Filched Fungi Bioprospecting, Power Alcohol, and “Chinese Yeast”, 1892-1933

Podcast Download: 

“Alcohol flows across cultures: Drinking cultures in transnational and comparative perspective”

International Research Symposium, St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29–30 June 2016

[Symposium Podcasts]


"Filched Fungi: Bioprospecting, Power Alcohol, and “Chinese Yeast” 1892-1933"

Tristan Revells (cand. PhD)

East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University, USA


While excellent scholarship on the culture of alcohol consumption in China exists, the role of Chinese alcohol production techniques in the development of modern industrial alcohol production has received little attention. Centred on the “Amylo process”, an industrial method of alcohol production derived from Chinese brewers’ practice of using fungi to saccharify starches, my paper contextualizes this method within better known global circuits of alcohol production and chemical knowledge during an era in which both potable and industrial alcohol were becoming globalized commodities. The subject of intense research in agricultural and industrial chemistry from the 1890s-1950s, the chief advantage of the Amylo process lay in its removal of any need for malt to achieve fermentation, as well as its ability to efficiently turn cassava, molasses, rice and other raw materials available in colonial territories into alcohol, making it attractive as a source not only of potable alcohol, but for cheap “power alcohol”, a petroleum substitute should globe-spanning supply lines be disrupted by warfare.


My sources include patent journals, brewing industry publications, popular science digests, research papers of Chinese and European microbiologists, and promotional guides to colonial commerce. I trace the Amylo process from its origins in the Chinese brewing industry to its adaptation and refinement by “bioprospectors” for the needs of European industry, through colonial ventures in Indochina, Korea, and Northern Africa, and back in refigured form to late Republican China, where nationalist intellectuals and the nascent domestic field of modern chemistry sought to position it as an example of innate cultural and scientific ingenuity. Finally, I position the Amylo process as a paradigmatic example of growing global scientific cooperation and academic bonds during this period as scientists in Lille, Shanghai, Tokyo, Des Moines and Budapest collaborated on refinements to a process capable of cheaply fuelling parties and engines alike.



© 2011. All content,