Ancient Egyptian(ish) Beer: c. 1800 B.C.

It’s one of the oldest drinks in the world. People have brewed it for millennia for a variety of reasons ranging from religious and solemn (as in sacred offerings or rituals), to the less noble but much more fun (as in going to the pub with friends – remember that?!)

Beer, or more accurately craft beer, is something that certain types of people take very seriously. You know the type, don’t pretend. Friends of mine who know about this stuff talk passionately about ‘hoppiness’ and ‘fermenting yeast’ while I nod along, desperately and hopelessly lost, wondering when’s the best time to mention that I can’t stand any of it – be it ale or lager, craft or commercial.

I’m sorry, it just tastes like soapy water to me. Perhaps I’ve never tried a good one, I hear you cry. My husband is quite into his hipster craft stuff, though, and even these brews – with their funky label designs and heritage signposting – still taste disgusting to me.

The thing is, though, I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year now. Stews and soups and pies and cakes are all well and good, but as time’s gone on, especially as I’ve looked at more ancient stuff, I can’t help but feel I’ve neglected a huge part of food history by ignoring beer. It was such an essential part of everyday life for our ancestors that I felt obligated to give it a go. And so I embarked on what was possibly the most half hearted, begrudging beer brewing process the world has ever seen.

A note on guesswork and adaptation

She looks like she loves her job. Credit here.

I’m dealing with ancient Egyptian beer here, for which there are no surviving recipes. Or if there are, they’re in hieroglyphs which is all, er, Greek to me. Equally, as I found beer brewing to be a totally alien concept, I chose to copy the process that Tasha Marks, Michaela Charles and Susan Boyle (no, not that one) set out when they recreated a version of ancient beer for the British Museum, rather than interpret it for myself.

These women talk a lot more about the science and history behind beer making (and their results are better too), so please do go and check out their post. I mean it; they have a video and everything. Andrew Coletti at Pass the Flamingo has also looked at ancient beer in brilliant depth with some great results, and I used his excellent blog post to guide me on the more practical aspects of this experiment.

The ancient Egyptians loved beer. Couldn’t get enough of the stuff. They had loads of names for it depending on how it was used, or who it was for, or who had made it. In fact, such was the Egyptian preoccupation with beer that they’re often praised as being among the first – if not the first – civilisation to really nail the brewing process. They can’t quite claim to be the inventors of beer, though – that accolade goes to the Sumerians.

Sumerian beer appears to have been a concoction so thick that it had to be drunk through a straw (another Sumerian invention), and was perhaps diplomatically described as an acquired taste “to certain palates” by the Greek writer Xenophon. The Egyptians refined the Sumerian method over time – still favouring the straw, but gradually moving away from a porridge like drink to a smoother, runnier liquid. That’s not to say it was thin or weak, though.

Beer: humanity’s salvation?

In fact, Egyptians relied on beer not being weak. According to one Egyptian myth, the sun god Ra became angry with the people of Egypt when they stopped following his laws. He calmly and logically weighed up his options and decided that in order to lovingly guide his people back to the ways of justice and order, a good old fashioned genocidal purging was needed. He sent his daughter Sekhmet to earth in the form of a lion. There, she ravaged the land and the people until Egypt ran crimson with blood.

At this point, Ra had a slightly-too-late change of heart, and took pity on the blood soaked earth. Perhaps he realised that he was in danger of ceasing to exist if all his followers were eaten? (Ooh, philosophy!) He called Sekhmet off, but she was so full of vengeance and bloodlust that she ignored his orders. Rather than send down another lion to devour the first lion he’d sent to devour the people (like some sort of divine, fly swallowing old lady), he decided to change tact. He poured a thousand jugs of pomegranate stained beer into the Nile, which turned the water red. Sekhmet, believing it to be blood, drank it all and became immediately so shitfaced that she passed out for several days straight. When she woke up, the hangover was presumably so intense that her desire for maiming and destroying had waned, and humanity was saved.

A thousand jugs, eh?

I was not about to make a thousand jugs of humanity-saving beer. Having heard horror stories of home brews gone wrong I was pretty sure that if anything my beer would end up threatening humanity’s existence. More specifically, one human’s existence. Mine.

