Beer Brewing in Ancient Egypt

Beer Brewing in Ancient Egypt



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Beer in Ancient Egypt

Ancient beer was not only mildly alcoholic but also nutritious. Its prominence in Egyptian diet of commoners reflects its food value as much as the pleasurable sensation that went with drinking it.

The brewing of beer is depicted on a number of tomb walls, for example, in a Fifth Dynasty at Saqqara in a Sixth Dynasty tomb at Deir el Gebrawi in a Middle Kingdom tomb at Meir in a Middle Kingdom tomb and in an Eighteenth Dynasty tomb respectively.

Beer called heneket or booza, was a popular drink in ancient Egypt, the brew was made of barley and homebrewed in some areas. It has been called Egypt’s ‘national drink’. It was nutritious and highly caloric, containing protein, B vitamins and live yeast.

During ancient Egypt, there are quite a number of different beers, which would necessitate their brewed with a variety so 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.

Both bread and beer were the most important foods in ancient Egypt. When the grain was ground up fine, it made bread flour.

To make commonest beer, a piece of barley bread is crumbled in water, and then malted cereal, the remainder of an old batch of beer or yeast is added.

The mash is gently heated for several hours and then allowed to ferment for a day or more, growing stronger until it spoils by about the fifth day.

The beer was drained off after a period of fermentation. Beer was kept in vats in cellars and store houses and was consumed by rich and poor alike.
Beer in Ancient Egypt


Ancient Beer: 13,000-Year-Old Site May Be the World’s Oldest Brewery

For many people, nothing tastes better than a glass of cold beer, whether enjoyed at the end of a long day of work or while relaxing on a summer afternoon. But brewing beer—not baking bread𠅌ould be the reason our ancestors began cultivating grains in the first place.

Inside a cave in Israel, researchers from Stanford University have found evidence of the earliest known beer-making operation, which they think may predate the cultivation of the first cereals.

Both of these milestones belong to the Natufians, a hunter-gatherer group who made the eastern Mediterranean region their home more than 10,000 years ago.

For the new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, a team led by Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford, analyzed traces from stone mortars dating back some 13,000 years. They found the mortars at a Natufian graveyard in Raqefet Cave, near the modern-day city of Haifa.

More evidence that beer came before bread.

The controversial idea that beer, and not bread, inspired the original domestication of cereals is far from a new theory. It’s been around since the 1950s, in fact, and has been gaining ground in recent years thanks to research suggesting that the Natufians considered beer an essential part of the feasts that were so important to their society.

Liu and her colleagues were not looking for evidence of beer-making inside Raqefet Cave, but were simply investigating what kinds of plant foods the Natufians may have been consuming. As it turned out, what they discovered was evidence of a large brewing operation, which Liu called in a statement “the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world.”

The researchers think their findings could be between 11,700 to 13,700 years old, predating the earliest known evidence of bread making recently uncovered at a Natufian site in East Jordan. They believe the Natufians made and consumed the beer as part of ritual feasts for their dead.

Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left) are compared to starches replicated in the researchers&apos beer brewing experiments.

Ancient beer-brewing was reenacted step by step.

Even the most knowledgeable craft beer drinkers today wouldn’t recognize ancient beer, which would have been closer to a thin porridge or gruel made of multiple ingredients, such as wheat, barley, oats, legumes or flax. According to the new study, the Natufians followed a three-step process: First, they germinated the grains in water, then drained and dried them, producing malt. Next, they mashed and heated them, before finally adding wild yeast and leaving the mixture to ferment.

To test their theories, the researchers actually reenacted this ancient beer-making process step by step. The result, they believe, was strikingly similar to what the Natufians brewed.

“This discovery indicates that making alcohol was not necessarily a result of agricultural surplus production,” Liu said. 𠇋ut it was developed for ritual purposes and spiritual needs, at least to some extent, prior to agriculture.”


Beer in Ancient Egypt

Heqet – beer

Beer was generally known as “Hqt” (“heqet” or “heket”) to ancient Egyptians, but was also called “tnmw” (“tenemu”) and there was a type of beer known as haAmt (“kha-ahmet”). The determinative of the word Hqt (beer) was a beer jug.

