When you’re a dedicated beer fanatic, there are few better sounds than the creak of a pulled tap releasing a sudsy stream of golden alcohol into a frosty mug. It’s even better when you have thirsty friends to clink glasses with. That first sip always hits a spot in your brain that eases the stress of life, and that feeling is what keeps bars in business.
There are those who settle for a simple Budweiser and nothing more, but true beer drinkers are always in search for some elusive Belgian concoction or impossible-to-find IPA. However, nothing compares to the brewing magic happening in Israel.
Whether you’re clinking a glass with a friend or engaging in an intense team competition such as pong or flip cup, sharing a cold brew with others often results in one heck of a great time.
To someone who considers themselves a beer connoisseur, the sight of that crisp golden nectar is the most enticing thing in the world. However, the brewing process is way more involved than most people think.
Telling people you make beer is definitely something unique, but it’s not like you simply dump a bunch of ingredients into a vat and press “cook.” There’s a hefty amount of science involved and only specially trained brewmasters are allowed to helm the machinery.
One of the biggest components of any beer is yeast. The yeast helps all of the ingredients ferment, which gives each beer its unique flavor profile. Brewers in Jerusalem, however, are putting a twist on this part of the process.
Archaeologists and microbiologists who work for the Israel Antiquities Authority worked tirelessly at several Egyptian, Philistine, and Judean archaeological sites in search of pottery shards. And, the reason all ties back to booze.
See, the pottery found at the archeological sites had yeast colonies thousands of years old, and this piqued the interests of the researchers, scientists, and brewmasters on site.
They knew Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian people incorporated beer into their daily lives. Old Egyptian texts even refer to some of the alcohol they drank as “iron beer,” “friend’s beer,” and “beer of the protector.” Could that actual beer be tasted once more?
To find out, a group of scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority successfully came together to recreate the 5,000-year-old liquid.
The task, as you can imagine, was far from easy. Every yeast specimen needed to have its full genome cleaned and sequenced. During the process, the team also discovered the yeast was similar to another completely different culture’s as well.
The strains of yeast were close to the stuff used in traditional African brews. Still, to this day, the people of Zimbabwe make a beer similar in flavor to the Egyptians, and Ethiopians brew honey wine they call “tej.”
The science behind the whole endeavor had everyone thrilled, especially those who are frequent beer drinkers. This was the most exclusive booze ever made, and a Jerusalem craft beer center called Biratenu was where the team unveiled it.
Biratenu was known for carrying all sorts of unique beers, so it was the perfect place to put on the ancient show. Everyone was eager to see that first crisp fizzy pour of history.
The beer had a thick foamy head, golden caramel colorization, and a uniquely funky aroma. There was also mead that was made from 2,500-year-old honey wine yeast that was dry, bubbly, and had a hint of green apple.
Shmuel Naky, one of the brewers, was well aware of the impact yeast had on the flavor and aroma of alcohol. He described the taste as “spicy and somewhat fruity, and it’s very complex in flavor.”
One of the archeologists who took part in the yeast excavation, Aren Maeir, loosely compared the revival to the DNA excavation in Jurassic Park. He said, “In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs eat the scientists,” he said. “Here, the scientists drink the dinosaurs.”
The team from Israel pulled off a massive feat, but they alone are not obsessed with the history of fermentation and alcohol. Dr. Patrick McGovern, a molecular archeologist, is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages,” and he loves this stuff.
While Dr. McGovern hasn’t gone as far as to actually make alcohol from yeast that’s thousands of years old, he studies ancient recipes and carefully recreates them.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, potter-turned-winemaker Andrew Beckham started fermenting different styles of wine in clay pots he made. His goal was to study how different clays affected the winemaking process, and what he found was surprising.
Negatively charged earth is often added by winemakers to help “fine,” or clarify, the wine, but clay pots have natural clarification properties. Both Dr. McGovern and Beckham believe these practices will “dramatically transform the world of wine,” and in turn, alcohol in general.
An inscription found in Egypt from thousands of years ago states, “The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.” Many people might find that statement true, but one family in Oregon believes it’s a different type of drink that does the body good — and they risked their lives to prove it.
During the 1970s, the Ly family was living in a Chinese community in Vietnam. Tensions were running high between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Vietnam which made their future in the country uncertain.
As a result of this political conflict, the Ly family was deported in 1978, just because they were Chinese. They settled in a small farming village in China where their father, Phan, worked growing grains used to make baijiu, a traditional liquor.
