Today’s experiment is something that I’m sure homeschool-weary parents all over the country will be interested in, because it involves alcohol. Beer, actually.
Not just any beer either – 4000 year old beer.
Okay, fine: technically it’s not 4000 years old and technically it’s not what we would recognise as beer, but hey – it’s as good a hook as any.
After a previous semi-successful foray into ancient beer brewing, I decided to give it another shot. This time I wanted to tackle the oldest ‘recipe’ for beer that historians know of, which is found in the 1800 BC Sumerian poem Hymn to Ninkasi.
Given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja! Ninkasi, given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja!
Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you. Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.
Your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu. Ninkasi, your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.
It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.
It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.
It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).
It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.
It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ……. Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …….
It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.
1 line damaged:
You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.
You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.
It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.Hymn to Ninkasi, trans The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
Some recipe, right?
Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer and brewing. Since beer was an absolutely vital element to everyday life as well as the drink of the gods, it’s likely that she was pretty highly revered.
Hymn to Ninkasi, the song she’s best known for (or as well-known as an ancient Mesopotamian goddess can be) is a cross between a poem and an instructional manual. The formulaic nature of the poem has led scholars to argue it was intended to be said aloud, perhaps as an aid to teach brewers the correct steps needed to make a perfect batch of beer.
Although the poem dates to 1800 BC, the brewing process it documents may well be older. Paul Kriwaczek argued that the techniques within the poem were actually in use about 1000 years before 1800 BC which supports the argument that the poem was originally an oral song which was written down later.
Sumerian beer: what do I need to know?
Making the beer was a pretty involved process. Don’t try this if you’ve only got a day or two spare – you’re going to need to check up on various elements of the beer every day for just under a week!
Because the poem was a little vague (to say the least…) I ended up having to
make up guess a few of the steps. Luckily I had stumbled across the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, which had this brilliant article by Peter Damerow breaking down some of them.
According to him, the early Sumerians had at least 9 types of beer, which developed as the period went on. By the middle of the 3rd millennium BC cuneiform tablets mentioned characteristics of beer, such as “golden”, “dark” and “sweet”. Early wine critics, if you like.
However, there’s one ingredient that stands out in Sumerian records: bappir. The true meaning of this term has been lost and caused scholars a lot of debate. Some think it refers to a type of bread which was added to the beer before the fermentation process. Others think it was a byproduct of the beer, which was then reincorporated to future brews. Regardless of how it created, my understanding of it (based on a frantic internet search) was that it was some sort of barley dough/grain mixture which contributed to the mash.
The symbol for bappir was show in Cuneiform tablets as two signs inscribed on top of one another – one representing barley and one representing a beer jug (𒋋).
This led to bappir being known as ‘beerbread’, but Damerow suggests this term may be misleading. For one thing, the term bread implies it was edible or at least similar to other breads, which it wasn’t. Secondly, whenever bappir appeared on records it wasn’t listed like other breads (i.e. in quantities), but appeared as if it was grain (i.e. by capacity.)
Was bappir less of a bread and more of a grain? I had no idea and to be honest was quite out of my depth. As a no-win compromise, I decided to bake my bappir like a bread and then immediately break it up afterwards like a grain, before adding it to water to create a cold mash.
Mash? As in sausage and…?
As someone who has no experience of brewing, I found I’d been thrust into a world of new words and confusing terminology. Mash, wort, malt – what did they all mean?
My basic understanding of it is that mash is the liquid you get when you add grains to water. Usually this is heated to a specific temperature to let the sugars do some enzym-y mojo and break down, after which you can add yeast and begin the fermentation process.
The trouble was the poem wasn’t clear about the mashing process. The line “the waves rise, the waves fall” may allude to the mashing process and the addition of water to grain, but there was no mention of heat, although later lines reference a cooling the mixture. This raised the possibility that two types of mashe were used: a hot mash, as is standard today, and a cold mash – where grain is added to cold water and left to sit, unheated, for a few hours.
I began some research into cold mashes to see how I should begin. An online beer forum told me that after the cold mash had been completed it needed “sparging”.
Okay, not to panic, that’s what Google was for, I thought. I typed in “what the hell is sparging” and waited.
“Sparging is a part of the lautering process…”
I started again: “What is the lautering process?”
“The lautering process consists of three steps: mashout, recirculation and sparging.”
I took a quick break from research to scream into a pillow.
In the end I decided to refrain from getting too technical, arguing that the Sumerians were hardly likely to worry about exact temperatures and processes. I split my beer into two mashes – a cold one and a hot one – to cover all bases and after both mashes had competed their individual mashing (no idea if that’s the right term) I combined them.
Making the beer
Making the beer was a long, fun, messy process. If you fancy seeing how it was done (and what it tasted like) then give the video below a watch and please consider boosting my already over inflated ego by subscribing to my YouTube channel.