Haamet – beer Tenemu – beer

It is no exaggeration to say that beer was of central importance to ancient Egyptian society. Beer was enjoyed by both adults and children, was the staple drink of poor Egyptians but was also central to the diet of wealthy Egyptians. The gods were often made offerings of beer, and beer was mentioned in the traditional offering formula. Wages were often paid in beer (and other supplies) and the workmen living in the worker’s village at Giza received beer three times a day as part of their rations

There is some evidence that as a staple foodstuff, ancient Egyptian beer was not particularly intoxicating. Rather it was nutritious, thick and sweet. However, it is clear that beer could also be as intoxicating as Egyptian wine, as participants in the festivals of Bast, Sekhmet and Hathor would get very drunk as part of their worship of these goddesses. A popular myth tells how beer saved humanity when Sekhmet (in her role as the “Eye of Ra”) was tricked into drinking coloured beer which she mistook for blood and became very drunk, passing out for three days! Although the above three goddesses were closely associated with beer, it was Tjenenet who was the official ancient Egyptian goddess of beer.

offering table depicting beer jugs

According to legend, Osiris taught ancient Egyptians the art of brewing beer, but the brewing of beer was traditionally, though not exclusively, a female activity through which women could earn a little extra money (or bartered goods) for themselves and their families. The main ingredient in the beer was bread made from a rich yeasty dough possibly including malt. The bread was lightly baked and crumbled into small pieces before being strained through a sieve with water. Flavour was added in the form of dates and the mixture was fermented in a large vat and then stored in large jars.

There is also evidence that beer was brewed from barley and emmer which was heated and mixed with yeast and uncooked malt before being fermented to produce beer.

The glyph for a beer jug also appears in numerous words, including:

  • “hotepet” – a bowl for bread offerings
  • “iau wer” – breakfast
  • “atkhu” – brewers
  • “sur” – drink
  • “hemu” – payment for employment
  • “ahut” – gifs, food
  • “hotep netjer” – gods offerings
  • “khabbit” – jar
  • “sejet” – beer jar
  • “henu” – possessions, goods
  • “set khet”, “shahbu” – meal
  • “irtjet” – milk
  • “meher” – milk jar
  • “wedhu”, “hotep” – offering
  • “mesyut” – supper

Beer also figures prominently in Egyptian literature and sayings. For example in this inscription dated to around 2200 BC…

“The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer”.

The following is from the Instructions of Ani:

“[your mother] sent you to school when you were ready to be taught writing, and she waited for you daily at home with bread and beer”.


Beer Brewing in Ancient Egypt - History

Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

On February 13th, the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry announced the discovery of what may be the oldest large-scale beer brewing operation. In Abydos, Southern Egypt, they found the remains of eight massive vats, each containing dozens of pottery basins, which according to secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mostafa Waziri, were used to heat the grains and water in the process of creating beer. The find is 5,000 years old, approximately the time of King Narmeer, the pre-dynastic ruler who is said to have peacefully united Upper and Lower Egypt.

Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

Beer features prominently in the Bible. As Michael Homan explains in “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?”, they drank a lot of beer. Yahweh drank freely, even moreso on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:7–10). Beer was advised as a treatment for depression (Proverbs 31:6). And distress can be defined as beer tasting bitter (Isaiah 24:9).

The cooperative effort of Egyptian and American archaeologists is co-led by Matthew Adams of New York University, and Deborah Vischak, of Princeton University. Abydos, the site of the discovery, is an ancient burial ground in the desert, about 280 miles south of Cairo.

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Deuteronomy 21:18-21 describes a legal case of a mother and father with a rebellious son who will not listen to them. When the parents take their son to the city elders, they announce that the son is not only rebellious but also a glutton and a drunkard. At least that is what English translations tell us. The son is then sentenced to death by stoning, so that the evil may be purged from the community and that all Israel may hear and fear.

Rarely do I come across works of art that make my blood run almost cold with excitement. One such image, carved on a stone cosmetic palette some 5,000 years ago, has fascinated Egyptologists as the first fully articulated example of Egyptian royal representation—so that it seems to stand as a symbol of dynastic Egypt itself.

Ancient Israelites, with the possible exception of a few teetotaling Nazirites and their moms, proudly drank beer—and lots of it. Men, women and even children of all social classes drank it. Its consumption in ancient Israel was encouraged.


Unearthing the Vast Beer Production Zone

Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities , announced on Saturday that evidence gathered from the ancient beer factory dates it to the region of King Narmer. While Narmer is often credited with having united Egypt at the beginning of the First Dynastic Period (3150 to 2613 BC), “Menes” is considered the first king of Ancient Egypt, and the majority of modern Egyptologists identify Narmer as Menes.

According to an article in Haaretz a team of American and Egyptian Egyptologists found “eight enormous production units,” each one 20 meters (about 65 ft) long and 2.5 meters (16.4 ft) wide. In total, 40 pottery basins in two rows were discovered which residue samples determined had been used to heat a mixture of grain and water to produce beer. Clearly, according to Waziri, the facility was “producing prodigious amounts of quaff in one of ancient Egypt’s major early cities.”

