51: Beer in Ancient Egypt

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Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m Lucas Livingston, your bartender in the pub of ancient civilizations. In episode 51 of the podcast, we examine the art, culture, history, and mythology surrounding the topic of beer in Ancient Egypt. We’ll look at the archaeological record to sort fact from fiction on the brewing process and maybe even dig up a recipe or two for Ancient Egyptian beer.

It’s tough to overemphasize the importance of beer in Ancient Egypt. Without this wonderful fermented beverage, Ancient Egyptian civilization, like so many others around the world, would have been hard pressed to take off. In an age before proper sanitation, beer was safer to drink than the water. All those nasty pathogens that love to wallow in still water can’t survive in even the modest alcohol level of beer. [1] There’s even evidence that beer served as a commodity or form of payment in Ancient Egypt. Looking back to episode 37, we learned a little something about the true pyramid builders and the quantities of meat that they received as part of their daily rations. Archaeological evidence also points to mass consumption of beer among the pyramid builders. [2]

To a lesser extent, wine was also pivotal in Ancient Egyptian society, but more so as an elite beverage and most of our evidence for wine in Ancient Egypt comes from tombs. Wine and beer played a key role as sustenance for the deceased in the afterlife. If you’ve been with the Ancient Art Podcast from the beginning, then you’re well acquainted with the Art Institute of Chicago’s wall fragments from the tombs of Amenemhet and Amenemhet (no relation). Both date to the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (circa 1976-1794 BC). On each fragment we see the deceased Amenemhet accompanied by members of his family. In one case, his mother Yatu. In the other, his wife Hemet and son Amenemhet, Jr. Piled high on the tables before them are the bounteous feasts that will nourish them for all eternity in the hereafter. Along with oxen, fowl, fruit, vegetables, and loaves of bread, we also see a number of ceramic vessels of the type for containing wine and beer. And just in case we aren’t sure what we’re looking at, the artists have thankfully give us descriptive captions. Down here in one example it says a “funerary meal.” And up above, we have the ubiquitous funerary prayer, which we call the “Hotep-di-nisw” and it says “An offering that the king gives consisting of a 1000 loaves of bread, 1000 jugs of beer, oxen, fowl, alabaster, and cloth, an offering of provisions, and everything good and pure on which a god lives for the revered one Osiris, lord of Djedu, great God, lord of Abydos.”

You can tell how critical beer was to the Egyptians by looking at their hieroglyphs. If you look really closely, you’ll of course find the word for beer (henket), which resembles a little jug with a slender neck and a stoppered spout. Looking at the inventory of the funerary feast, you’ll find similarly shaped ceramic vessels, although some of these are likely meant to depict wine jars and religious libation vessels. Beer jugs tended to be more stout and wide-mouthed.

If we switch over to the other Amenemhet for a moment, take a gander at what he’s hiding under his chair. Look at that squat, wide-mouthed jar. What’s that sticking out? If you’re familiar with Ancient Near Eastern art, you might recognize it more easily. Yeah, it’s a straw! It was quite common in ancient times to drink beer through a straw. In Mesopotamian cylinder seals we see people sitting around large vats drinking through long straws. Similarly, gracing the cover of Patrick McGovern’s excellent resource on ancient beer and wine, Uncorking the Past, we see this curious funerary stele in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. This stele from c. 1350 BC comes from Akhetaten, the New Kingdom capital of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. Here we see a man with a Semitic-style beard and hairdo drinking his brew through a straw with the aid of a servant-boy. Opposite sits a woman in Egyptian-style dress.

Beer was brewed en-mass to be consumed as quickly as bread and water. It was often a communal drink shared between multiple people, hence the wide mouths and long straws for easier sharing. The straws also helped penetrate the floating dregs and yeasty foam on the surface. Egyptian beer wasn’t quite as nicely filtered as modern brews. A good reason beer was consumed quickly was because it’s didn’t preserve very well. Certain ingredients could have been added as preservatives, like tree resins (think the cedars of Lebanon), but there’s not a lot of evidence of this from Ancient Egypt. And another shocker, ancient beer didn’t have hops. Gasp! No India Pale Ales in Ancient Egypt. In fact, none of today’s beers would be found in ancient times. Pretty much all modern European and American styles of beer include hops as a primary ingredient. Hops was mandated as a beer ingredient in the German Reinheitsgebot of 1516 (AD, not BC). The resin in hops serves not only to add awesome flavor, but also as a great preservative.