This “white alcohol” is the most popular drink among the Chinese, and it wasn’t unheard of for people to distill their own baijiu (since liquor stores weren’t really a thing).
Qilai Shen / Bloomberg Photo
But Phan’s baiju-making was interrupted when the Sino-Vietnamese War broke out. It wasn’t safe for the family to stay where they were, so they needed to get out… fast. They needed a plan.
Phan wanted to use the sailing experience he gained working on ships in Ha Long Bay back in Vietnam to escape. But there was one problem, he didn’t have a boat.
Luckily, other villagers in their farming community wanted to escape the clutches of Communist China. Together, they combined every last bit of money they had in hopes of buying a fishing boat so that they could sail to a safer place.
Together, they successfully purchased their “get-away car.” With a boat secured, they chose Hong Kong as their destination for a new life. Phan led the one-and-a-half month long journey that sailed so many innocent people to safety.
The Ly family didn’t stay in Hong Kong long, however. There, the family connected with a church all the way across the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. A family sponsored the Lys, and it was off to the United States they went.
After arriving in Oregon, the Ly’s felt safer now as they had an entire ocean between them and the political turmoil that plagued their homelands. Phan started a family restaurant where his five children worked. That’s where Phan hit a roadblock.
The old baiju farmer had dreams of selling the famous Chinese drink at the family restaurant, but they “couldn’t get their hands on it,” his daughter Michelle said. Surprisingly, the most popular alcoholic beverage in China was nowhere to be found in the States!
Baijiu was a way of life for the Ly’s and a huge cultural pastime in China. They couldn’t understand how more than 10 billion liters of baijiu could be distilled each year, yet barely any trickled its way into the United States!
See, for the Ly family, baijiu was drunk at every occasion: honoring your ancestors, commemorating the new year, celebrating any holiday. The whole family missed it and continued to live a baijiu-less life for many years.
When it became time for Phan to retire, he expressed to his children that he wanted to open up his own distillery. His daughter Michelle recalled, “We thought it was just going to be his retirement project.” Not quite.
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Two years went by before Phan announced that he finished all of the necessary paperwork to become a legally licensed distillery. Phan sold the restaurant and set out to make his dreams come true. He was going to bring baijiu to America.
Originally, when he told his children of his venture, he wanted to call the distillery “Five Siblings,” but his children suggested a name a little more obscure. They suggested that he call it “Vinn,” the shared middle name of all his children.
Phan successfully started distilling and selling baijiu from their backyard in Wilsonville, Oregon, making them the first company in the United States to make baijiu from scratch. Together, the siblings and their father brought a small piece of their culture to America.
Sadly in 2012, Phan passed away, but the Vinn Distillery still lived on. Now run from the barn on the family property, Vinn produces whiskey, vodka, fruity liquors, and of course, America’s first and only baijiu! But how do they do it? What’s so complex about the process that another distillery every opened up?
Vinn Distillery / Facebook
Every summer, the Ly siblings focused on making “qu.” This is the most important ingredient to the Chinese liquor. It’s made by compacting any form of grain with water and letting it decompose in a controlled environment. The process stimulates saccharification and fermentation.
The grain you choose to make your qu directly influences the flavor and fragrance of the baijiu. The Ly’s use brown rice as their grain, which is common in southern China (wheat is more common in the north). Nonetheless, besides a rice fragrance, other pallets, like honey and soy sauce, can be achieved.
After the bricks of qu are made, it’s combined with a cooked grain (Vinn uses brown rice) and left to ferment in a vat for six months. The liquid is then distilled and aged for a minimum of a year. The result? Over-100 proof baijiu liquor, just like from their childhood.
According to researchers, classic Chinese baijiu is made in temperate zones like China, not quite like the cool, damp Pacific Northwest. The qu tends to take on the properties of the native air, water, and ingredients, so Vinn Distillery’s Oregon baijiu really is one-of-a-kind.
On top of that, one of the Ly sisters decided to age their baijiu in barrels instead of vats and ended up with whiskey. This wasn’t just any old whiskey — this was America’s first ever rice whiskey. Vinn Distillery was continuing Phan’s dream and so much more!
Although the siblings distill their baijiu to only 40% abv, intentionally low due to its potent nature, they still sell something a bit strong for those Americans willing to try. In honor of their father, they sell “go to,” a 106-proof baijiu that will surely send a fiery flavor down your throat!