Goda says. “And then it actually turned around and started tasting quite delicious.”