Emmer (Triticum dicoccum) is a low-yielding hulled tetraploid wheat that was the principal wheat type of Old World agriculture in Neolithic and early Bronze Ages. In ancient Mesopotamia, emmer was widely used as the primary ingredient in beer. In ancient Egypt, emmer was the principal wheat (alongside einkorn) that was cultivated from the beginnings of organized farming until the start of the Greco-Roman period after the conquest by Alexander the Great. It was certainly used for both baking and brewing. Its eventual demise in both civilizations began with the introduction of free-threshing tetraploid and hexaploid wheats (first T. durum, then T. aestivum). When and why hulled wheats fell out of favor is one of the big questions in Near Eastern archaeobotany, but it may have been due to increased land salinization (and a consequential shift to barley). In Egypt, during Imperial Roman times, huge quantities of the grain were exported from Egypt to Rome, and emmer gradually lost its popularity and hence primacy as a crop.
Emmer evolved from its wild progenitor (T. dicoccoides), which was formed by the hybridization of two diploid wild grasses, T. urartu (closely related to wild einkorn) and an as yet unidentified, species of Aegilops (related to Ae. searsii or Ae. speltoides).
The earliest sign of the pre-agricultural gathering of wild emmer wheat (and wild barley) is from Ohalo II, an early Epi-Palaeolithic (now submerged) site on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee, dating from circa 17,000 bc. Among the three main Neolithic grain crops (einkorn, emmer, and barley), the wild form of emmer has the most limited distribution; it is confined to the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East and Near East.
In Italy, domesticated emmer is known as farro, and it is easily found in supermarkets. Emmer has far more fiber than modern wheat and can be used for baking though it is more commonly used as a whole grain in soups. Today, outside of Italy, it is largely a relic crop occasionally grown in some parts of Europe and southwest Asia (in the Near East it is restricted to the Pontic mountains of Turkey and Iran), although there has been a renewed interest in it of late, especially in health food circles. Malting trials have recently been carried out at Weihenstephan in Germany, and several breweries make emmer-based beers. Emmer has small kernels but relatively large husks, and it therefore tends to produce beers with notable tannic astringency alongside the nutty flavors of the grain.