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Field Museum to serve history on tap with limited-edition beer

Gary Feinman, a Field Museum archeologist, says researchers examined the inner walls of ceramic jars from two ancient Chinese tombs to come up with the museum's latest brew. | Field Museum photo

The Field Museum is bottling up ancient Chinese history, 12 ounces at a time.

Made with ancient Chinese brewing techniques, the museum’s newest limited-edition beer, QingMing, features the bubblegum flavor of sake derived from jasmine rice, and an infusion of jujubes, honey and lemon rinds.

Chicago’s Off Color Brewing crafted QingMing using beer-making approaches found from analyzing jars found in two Chinese tombs dating back thousands of years.

The partnership between the museum and brewery — which spawned last year’s ancient Peru-inspired Wari ale and the Field Bistro’s Tooth & Claw — will release the new beer at the museum’s “Hop To It” event from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The beer will be available at local and national retailers starting the next day.

Researchers examined the inner walls of ceramic jars they thought were associated with alcohol serving and production in the two tombs, said Gary Feinman, a Field Museum archeologist. They derived evidence of mold-based saccharification, a Chinese-bred brewing technique that converts starch in rice to sugar.

QingMing beer, the latest from the Field Museum, is inspired by ancient Chinese brewing techniques and ingredients, and tastes of bubblegum, honey and lemon. | Field Museum photo

They also found indications of ingredients including hemp seeds, osmanthus flowers, honey and more, said John Laffler, owner of Off Color Brewing and one of the heads of the project.

Laffler said he studied research about the findings for a year, ultimately modifying brewery equipment he had on-hand to complete the saccharification process. Legal complications forced him to forego ingredients such as hemp seeds and osmanthus flowers, which Laffler said are hard to get approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in beer.

Sans illegal ingredients, Laffler said the beer is still “unlike any other beer on the market.”

“You can get narrow-minded in what you think of what is beer,” he said. “To have this cross-foundation of all human history, is really neat for us.”

The beer’s name — QingMing — is actually the title of a traditional Chinese festival in which people honored their ancestors with celebrations that most likely included alcohol, said Feinman.

Painters made vivid portrayals of these celebrations on scrolls, which were replicated over time. The Field Museum has one of these scrolls on display, which is part of the reason the team decided on QingMing as a name, said Feinman.

“Alcohol was a means of social glue that perhaps held ancient societies together,” he said. “It was used in the ritual context. I think it’s great to bring the community together with this beer.”