The starting point for Marks, Charles and Boyle’s creation came from engravings on a clay tablet dating to c. 1800 B.C. This tablet was a hymn to Ninkasi – the Sumerian goddess of beer – who apparently brewed a fresh batch every day as part of her holy rituals. The tablet helpfully details the brewing process, and it was this process which acted as guidelines for the experiments. It’s worth noting here that though the inspiration is Sumerian, the technique (and most of the ingredients) are Egyptian, hence the title ‘ancient Egyptian beer’.

The hymn makes reference to ‘beer bread’ as a starting point in the brewing process. This was a common technique in Mesopotamia whereby leavened loaves were partially baked and then crumbled over pots. Water was poured over the crumbs and the whole mixture was left to ferment for a couple of days before being drunk as beer.

The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom followed this method too but by time of the New Kingdom a new method had emerged. Instead of making little loaves to start with, they made two mashes – a hot one and a cold one. Analysis on pots of ancient beer have shown that the cold mash was made with malted grains and the hot one with either malted or unmalted – the results were unclear. This is a good time to also point out that there were no hops used in the beer brewing process as hops weren’t used until around the 9th century.

The mashes were mixed together, strained, and left to ferment out in the open for a day or two. That was it – end of process. Despite the fact I tend to zone out after two minutes when anyone talks to me about beer, I’d managed to learn enough to know that the Egyptian way seemed suspiciously simple. Where was the carefully controlled heating? The sterilising and meticulous monitoring to prevent unwanted cross-contamination in the yeast? And, bloody hell, had anyone even thought about designing a quirky and original label for the bottle yet?!

The process begins…

First things first I had to get hold of some malted grains. My choice of grain was the only area I deviated from the British Museum’s version. I had a bag of einkorn grains in the cupboard (no, really, I did. My husband uses it as evidence every time he tries to show me that this blog has got out of control.) Einkorn was grown in Mesopotamia from as far back as 10,000 years ago and though there is some disagreement online about whether it was commonly used in Egypt, I decided to work with it because a) it was a fitting tribute to the origins of this experiment and b) when else was I going to use a bag of einkorn grain otherwise?

To start the malting process I placed the grains in a jug of water and left them to soak overnight. The next day I drained the water and spread the grains out in a tray. I sprinkled on a little more water so they were wet but not submerged, covered them with a cloth so that air could get to them but insects couldn’t, and left them on the windowsill for three days. After this time they had grown little tendrils, a bit like eyes on potatoes. After I baked them low and slow for a couple of hours they were ready to be ground.

A sample of sprouted vs. unsprouted grains.

Despite my husband’s belief that my hobby has taken over our lives, I am yet to own a quernstone – it’s on my Christmas list. Because of this, I had to grind the grains little by little in a mortar and pestle. Let me tell you, for those of you who have never done this, it was Not Fun. It took well over half an hour to pulverise even just 100g of grain and at the end of it my FitBit told me I’d done 13 minutes of active cardio – a personal best if ever I saw one.

Ground and unground malted einkorn. I have a new found respect for bakers and brewers of pre-blender times.

For the unmalted mash I decided to do something different and used barley; a common and popular grain of ancient Egypt. I ground another 100g of this, sweating and swearing like I imagine all Egyptian brewers must have done (or perhaps not if they had the right tools – hint hint, J.)

The malted einkorn was then added to room temperature water while the barley was added to water that had recently boiled but was warm rather than hot. The barley was then heated further until it thickened to a porridge like consistency and smelled, well, porridgy and delicious. I mixed both mashes together in a large pan and left the lot to cool completely.

Homebase: the place for all your DIY, garden and ancient cookery needs

The Egyptians brewed their beer in ceramic vessels that looked like tall flowerpots. I didn’t need much more of an excuse, so popped off to Homebase to purchase a terracotta pot. The trouble was that all the pots had holes in the bottom of them to allow water to drain out of. As I explained to the bemused shop assistant, this simply wouldn’t do. Were there any plugs I could buy to stop the hole up? He offered me some sort of plastic tray and backed away slowly, but it didn’t really do the trick.

