February 14, 2021 An Ancient Brewery is Discovered in Abydos, Egypt

The site had been discovered here in the early 1900s. British archaeologists uncovered vats and thought they’d been used to dry grain. The location, deemed run-of-the-mill, was then literally forgotten about. It was found again in the 2000s and only during an excavation on February 14 2021 did archaeologists realize what the site was. A brewery. A vast, ancient brewery dating back to about 3100 BC and the dynasty of King Narmer.  

Though other ancient world breweries had been found, this was by far the most extensive and organized. The brewery could produce 22,400 gallons of beer in one go. It was laid out in eight standardized structures. This place was engaged in industrial beer production. Most of it likely went to the royals. Some of it was surely used in rituals, as it was considered sacred (and still is, but it’s hard to imagine an Egyptian priest pouring an Old Milwaukee over a sacrificial cow).

But when did people start making beer? Crude ancient breweries can be dated back 7,000 years and there’s evidence of a cave brewery near Haifa that dates back 13,000 years. The earliest barley beer is dated to 3400 BC in the Zagros Mountains (Iran). (The earliest grape wine dates to 5400 BC also in the Zagros Mountains, which were evidently the party grounds of the fertile crescent). But there’s some discussion as to how it started. Some historians suggest beer was discovered by happy accident. In order to make grains more edible, ancient tribes would soak and heat them, then let this sit over time and return to them. Sometimes they noticed that the action of wild yeasts from the air fermented the sugar in the gruel into alcohol. The result wouldn’t exactly have been a Dogfish 90-minute IPA, but a fizzy porridge-like substance that would nevertheless help our ancestors forget they were being tracked by Asiatic lions and enemy tribes. Since raising grains took time and since beer took a while to ferment, it’s thought that this was a precursor to the Neolithic revolution and ancient humans casting off their nomadic ways.

Other historians suggest that ancient peoples sought out intoxication. It’s thought that they would have noticed that spontaneous fermentation occurred in fruit juices and honey, and that they resulted in a buzz (and epic diarrhea and bad decisions). The thinking is, once a person has ascertained shelter, food sources, and water, they figure out where and how to catch a buzz. As the first thing I do whenever I stay at a new hotel is find the closest kebab stand, a shop for bottled water, and then a pub, this instinct is alive and well.

Moving forward, beer was a huge part of life in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In Sumer, beer was an everyday beverage, and brewing was an occupation, a craft, and domestic duty. In most homes, the bulk of brewers were women, as it was considered housework. But it was also done at a town and city level. Sumerian brewers were taught the beer recipe to a tune, which was the hymn to Ninkasi (the goddess of beer). The priestesses of Ninkasi were the first brewing organization (that we know of). Beer was thought to bring one closer to the gods because of its intoxicating elements; thus its place in poetry and mythology. It turns up in the Hammurabi Code and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Cuneiform tablets – some of the first writing ever to happen on earth – detail the disbursement of beer and payment in beer. No doubt ancient Sumerians woke up with bad hangovers, multi-dented Cuneiform tablets, and no recollection.  

The Egyptians came along and improved on Sumerian beer. Egyptian brewers – like those before – used emmer, a grandfather of modern wheat. They also used a two cask brewing process which – with no help from thermometers or advanced equipment – left them with delicious cool, crisp beer. They drank this beer in the ceramic casks they’d brewed it in and through clay straws so to dilute the sediment. The nearby Nile wasn’t exactly a paragon of potable water, so beer provided a healthy drinking alternative. It was also a source of calories and nutrition. The laborers who worked on the pyramids at Agra were paid partly in beer. This not only was payment, but sustenance. If you have to move massive stone blocks into a timeless pyramid that will defy the imaginations of generations to come, you might as well be a bit tipsy while you do it.       

Like in Sumer, beer was seen as a gift from the gods. Beer was part of creation myths, and the Egyptians felt that when one was drunk it broke down barriers and brought us mere mortals closer to immortal deities. Tenenet, the goddess of beer, was revered as all others were. Moreover beer was part of medical recipes, the addition of which might hint to the future use of laudanum and opium in the 19th century. Clever doctors must have understood that you could have ten ingredients and if one of them is ‘six beers’ the sufferer’s pain will be put on hold for a few hours. A proverb of the day was ‘a cup of beer gladdens the heart’. So in its positions as nourisher, healer, and messenger of the gods, beer held a place of honor in the Ancient world.

So let’s celebrate our ancestors with beer. Great Lakes brewery makes a Gilgamesh which is inspired by the first written beer recipe in Sumer. It’s brewed without hops but includes the traditional Sumerian ingredients of dates and figs. Drink and sing the hymn of Ninkasi, Sumerian goddess of beer. Another beer from the ancient world is the Midas Touch, a Dogfish beer using ingredients inspired from vessels found in the tomb of King Midas. Don’t want to go through any hassle? No problem. Go to your fridge or your local bar, order a beer and drink it. Savor it. Remember as you drink that you are taking part in an ancient tradition, the entire reason for the start of our civilization. And I’m sure if you think hard, you’ll find some positives too.  

  1. No comments yet.
(will not be published)