The remains of an ancient brewery were found at Abydos, one of Egypt’s most important archaeological sites. ( Konstantin / Adobe Stock)


The Ancient Egyptian Obsession with Beer

The first recorded evidence of beer comes from 7,000 years ago in modern day Iran. The ancient Egyptians, however, were the ones to perfect the brewing process and the light-colored, smooth brew is considered by many to be the first proper beer.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Osiris had given them the knowledge to create beer, so it became an object that was used in religious worship.

Alulu beer receipt – c. 2050 BC from the Sumerian city of Umma in ancient Iraq.

The Egyptians loved beer so much it was supplied by the state for festivals, and there was even a whole festival dedicated to it called the “Festival of Drunkenness.”

Beer was enjoyed by everyone, even children from as young as 2 years old. It is generally accepted that beer was a lot safer to drink than the water, so beer was a part of their everyday diet. There was beer that would be drunk throughout the day that was of lower alcohol content but had high nutritional value and was very sweet. There was of course stronger beer, but this was saved for special occasions.

A funerary model of a bakery and brewery, dating the 11th dynasty, c. 2009-1998 BC. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts CC BY-SA 2.5

According to the Smithsonian, beer was also used as payment for labor there is evidence that manual workers would get beer as part of their daily stipend. It was also used as medicine, where it was said to treat stomach ailments, coughs and constipation archaeologists have found over 100 medicinal recipes from ancient Egypt using beer as an ingredient.

Although parts of the beer making process have stayed relatively the same over the centuries, the recipes have changed somewhat. SmithsonianMag reports, in ancient Egypt they had not yet discovered hops and beer was made by soaking cooked loaves of bread in water then putting them in heated jars to ferment.

Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the pouring out of beer.

Other recipes included fermented wheat and barley which were again left to ferment in heated jars. The ancient Egyptians would add dates and herbs to add sweetness and depth to the flavor.

There was a hierarchy when it came to what beer was available to drink. The monarchy was supplied with the best beer while others were free to brew their own at home, saving the strongest beers for getting drunk.

Disturbing occasions when ancient Egyptian curses seemed to come true

As the Egyptian civilization became bigger and more complex, brewing moved from being a daily activity completed at home by women to larger scale production driven by men.

According to The National Geographic beer was such a prominent feature of Egyptian society that it was added as part of the burial offerings for those wealthy enough to afford it. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, for example, a jug was found containing a honey beer similar to mead.

A replica of ancient Egyptian beer, brewed from emmer wheat by the Courage brewery in 1996.

During a festival, the quality of the beer was higher, and it is said that the success of the festival could be judged by how much beer was consumed and how drunk the attendees were when the festival ended.

As part of religious ritual, temples would brew their own beers and would use these as offerings to the Gods. There was at least one goddess related explicitly to beer and the worship of Sekhmet was the primary intention of the Festival of Drunkenness.

Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt, Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose, California. Photo by E Micheael Smith Chiefio CC BY 2.5

The ancient Egyptians were known to spread the practice of beer making throughout their empire, with archaeological finds showing up in Israel and recorded evidence shown in Ancient Greece, although it is documented that the Grecians preferred wine.

Beer has been enjoyed throughout history by all cultures. The original process of leaving grains to ferment in water is so simple that it is likely that the technique was discovered separately by different cultures across the world once they started cultivating grains. The Ancient Egyptians’ took this simple process and raised it to an art form creating deities and rituals around it and getting thoroughly wasted in the process.


Production of Ancient Egypt Beer Making Process

The ancient Egyptian method of producing it was probably similar to the one still in use in the Sudan today: Wheat, barley or millet was coarsely ground. One-quarter of the grain was soaked and left in the sun for a while, the rest was formed into loaves of bread and lightly baked in order not to destroy the enzymes. The bread was lightly baked and crumbled into small pieces before being strained through a sieve with water.

The loaves were crumbled and mixed with the soaked grain, which had fermented. Then water and some beer were added and the mixture was left to ferment. The fermentation complete, the liquid was strained. As a flavoring agent, they may have used dates instead of the medieval Gruit herbs or modern hops.

This Ancient Egypt Beer making process has been depicted since 2500 BCE when the loaves were baked in little molds, as ovens came into use only after 2000 BCE. Eight brands of beer were known, but the use of barley became common in Hellenistic times. The bitter Nubian beer, brewed in a similar fashion, couldn’t be kept for very long. Egyptian beer, with pasteurizing unknown, often turned bad in the hot climate, and dead pharaohs were promised bread which doesn’t crumble and beer which doesn’t turn sour.