Returning to one of the Middle Kingdom Amenemhet wall fragments, take a close look under the offering table to see something interesting. There’s a funny-looking spouted jug within a pot. It’s hard to say exactly what this is meant to represent. Likely a wine or beer container, but what about the odd design? Why put a jug in a pot? Well, my money’s on an Ancient Egyptian refrigerator! It’s a long-forgotten ancient technology using evaporation as a way to cool food or liquid. That would be especially welcome in a hot climate where edibles would spoil rather quickly. The technology of the nested-pot refrigerator (also called a “zeer pot”) is pretty simple. Just put one vessel inside another. They can be ceramic or metal; something heat-conductive, not insulating. Be sure there’s some space between the two pots. Fill that space with sand and water so the sand is totally saturated. Then cover the inner pot with a wet towel or some sort of insulating lid. Put the whole contraption in a warm, dry, shaded place. You might want to elevate it to let the breeze blow under. The water in the sand will evaporate, pulling heat from the inner vessel and causing the temperature inside to drop. This is a perfect science fair project that also promotes sustainability and social awareness for third world nations. For a great video demo of the nested-pot fridge, check out Revision3’s Scientific Tuesdays “Flower Pot Fridge” (or just google “Scientific Tuesdays flower pot fridge”). Also be sure to check out the footnotes to this episode at ancientartpodcast.org for more sources on modern applications of the zeer pot. [3] So, if my wholeheartedly conjectural and unsupported claim is correct, the Ancient Egyptians likely enjoyed their beer chilled. Aha, but the words of at least one Ancient Egyptian actually support this! A surviving testimonial against some petty robbers states that “They drew a bottle of beer which was [cooling] in water, while I was staying in my father’s room.” [4]

Back up in the inscription on the other Amenemhet fragment we see a complicated hieroglyph composed of the glyph for a house along with a loaf of bread, a jug of beer, and a thingamajig. All together, this means a “mortuary offering.” So, bread and beer were the quintessential foodstuffs of the afterlife and, by association, life on earth along the banks of the Nile at least four thousand years ago.

Bread and beer are closely related in the archaeological record. They involve the same primary ingredients: barely or emmer grain, water, and yeast (although the latter wasn’t discovered until much later … we’re talking Louis Pasteur in the 19th century). Beer is often dubbed liquid bread, but the two require rather different preparation processes. It’s popularly believed that, to make beer, the Ancient Egyptians took freshly partially baked bread, crumbled it up, soaked it in water, and fermented that concoction. Those of us with fond memories of the 2010 Discovery Channel series Brew Masters may recall the Ancient Ale episode where the Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery developed its Ancient Egyptian-inspired ale Ta Henket. That episode certainly captured the mystique of Ancient Egypt, but it also perpetuated the notion that Egyptian beer was brewed from bread.

In the mid to late 90’s, archaeobotanist Delwen Samuel analyzed the ancient residues found inside Egyptian beer vessels. Her analysis found no microscopic evidence of milled and baked grain in these residues (so, no bread), but found plenty of evidence of malted and unmalted barley and emmer grain. [5] There’s a mildly alcoholic modern Egyptian beverage made from lightly baked bread called bouza, which is prepared today by Egyptian Coptic Christians. [6] It’s tempting to see this as a modern vestige of ancient practices, but to be serious, we need more than just speculation.

The Ancient Egyptians may have also included certain additives in their beer. Egyptian wine certainly included a variety of added ingredients like coriander, sage, thyme, mint, and other herbs and spices. And beer may also have had added fruits and spices. Grains are pretty stubborn when fermenting on their own under natural airborne yeasts, but the added sugars in fruit may have helped induce fermentation, as suggested by Patrick McGovern in Uncorking the Past [7], but Samuel counters that there is little direct evidence of this in the archaeological record. [8] If you want to delve deeper into Delwen Samuel’s research, head on over to ancientgrains.org where you can download plenty of interesting articles. But we can’t take any one particular study to be conclusive for all of Ancient Egyptian beer. There’s evidence for many different styles of beer across the vast geography and thousands of years of Egyptian civilization. There’s also strong evidence that bread and fruit additives played a role in ancient Mesopotamian ale, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if recipes were traded back and forth over time. [9]

I’d like to take a moment now for a word from the sponsor of this episode of the Ancient Art Podcast, Pharaoh Hop’n’khamun Ale:

After a long day of pyramid-building under the heat of the Egyptian sun, I like to unwind with a tall, frosty mug of Pharaoh Hop’n’khamun, an Ancient Egyptian beer with a modern twist. Brewed from the finest malted barley and emmer grain fit for a pharaoh and infused with the sweet resins from the Cedars of Lebanon, Pharaoh Hop’n’khamun takes you back to the incense-shrouded mysteries of Karnak Temple. A secret blend of fruit and spices extracted from the wine of King Scorpion’s tomb and the bitterness of American hops packs an aromatic punch sure to please the modern palette. So crack open a Pharaoh Hop’n’khamun today. Visit ancientartpodcast.org/brew to learn more. And now back to the program.