I was then struck with inspiration, perhaps sent from Ninkasi herself. I could stop up the hole by using a barley flour dough, mixed to the consistency of putty. It wouldn’t be adding anything that wasn’t already in the mixture, and should fill the gap nicely. For the first time ever, an improvised idea of mine worked! The hole suitably plugged and tested with water, I lay a circle of baking paper over the base as an extra precaution, and poured my two now-cool mashes through a sieve into the pot.

Following the method of Marks, Charles and Boyle, I added a date to speed up fermentation, and an aromatic spice mix of crushed roasted pistachios, rose petals, cumin, coriander and sesame seeds. I covered the pot with a thin cheesecloth and left it to fester – sorry, ferment – for a couple of days.

Waste not want not

In the meantime I pondered what to do with my leftover grains sitting in the sieve and thought back to the beer bread. Despite having no proof I felt sure the ancient Egyptians – or any ancient civilisation used to facing droughts, famines or just slightly poor harvests – would have thought twice about throwing food away if it could be transformed into anything even vaguely edible.

I blitzed some dates to a pulp (in a blender, thanks. I wasn’t about to do anything by hand again), and combined the paste with the leftover grain dough. To this I sprinkled in a spoon of the spice mix and patted the mixture into four round discs, which were baked in a low oven for about an hour. They tasted decent enough – a bit molasses-y and nutty, with a powerful spicy punch from the coriander and cumin. I think they’d work well with a sharp cheese, although I ate one on its own without any fuss.

After two days I couldn’t put the terracotta pot sitting on my kitchen counter out of my thoughts any longer. The Egyptians drank their beer straight out of the pots with long straws but I hadn’t made enough to come up to a level that a straw could reach, so I ended up having to pour it into a glass and then wait for it to settle a bit. I somehow ended up with more sediment than drinkable liquid, but there was definitely something there.

The verdict

It smelled unpleasant. Kind of sour, kind of cheesy; not like something I’d normally want anywhere near my mouth. However, I was confident that I’d followed all the instructions and there was no visible mould at least, so I took a gulp.

This would cost you £5 in Shoreditch.

My first mouthful contained too much sediment – a gritty texture with a slight bread-dipped-in-vinegar flavour. I felt my salivary glands go into overtime to combat the sourness of it. Bugger, I thought, it’s gone bad. All that effort for no reward. I’d already eaten a chocolate bar to combat my 13 minutes of active cardio, so I really did have nothing to show for all my work at this point.

Once the sediment had died down a bit more I took a sip of the clearer liquid on top. This was a lot more palatable. It was lighter and thinner than the thick lumpy mixture at the bottom, for a start. It tasted sour, yes, but in a sharp way – a bit like a cheap white wine. The spices weren’t a prominent flavour, but I did pick up a hint of cumin. Whether that was my imagination playing tricks on me or the effects of overzealous seasoning is anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t unpleasant either way. Helen Strudwick explains “the quality of beer depended on both the skill of the brewer and the sugar content…” and while I wouldn’t say my skill was amazing, I didn’t use any added sugar (other than one measly date) and it turned out alright.

I have no idea what the alcohol content was, but research suggests the average Egyptian beer had a 3% – 4% alcohol content. Beer for workers was probably around 2% – the last thing a pharaoh wanted was wonky noses on all his sphinxes because his workers were too pissed to see straight. The content and quality was higher depending on who the beer was for (pharaohs got highest) and how the beer would be used (religious ceremonies got high quality beer, workers taking payment in beer got lower quality.)

As you can see, my enthusiasm for grinding barley was somewhat lacking.

At the end of all this my opinions on beer haven’t really changed. I’d still pick a sugary sweet cocktail over a pint, and I haven’t developed a passion for home brewing (much to my husband’s relief.) Yet it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. It smelled awful, true, but it was light and drinkable and definitely alcoholic – which is about the limits of my appreciation for beer anyway. All in all, not bad.

