The Archaeology of Ancient Egyptian Brewing

The latest Ale through the Ages brewing series at Discovery World focused on the archaeological evidence of brewing beer in ancient Egypt.  A large group turned out on January 5th, 2012 to brew an Ancient Egyptian Ale, which marked the twentieth distinct recipe we’ve recreated in the series since October 2008.

Many different styles of beer were brewed throughout the long history of the Egyptian Civilization; however, this recipe is based on the ingredients known to have been used at sites such as Hierakonopolis and Amarna.  It must be stated that this recipe is an approximation of what an Egyptian beer would have tasted like.  Given the geographic and temporal differences between North America and Egypt, as well as thousands of years in between, it is virtually impossible to create the exact same fermented beverage brewed by the ancient Egyptian brewers.

Egyptian Beer in the Written Record

Beer, called henqet (Hnq.t)      in ancient Egyptian, was a vital staple in the diet of all social classes. An Egyptian brewer was called ‘fty  .  One could argue that the massive pyramids of Giza would not have been built without the nutrients and calories beer offered. In fact, hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate that the laborers who built these pyramids were afforded a daily ration of four loaves of bread and two jugs of beer.  Moreover, pyramid texts at Saqqara (earliest ca. 2400 BCE) mention several different types of beer: “dark beer”, “iron beer”, “garnished beer”, “friends beer”, beer of truth”, “beer of eternity”.  Classical Greek writers called beer Zythos “to foam”, which was first described by Theophrastus Θεόφραστος (371 – c. 287 BC): “…those beverages, which were prepared, like those made of barley and wheat, of rotting fruits.”  The Greek writer Strabo (ca. 64 BCE – AD 23) wrote of Egyptian beer: “Barley beer is a preparation peculiar to the Egyptians, it is common to many tribes, but the mode of preparing it differs in each” (Geographica Book XVII).

Archaeological Evidence:

While the written record is important, direct evidence for brewing in ancient Egypt has begun to emerge throughout the Nile River Valley.  One example is of a brewing scene from the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqqara.  The tomb was first excavated by Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Moussa in 1964, and dates to the Old Kingdom, circa 2400 B.C. E.  The brewing scene visually describes the process from beginning to end, including taxation.

Perhaps one of the most compelling discoveries of brewing beer in ancient Egypt comes from the ancient site of Hierakonpolis (City of the Hawk) in upper Egypt. Excavations led by Jeremy Geller et al. beginning in 1989, yielded evidence of large scale brewing activities.  Known as the Vat Site (HK24), it dates to 3,500-3,400 BCE. The name comes from the discovery of six coarse ceramic vats in two parallel rows set within a mud platform.  This platform was likely originally covered with an ad hoc superstructure to contain heat.  It was estimated that each vat could hold about 16 gallons.  Hence the brewery could produce 300 gallons a week allowing 2 days for fermentation in the vat. Residue analysis indicated that emmer wheat with dates and possibly grapes were added to provide the necessary sugars for fermentation.

Further evidence of ancient Egyptian brewing comes from Kom El-Nana near the ancient city of Amarna. Amarna was the capital of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his consort Nefertiti.  Excavations during the 1990s by members of the Amarna Project revealed a large brick enclosure (228 x 213 meters).  As part of this large complex were the remains of parallel brick chambers with ovens, including pottery moulds suggesting a combined bakery and brewery.   Recent microscopy analysis by Dr. Delwen Samuel (Cambridge University ) of beer residues from +200 pottery vessels found among the ruins of workers’ villages at Amarna prove that Egyptian brewing was far more elaborate that suspected. Evidence of malting barley and emmer wheat were discovered, which were used in brewing beer.  Samuel noted that unmalted grains were also used in brewing at the site (Samuel 1996). It was from this research that Dr. Samuel collaborated with Scottish and Newcastle Breweries to create Tutankhamen Ale, which consisted of emmer wheat, juniper, coriander and yeast. “It does not taste like any beer I’ve ever tried before,” Dr. Samuel was quoted as saying. “It’s very rich, very malty and has a flavor that reminds you a little of chardonnay.”

Our Ancient Egyptian Ale

A total of 25 gallons of Ancient Egyptian Ale was brewed for this class.  The Original Gravity turned out to be 1.062 (15˚ Plato) due to the addition of wheat malt barley malt and sweet dates. 12 gallons were fermented with a Bavarian Wheat yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) strain and another 12 gallons were fermented with natural yeasts present on Algerian dates (Phoenix dactylifera) that were put directly into the cooled wort.  Traditional fermentation in ancient Egypt likely occurred from wild yeast found on dates and/or grapes that were placed in fermentation vessels. Fermentation may also have taken place by adding previously fermented beer (which would have already contained yeast) into the fermentation vessels.

Not surprisingly, the commercial yeast took off right away and fermented down to a gravity of 1.008 in three days (i.e. 7% ABV).  Meanwhile, the batch with the wild date yeast underwent a slower fermentation and resulted in a soured flavor and a final gravity of 1.020. Finally, a small two gallon batch was fermented in a replica Egyptian-style ceramic jar.  A teaspoon of dry ale yeast was sprinkled on top of ale, which had an original gravity of 1.052 (12.5˚ Plato).  After three days its final gravity was 1.005 (i.e. 6% ABV).  For authenticity, this small batch of Ancient Egyptian Ale was served directly out of the ceramic container at room temperature and slightly carbonated. The result was a quite unique-tasting ale, similar to bread with hints on coriander and dates.  The primary batch of Ancient Egyptian Ale was bottled on January 19th 2012.  The batch fermented with Bavarian Wheat yeast is very palatable with bready notes, reminiscent of a hefe-weizen. The batch fermented with the dates is certainly funky with apple cider and vinegar flavors overlaid on a malty sweetened date backbone.  It will be exciting to see how they taste after a few weeks of conditioning in their bottles. We should all raise our glasses to the brewers of ancient Egypt and may archaeologists continue to discover much more about their prolific brewing tradition in the years to come.

Bibliography:

Samuel, Delwen:     1996    Archaeology of Ancient Egyptian Beer.  Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists. Vol 54.

McGovern, Patrick:   2009    Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages.  University of California Press

 

5 Responses to The Archaeology of Ancient Egyptian Brewing

  1. Opened one of the “naturally” fermented bottles today and it was quite the gusher. Can’t say that it was all that tasty but a great experiment none the less.

    • It probably would have been a good idea to culture the date yeast first before plopping them in whole and hoping for the best. Next time I’d like to try harvesting yeast off of chamomile flowers grown in Egypt (Rishi Tea has it). The other batch turned out pretty well I think. Actully the batch fermented in the Egyptian clay pot was the best!

  2. I have seen some documentrys on using natural yeasts, It seems like the beer would take on a whole new ‘texture’ and flavor. Some day I will get my home brew kit out and start playing :)

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