Egypt. In ancient Egypt, all segments of society drank beer, from the exalted Pharaoh down to the humblest peasant. Beer was inextricably woven into the fabric of daily existence, as well as being a feature of religious festivals and state occasions, when “special” brews were produced. Most Egyptologists are of the opinion that grain production and distribution, for brewing and baking purposes, underpinned the ancient Egyptian economy and the political organization of that ancient society, and that a study of beer production can provide an insight into the structure of ancient Egypt itself.
Evidence for the production and use of beer in Egypt extending back to the Predynastic era (5500–3100 bc) has long been known. During the first quarter of the 20th century, for example, Flinders Petrie found beer sediments from jars at Abadiyeh, a Predynastic cemetery on the east bank of the Nile, in Upper Egypt, and at Naqada, which is one of the largest Predynastic sites in Egypt (situated some 26 km (16 mi) north of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile). We know from Early Dynastic (3100–2686 bc) written records that beer was a very important commodity and was almost certainly a well-established feature of the culture of that period. It is therefore highly likely that Egyptian brewing had its antecedents in Predynastic times. Indeed, the earliest information available from the Near East and the Middle East indicates that humans knew how to make bread and beer by 6000 bc.
Classical Greek writers credited the Egyptians with having invented beer (an assertion with which modern Assyriologists would contend, and justly so), with Strabo (c. 63 bc–c. ad 21) commenting that “Barley beer is a preparation peculiar to the Egyptians, it is common to many tribes, but the mode of preparing it differs in each.” The barley beer of Egypt was called zythos by the classical writers, a name that refers to its propensity “to foam.”
Even the wine-loving Romans praised Egyptian beer, with Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), in his Bibliotheca Historica (I:3) saying that “They make a drink of barley... for smell and sweetness of taste it is not much inferior to wine.” He also attributed the invention of beer to Dionysus, a god who was, in crude terms, the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian deity Osiris. The ancient Egyptians believed that beer was invented by Osiris, one of the most important of their deities, whose principal associations were with fertility, death, and resurrection.
For many years, there has been an oft-repeated (and possibly erroneous) notion of how the ancient Egyptians brewed beer. Fairly recent research, and our entry into the genomic age, has enabled archaeologists to reassess the situation. One thing that is indisputable is that, to the ancient Egyptians, beer was sufficiently important to warrant its regular inclusion in the grave goods complex; it was seemingly essential for existence in the afterlife.
It is now evident that in the New Kingdom, at least, two types of barley, two row (Hordeum distichum L.) and six row (Hordeum vulgare L.), and emmer (Triticum dicoccum Schübl.) were used for brewing, while emmer was mostly used for bread-making. It has been suggested that the use of these cereals and the proportions in which they were mixed may have been one of the characteristics whereby the ancient Egyptians distinguished and named different types of beers. Flavorings (which did not include hops) and other additives, such as dates, could also have contributed to beer style variation.
As Henry Lutz observed, the earliest Egyptian texts, including the Pyramid Texts, enumerate quite a number of different beers, which would necessitate their being brewed with a variety of ingredients or by different methods. Some of these beer types, of which “dark beer,” “iron beer,” “garnished beer,” “friend’s beer,” and “beer of the protector” may be mentioned, would undoubtedly have been brewed for special occasions. A “beer of truth,” for example, was drunk by the 12 gods who guarded the shrine of Osiris. Most beer was consumed when young, i. e., immediately after primary fermentation had terminated, but it is known that the ancient Egyptians knew how to brew beer that possessed an extended shelf life, as well. How this was achieved is unknown, but it was certainly a necessity for funerary beers to be long-lasting, and we find many references to “beer that does not sour” and “beer of eternity.”
Information about ancient Egyptian brewing techniques has been heavily dependent on the artistic record, which mainly comprises wall reliefs, wall paintings, statuettes, and models. Such depictions generally show men and/or women grinding/pounding grain, before making it up into small loaves of bread, which are then broken up into small pieces. These were then mixed with water and stirred together in a wide-mouthed jar (forming a sort of mash). The resultant wort was then separated from grain debris through a coarse filter (e.g., a woven rush mesh) and placed in large heated jars, from where it was transferred (being cooled in the process) to another set of jars for fermentation. Beer could then be transferred to smaller, necked containers with clay stoppers for storage/transport.
Fermentation was likely via “contamination” from used equipment, the inoculation by the surrounding air, or an addition of the previous brew. It is possible that specialized brewing environments (such as lambic breweries) were created, where fermentative organisms were harbored.
There have, however, been relatively few indisputable findings of Egyptian brewery sites. At many excavated localities, kitchens and bakeries have been identified and brewing has been assumed to have been carried out as well, mainly because of its relationship to bread-making. One huge brewery complex, capable of producing huge quantities of beer, has been discovered at Hierakonpolis, a settlement and necropolis some 80 km (49 mi) south of Luxor, which flourished during the late Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods.
Over the last 20-odd years, Delwen Samuel, now a researcher at King’s College in London, has transformed the way Egyptologists interpret New Kingdom brewing technology. She found no evidence of bread being used, but recovered signs of malted barley. Grist for beer from that era, it seems, may have consisted of emmer, barley malt, and gelatinized grain that had been heated while still moist (as crystal malt is today). As Samuel says, “The distinguishing feature of the New Kingdom method of brewing is that it used a two-part process, treating two batches of cereal grain differently, and then mixing them together.” We cannot now be 100% certain of brewing techniques used several thousand years ago, but what is certain is that ancient Egypt was home to a relatively sophisticated and fascinating beer culture.