E x

Ancient Egyptian(ish) Beer

200g sprouted grain (wheat, barley, einkorn, emmer – any will do)
200g unsprouted grain
1l water
1 date
Handful of pistachios
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon rose petals

  1. Grind your sprouted grain to a coarse flour. Add about 500ml of room temperature water to the grain and stir well.
  2. Grind your unsprouted grain. Add 500ml of recently boiled water to the grain and stir. The water should be warm to touch, but not boiling.
  3. Heat the unsprouted grain and hot water mixture until it thickens to a porridge like consistency.
  4. Pour both mashes into a large pot and allow to cool completely.
  5. When the mashes have cooled together, place a sieve over a ceramic pot. Pour the mashes into the sieve and allow the liquid to drip into the ceramic pot.
  6. Toast and crush the spices and place them in a muslin bag or cloth. Place the spice bag in the pot with the liquid. Add the date to the pot.
  7. Cover the pot with a cheesecloth or similar and leave it at room temperature for no more than a couple of days.

Tiger Nut Cake: c. 1400 B.C.

Right, hello, I’m back again.

My seating plans are done, the classrooms are laid out in Victorian front facing style and there are lines of yellow tape marked around my desk to maintain a safe 1m distance between me and the students during lessons. Of course, this means that I can’t get to anyone at the back who may or may not be copying out their maths homework instead of analysing timelines of William’s conquest of England, but such is life now. On the plus side, I can legitimately throw things at kids and pretend it’s because I’m not allowed to hand things to them, rather than because they were annoying me (and if my headteacher happens to stumble on this blog, I’m joking. Ignore whatever Fred tells you.)

My first lesson back was to a class of fresh-faced year 7’s. With an alarmingly high level of energy I have no way of maintaining to next week, let alone Christmas, I started by asking them the age old question ‘what is history?’

“Stuff in the past.”

Okay, good start, I said. Any advances on “stuff”?

“The Tudors.” “The Victorians.” “My mum says we’re living through history right now.” Silently, I crossed off the last statement on my ‘first-day-back-post-lockdown’ bingo card. I would go on to hear the same sentence three times again that day. Truly, everyone’s mum is a history teacher now.

All great suggestions, I told them. I was clearly in a room with experts. But no one had quite answered the question yet: what is history?

Truth be told, I was stalling. The projector had packed in – shocked to death when I started it up after 5 months of inactivity – and I needed to reboot the system. While we waited, I overenthusiastically prompted them a bit more. Was history just the study of events and people? Was it just about reading accounts of things that happened a long time ago? And, that most golden of all nuggets: if history is about reading accounts of the past, who gets to decide what is and isn’t worth recording? Put ‘history’ on trial, kids, I said. Question it. Always look for the source of information and think: what is the real message here and why do they want me to know it?

And so, as their little eyes glazed over and they shared worried glances with each as if to say “trust us to get the mad one”, the projector sputtered back to life. A blurry photo of Tollund Man – our first lesson – appeared on the board, but upside down and in shocking fluorescent pink. I gave up and told them to turn to page 4 while I contacted IT support. A great start back.

Oh my God, what is the point of all this?

The point is I inspired myself that day, if no one else, to think about the aspects of history that are harder to define. This is where today’s experiment – a weird combination of historical sources – comes in: recipe, inventory, memorial, biography and art work all rolled into one. It is, of course, tiger nut cake from the iconography on the tomb of Rekhmire, an ancient Egyptian noble and official.

I don’t know loads about ancient Egypt. I signed up to a class in my first year of uni because I thought it would make me look clever and cool if I could decipher hieroglyphs and I dropped out of it when I realised that I was neither (at least, not enough to keep up with the others.) A low point was when we were handed a small section of text to decipher and the only thing I could do was draw moustaches and hats on all the figures whilst those around me made expressive noises of wonder and revelation. Apparently, once translated, it was meant to be a poem or something but all I’d managed to do was transport Hercule Poirot back to the age of the Sphinx.

