Hello friends and fellow fermenters,
In this first post of the series I would like to highlight two ancient traditions of making fermented drinks. The first is a Georgian method of making wine in enormous ceramic vessels buried in the ground. The second is an even older method of making fermented drinks in Jiahu, in Northern China.
The Georgian winemaking heritage goes back 8,000 years and centers on the kvevri, a gigantic terra-cotta pot shaped like a pointed egg, with the point at the bottom. These pots are lined with beeswax and buried in the ground up to the mouth. The typical volume of a kvevri is about 800 liters, though it can vary from 20 to 10,000 liters.
While the Soviet Union controlled Georgia (1921-1991), kvevri production was suppressed, and many grape varieties were destroyed. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, kvevri winemaking has come back into the light. In 2013, the kvevri gained international recognition when it was recognized by UNESCO and inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Now, kvevri is experiencing a new popularity at home and overseas.
It is encouraging to think that in spite of the suppression, the kvevri method of making wine has been preserved. In this method, grapes, with skins and stems, are placed in the vessel in October, and allowed to ferment with natural yeast for two weeks with the top of the vessel open. The vessel is then sealed and left underground for six months before opening in April. At this point the wine is transferred to smaller kvevri for an additional six months of aging before it is bottled.
Kvevri winemaking allows the winemaker to be as uninvolved as possible. A modern winemaker moves the wine from barrel to barrel several times, checking things and adding things, which changes the temperature. In kvevri winemaking, the temperature is controlled by the earth. The process is reminiscent of giant kimchi making in Korea. Another benefit of the kvevri vessel is that the point at the bottom collects the sediment, allowing the wine to naturally move about the middle of the pot.
Now let’s continue our voyage further east and further back in time to the Neolithic village of Jiahu, in Henan Province, Northern China. Traces of a fermented drink made with rice, honey, and hawthorn fruit have been found there and dated to 7000 B.C. Analysis by the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, of the pores of 9000-year-old pottery sherds, revealed traces of beeswax, which is a biomarker for honey; tartaric acid, a biomarker for grapes, wine and hawthorn fruit; and traces of grain, probably rice.
The concoction was likely something between wine and beer. The tartaric acid is likely from hawthorn fruit, ideal for making wine because of its high sugar content and ability to harbor yeast for fermentation. Patrick McGovern, the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Director of Biomolecular Analogy said, “Maybe the best modern comparison is with an aged Belgian ale or a barley wine.”
In Jiahu, an actual liquid fermented beverage was found intact within sealed bronze containers. Extracts from the liquid and from the earlier potsherds showed similar results. Though the prehistoric method fell into abeyance, it was the forerunner of later technical developments. The earliest fruit-based fermented beverages in China, the fruit-based beverages of the Shang period, and even today’s popular Chinese drink, shouzhou mi jiu, which has fruit bits suspended in rice wine, indicates a long and unbroken tradition of fermentation. Contemporary eating and drinking culture in China can trace its roots through religious ceremonies and everyday activities all the way back to the Neolithic Period.
Please stay tuned for more posts in which we make connections between fermenting in our distant past, ceramic-art and our healthy lives today!
I’ll be teaching a fermentation workshop (focus on kimchi making) on Saturday 15th at 1pm, buy tickets here.
Summer Harvest sale, Earth and Desert Glaze crocks will be for sale of only $140
My blessing for a good and fruitful year as Rosh Hashanah is at our doorway-L’CHYIM for health and good drinks!
I hope to see you soon in person or online.