The notion of adding fruit to beer is explored in the ancient legend of the lion goddess Sekhmet, the ferocious enforcer of the gods, who went by the code name the “Eye of Ra.” According to the legend found in the tomb of King Tut among others, humans had plotted against the sun god Ra, because they thought he had grown weak and feeble in his age. Well, Ra wouldn’t have it. So he sent forth his assassin, the Eye of Ra, in the form of the cow goddess Hathor to destroy mankind. She went into the desert and butchered the cowering people, who rightly feared Ra’s vengeance. Ra was pleased with her work and transformed her into the bloodthirsty lioness Sekhmet (the “Powerful One”). All night Sekhmet waded in the blood of those she had slain. Ra grew concerned about Sekhmet’s blood lust and feared she would continue her rampage in the morning until all of mankind had been slain. So, he had his servants brew a massive quantity of beer mixed with the red fruit of mandrake in some versions of the tale, red ochre mineral in other versions, and pomegranate fruit in yet other versions. These 7,000 jars of blood-red beer were poured onto the ground where Sekhmet planned to begin her slaughter in the morning. As dawn broke, she came upon the lake of beer. Thinking it to be blood, she gorged herself until she was so entirely drunk that she couldn’t continue with her rampage. Then the fierce lioness Sekhmet transformed into the sweet, demure, pussy-cat goddess Bastet. [10]

Now, I wouldn’t go brewing mandrake ale just yet, but this tale does offer up an interesting ethnographic case study. Did the Egyptians brew a fermented beverage involving pomegranate? Did they exploit the hallucinogenic properties of mandrake in their alcoholic beverages or was that exclusively for subduing the wrathful Sekhmet? Perhaps time and further residue analysis will tell, but for now we’ll permit ourselves to run wild with frothy speculation. Now go have a cold one for me … and put it on King Tut’s tab.

Thanks for listening to the Ancient Art Podcast. Be sure to check out the footnotes and references at ancientartpodcast.org for this and other episodes, where you’ll also find image credits and links to other great online resources. And if you’re interested in following along as I delve deeper into the magical realm of home brewing with an ancient twist, check out my new brew blog at ancientartpodcast.org/brew. Don’t forget you can find me at facebook.com/ancientartpodcast and on Twitter @lucaslivingston. I love reading your comments on YouTube, iTunes, and Vimeo. And you can get in touch with me on email at info@ancientartpodcast.org or send me your feedback on the web at feedback.ancientartpodcast.org. As always, thanks for tuning in and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2012 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


[1] McGovern, Patrick, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages, University of California Press, 2009, p. 7, 243. See also Charlie Papazian, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, 3rd Edition, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, p. 25.

[2] McGovern 244 and Brian Handwerk, “Pyramid Builders’ Village Found in Egypt,” National Geographic News, updated 18 September 2002, retrieved 3 July 2012.

[3] Zeer-pot resources:

  1. “Pot-in-pot refrigerator,” Wikipedia, retrieved 3 July, 2012.
  2. Lloyd Alter, “Solar Fridge Invented (Again) by UK Student,” Treehugger.com, 8 January, 2009, retrieved 3, July 2012.
  3. “Zeer pot fridge: How a clay pot refrigerator can help beat hunger,” Practical Action, retrieved 3 July, 2012.

[4] Excerpt from Mariette G. Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d’archéologie égyptiennes, vol. 3, 1898. Website retrieved 29 June 2012.

[5] Samuel Delwen and P. Bolt, “Rediscovering Ancient Egyptian Beer” in Brewers’ Guardian, 124:26-31 (December 1995) and “Archaeology of Ancient Egyptian Beer,” in Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, 54 (1996), p. 3-12.

[6] McGovern 245 & Samuel, Delwen, “Brewing and Baking in Ancient Egyptian Art,” in Food in the Arts: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1998, edited by Harlan Walker, Prospect Books, 1999, p. 174. As an aside, apparently there’s no etymological relationship between “bouza” and the English vernacular “booze.”

[7] McGovern 243.

[8] Samuel, Delwen, “Archaeology of Ancient Egyptian Beer,” in Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, 54 (1996), p. 10.

[9] Kathleen R. Mineck, “Beer Brewing in Ancient Mesopotamia” in The Oriental Institute News & Notes, No. 201 (Spring 2009), 8-10.

[10] McGovern 246 & Lewis Spence, Egypt: Myths and Legends, London: George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd, 1915, Senate, 1994, p. 166-8 & Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume 2, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975-76, p. 197-9.


Soundtrack to Pharaoh Hop’n’khamun advertisement:
Jim Boz, “Kendra” from the album Folkatronic
Available on iTunes

Additional media courtesy of:

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Art Institute of Chicago
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
British Museum
patmcgovern, flickr.com
+Russ, flickr.com
Arthur Chapman, flickr.com
johan.pipet, flickr.com
Discovery Communications, LLC, discovery.com
LEGO® Harry Potter © 2012 The LEGO Group
Harry Potter © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR
Wikimedia Commons

See the Photo Gallery for image credits.

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