By Ancient Egypt Beer making, process Large scale beer production seems to have been a royal monopoly. Temples had their own breweries, while brewing in towns and villages was farmed out. One of the earliest breweries found operated at Hierakonpolis during the middle of the 4th millennium BCE and produced possibly more than 1000 liters of beer per day. The ancient Egyptians and Nubians observed the astonishing effects of the tetracycline-loaded beer on people with bacterial illnesses and decided that this beverage/food must be one of the gods’ great gifts to humanity. Indeed, we know that beer was valued throughout the Middle East as a medicine and sacred substance.


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The modern beer industry in Egypt was founded by Belgian businessmen in 1897, with the establishment of Crown Brewery in Alexandria and later the Pyramid Brewery in Cairo. Both breweries produced and sold a beer named Stella, each based on completely different recipes. In 1937 Heineken International became a major shareholder in both breweries. This acquisition coincided with growing nationalist sentiment and a political drive for increased native involvement in businesses, or Egyptianization. Under Heineken's ownership Pyramid Brewery took on the Arabized name Al Ahram Brewery. [3] In 1963 the companies were consolidated under the name Al Ahram Beverages Company (ABC), after being nationalized by the socialist government of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Stella brand was unified under government ownership and continued to be mass-produced. In 1997 the government sold the company to Egyptian businessman Ahmad Zayat who restructured it and introduced a line of non-alcoholic beverages to the company's portfolio. It was acquired once again by Heineken International in 2002. [3] Stella remains by far the most popular beer in Egypt, with 47.5 million liters sold in 2016 (equivalent to a third of Egypt's total beer consumption), [4] and ABC, which markets Stella as well as non-alcoholic Birell (the second most popular beer in Egypt), controls 89 percent of Egypt's beer market. [5]

Today the company produces a variety of local and international brands of beer, including Heineken, Desperados and the iconic Stella. [6] In 2012 the company made $300 million in profit from beer sales alone. [7] It is one of two major breweries in the country, the other being the Egyptian International Beverage Company (known as Egybev) owned by Wadi Group and Egyptian businessman Samih Sawiris. [8]

Non-alcoholic beers, like the aforementioned Birell and fruit-flavored Fayrouz, are very popular in Egypt, as observant Muslims tend to avoid the consumption of alcohol due to religious restrictions. Flavored alcoholic beers have also become trendy since the successful launch of tequila-flavored Desperados in 2016. ABC followed up with the launch of several fruit-flavored versions of their high-strength Meister Max brand, later in 2016, and other companies have since followed suit. These flavored beers are particularly popular with younger Egyptians. [5]

In February 2021, archeologists confirmed the discovery of a beer factory at Abydos that dates back to the time of King Narmer who reigned from 3150BC–2613BC. [9]

A beer type known as bouza (Egyptian Arabic: بوظة ‎), based on barley and bread, [10] has been consumed in Egypt since beer first made its appearance in the country, possibly as early as the Predynastic era. [11] Despite sharing names with boza, a nonalcoholic beverage consumed in Turkey and the Balkans, it is not the same beverage. Bouza, and beer in general, was referred to as mizr in Egypt, and also keshkab, during the Middle Ages. The latter specifically refers to bouza that used mint, lemon leaves, nigella, pepper or rue as gruit, historically consumed in the coastal provinces of Egypt. [12] The beverage is traditionally homebrewed, following a 5,000 year-old [13] method of preparation that closely resembles depictions of beer-brewing on ancient Egyptian murals. The alcohol content of bouza can reach up to 7%, depending on how long it is left to ferment. [14] It is often associated with the working class and is seen as an inexpensive alternative to commercial beer. [10]


Ruins of Industrial Brewery Unearthed in Ancient Egypt City

Dating back thousands of years, beer is one of the oldest beverages on Earth, and a recent discovery made in Egypt is evidence of the drink's long history. As CNN reports, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an industrial brewery in Abydos built around 3100 BCE, which makes it the oldest brewery found in the ancient city, and possibly the world.

The ancient Sumerians were the first people to brew and ferment cereal grains into beer, but the beverage has roots in Egypt as well. Beer was such a big part of the culture that it was used in celebrations, religious ceremonies, and as rations for the laborers who built the pyramids of Giza.

The site uncovered at Abydos provides insight into how beer was made in Ancient Egypt. The 5000-year-old brewery consists of eight large compartments containing 40 clay pots each. Brewers would have heated grains in the vessels with water to break them down into their simple sugar components. This process encourages fermentation, and it's responsible for making beer bubbly, flavorful, and alcoholic.

Archaeologists believe the Abydos brewery dates back to the reign of King Narmer. They say the beer made there may have been used in sacred burial rituals for Ancient Egypt's first kings. The facility was large enough for brewers to produce as many as 5900 gallons of beer at a time.

Abydos, known for its monuments and temples, has produced several exciting archaeological finds in recent years. In 2016, archaeologists discovered a massive, pharaonic boat burial in the ancient city.


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