Anyway, Rekhmire belonged to the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt, A.K.A. the 1st dynasty of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 – 1077 BC) – a relatively late period in ancient Egyptian history. The New Kingdom followed the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – 2181 BC “the Age of the Pyramids”) and the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050 – 1710 BC) and is known for its pharaohs. Tutankhamun and Akhenaten and his wife queen Nefertiti all belonged to the 18th dynasty, with Ramesses I (A.K.A. Ramesses the Great) following in the 19th. The New Kingdom can also boast the most famous of all Egyptians: Imhotep of Universal’s The Mummy fame (sorry not sorry to any genuine Egyptologists.)

It took several hours to make this when I should have been marking.

Rekhmire

We know a lot about Rekhmire from his tomb; almost every inch of the walls inside are covered with carvings depicting scenes of his life and administration. As well as being an official, it appears he was also a high priest of Heliopolis, amassing great wealth and prestige during his lifetime which explains why he was able to afford his own tomb. Despite the name, however, there’s no burial chamber inside and therefore no body – Rekhmire’s final resting place remains so far undiscovered. (Any intrepid explorers who fancy themselves as the heroes of a real life The Mummy can just wait until 2020 is over before they go poking around ancient Egyptian burial sites, thank you very much.)

Unfortunately for Rekhmire it seems he was deposed towards the end of his life, though we aren’t fully certain why; the scenes on his tomb unsurprisingly don’t tell us too much about that part of his life. What some of the pictures do show us, however, are scenes of cooking and it’s these scenes I was most interested in.

Egyptian cooking

There are no recipes from ancient Egypt. Anything we know about cooking comes from archaeological evidence – pots, grains, wall paintings or hieroglyphs and fragments of documents. Some of those documents are official records (detailing the cost of bread, or the purchase of meat for example) but many are more narrative accounts of Egyptian life, which historians have carefully analysed. On Rekhmire’s tomb there’s one scene depicting people making some type of cake or bread.

Having already spent most of the day constructing a timeline I will never use again and working out how to put fancy borders round the pictures, I didn’t have the time (or the ability) to analyse the hieroglyphs and paintings myself. Most of them would have ended up getting the Poirot treatment after a few minutes anyway. Luckily, Rekhmire’s tomb had already attracted the attention of people far more qualified than me who had done the intellectual heavy lifting. The brilliant Ancient Recipes blog explained that the first scene on the walls of the tomb depicted workers piling tiger nuts and pounding them into flour which was then mixed with a liquid – most likely honey given the image of a honeycomb on the same wall. Fat was then added, such as olive oil.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

Tiger nuts were not something I’d come across before. I had to order them online specially for the recipe. They aren’t actually nuts but tubers, and are one of the oldest cultivated plants in ancient Egypt. Tiger nuts are still used in cuisines around the world today, for example in the Spanish drink horchata de chufa.

I began by blitzing 150g of tiger nuts in a blender – ignoring the judgemental expressions of the workers in the picture of Rekhmire’s tomb who were having to pound the nuts by hand. It took a while as they were very hard, despite being pre-soaked in warm water. I ended up having to blitz them in batches until they were the consistency of ground hazelnuts. I sifted them to ensure as fine a flour as I could get and added 75g of honey and 35g of olive oil to them to create a thick and coarse paste.

It’s worth pointing out here that I bought a special type of honey for this as well. Ancient Recipes advised using raw sidr honey, a monofloral honey made from the sidr tree. Sidr trees were common in ancient Egypt and there is evidence of these trees being planted near temples and palaces. As most bees in ancient Egypt were kept near temples and tended to by temple beekeepers, it’s likely much of the honey in ancient Egypt was sidr honey, made by these temple bees collecting pollen from the nearby sidr trees. It was a bit expensive so if anyone wants to make these cakes for themselves rest assured that they’ll also work well with whatever local honey you can get.

To bake or not to bake, that is the question…

The next image on the tomb shows the baking (or not) of the tiger nut cakes.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

There seemed to be some disagreement online about how these were cooked and prepared. Some people suggested the cakes were baked, whilst others pointed to evidence of them being fried. Furthermore, some suggested the cakes were conical whilst others thought they were triangular. Both sets of people pointed to the images in the top and bottom centre of the drawing which showed four triangular shapes with bevelled edges as proof of the final cone/triangle shape.

I decided to try two methods in an effort to placate both camps. Firstly, I moulded half of the mixture into four triangles about 1.5cm in thickness and heated them in a frying pan over a low heat for about 20 minutes, turning each side over regularly until they were evenly browned. The kitchen smelled of honey and bread, which was nice if a little surprising given the lack of wheat in these.

The second cooking method was more involved, but arguably more fun. Ancient Egyptians had many ways of baking and these methods developed over time as new ideas and techniques were discovered. One of the most well known baking methods from throughout ancient Egypt involved baking bread in conical clay moulds. In the bottom of the second drawing of Rekhmire’s tomb, next to the finished triangular shapes, are images of what appears to be conical moulds stacked on top of each other. It was time to get creative…

Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you only got the tip and someone else got the end slice…
Credit here.

I didn’t have any ready made clay moulds or anything that could stand in for one, like a tagine lid. So, like a teacher trying to fill time as she waits for the broken projector to restart, I improvised. I fashioned a couple of cylinders out of folded tin foil which I greased with olive oil and packed the other half of the (uncooked) nut mixture into. Then I used the lid of an egg poaching pan balanced on a panettone tin as a frame to hold the cones upright. It wasn’t what you’d call authentic, as the picture below shows, but hey, if you wanted truly accurate Egyptian baking you should have gone to Seamus Blackley.

Not a method seen on Rekhmire’s tomb but just as effective.

After 20-30 minutes of baking the cones were done. I let them cool in the oven for another hour or so and then gently unpeeled them, pleased to see that they held their shape well.

Conclusion

The fried cakes were a more appetising colour – golden brown with clear markings where the heat had hit them, whereas the conical ones looked a little anemic in comparison. Despite this, there was little difference in terms of taste between the two – perhaps these popular cakes were prepared and cooked both ways in ancient Egypt?!

These were soft but very crumbly, and not as sticky as you might expect. The first flavour was a deeply intense honey that had a buttery almost molasses undertone to it, but still with a bit of a lighter – almost sharp – initial tang. This was down to the sidr honey, which was much darker and deeply flavoured than my usual supermarket bought stuff. The tiger nuts had a subtle flavour, which I could taste once the honey had washed away and reminded me and my husband of brazil nuts. Together the whole effect was like eating very soft, very honeyed nougat. It was surprisingly moreish and though two cones and four triangles was too much to eat in one go, I found myself nibbling at bits of it throughout the rest of the day.

Would I make these again? Yes, actually. Maybe not into cones and triangles (small bite size pieces like sweets would be better), and maybe with easier to obtain ingredients. I’ve seen people suggest that almonds or hazelnuts would work well in place of tiger nuts. Others suggest that the Egyptians may have added extra ingredients such as dates to these and I think this would work well too.

In the end I don’t know how Rekhmire enjoyed his tiger nut cakes, but I found that they went best in small bites with a cup of tea and an episode of Poirot (I recommend ‘Death on the Nile’…) and were so pleasant that I relaxed enough to ignore the pile of marking already stacking up in the corner of the room. It would be future Ellie’s problem; for now, I was just enjoying being back in the world of food history.

E x

Tiger nut cake

150g tiger nuts
75g honey (any type will do)
35g olive oil

  1. Soak the tiger nuts in warm water for 10-20 minutes to soften them.
  2. Blitz them in a blender until they are the consistency of ground almonds. It may take some time and you may need to blend the nuts in batches.
  3. Sift the nuts through a sieve to ensure as fine a texture as possible. Blitz any nuts left in the sieve or pulverize them in a mortar and pestle until they are fine as ground almonds as well.
  4. Add the sifted nuts to a bowl and add the honey and oil. Combine until it forms a coarse paste.
  5. If frying: take a portion of the dough in your palm, about a large walnut size. Roll it into the shape you want, flatten it slightly to allow for even cooking, and fry in a pan over a low heat for 15-20 minutes. Turn the dough over regularly to stop it burning. You should not need to add oil to the pan if you are using a non stick pan.
    If baking: shape your dough into the shapes you want – cone or otherwise. Place on a non stick baking tray and bake at 160 degrees C for 20-25 minutes, until they smell toasted but not burnt.
  6. Drizzle with honey and serve.