Drink like an Egyptian

The history of beer – and of large-scale brewing – goes back a lot further than you might think, as Jo Caird discovers


When Dr Matthew Adams lectures on the Ancient Egyptian brewery he and his team discovered in the sacred city of Abydos earlier this year, he likes to show pictures of crowded sports stadiums. 

While previously discovered Egyptian breweries might have been able to produce up to 1,000 litres of beer in a single batch, the Abydos brewery could have turned out 22,000 litres, enough to give a pint to almost every ticket-holder at a sold-out match at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge (capacity 40,834). 

“Even in modern terms,” says Matthew, a senior research fellow at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and co-director of the North Abydos Archaeological project, “this is basically industrial scale production.”

The discovery of the Abydos brewery has been a long time coming. 

The British archaeologist Eric Peet excavated a series of conical earthenware vats at the site at the start of the 20th century. With no evidence of brewing in Ancient Egypt to draw on at that stage, however, Peet took them for grain drying equipment.

It was only in the 1980s, when archaeologists working at other Egyptian sites demonstrated conclusively that these kinds of vats were used in beer making, that Peet’s discovery was reinterpreted. 

Matthew has spent a good part of his career investigating the royal temples at Abydos, trying to get to the bottom of how the early Egyptian kings used the city to help define the “nature of kingship”. Returning to the area Peet excavated, which had lain undisturbed for nearly 100 years, had been on Matthew’s wish list for a long time.

The opportunity finally arose in 2018 with the launch of a new multi-year research project to excavate both the presumed brewery and the later tombs that had been built directly on top. 

“Peet didn't publish a plan so it was never really all that clear what the layout was,” the archaeologist explains. “He mentioned seeing eight structures but he didn't say how they were situated and whether they seemed to be contemporary or it was one [built] after another.”

Almost immediately after the start of that first field season, Matthew and his team began making amazing discoveries, uncovering four brewing sites measuring at least 20 metres long, each comprising 40 earthenware vats. Over the following field seasons an additional four sites were discovered, and Matthew hasn’t ruled out finding more beyond the limits of Peet’s excavations as the dig continues this winter (Covid-permitting). 

“It became clear very quickly that we had something on a gigantic scale,” he goes on. “If you have eight of these all operating at one time you have a gigantic operation, and the implication of that is a huge support team of personnel making that possible.”

Matthew reckons 200 people could have been involved in manning the brewery, with untold additional labourers working to supply the grain, water and wood fuel required to keep it all running. 

“Production at this level at around 3000 BC is wholly unparalleled. Not only in Egypt, but anywhere in the world,” he says. 

“So then the question arises: why? What are they doing there that somebody needs this much beer?”

The answer lies elsewhere in Abydos, at funerary temples where Matthew and his team, in the course of previous digs, have excavated the remains of tens of thousands of beer jars along with incense and the skulls of cattle, which were commonly left as offerings. 

“One plus one equals two, so we're going on the basis, until proven otherwise, that this beer production is in support of royal ritual that is being performed at the site,” he says.  

Production at this level at around 3000 BC is wholly unparalleled

The importance of brewing in Ancient Egyptian society has long been recognised. Brewing equipment has been found at several other Ancient Egyptian sites, and wall paintings, sculptures and poetry depict beer both as a foodstuff (we know that workers involved in grand building projects such as the Great Pyramids of Giza received a daily ration of around four to five litres a day) and as a component in royal feasts and funerary rituals. 

What accounts for the difference between the brewing operation at Abydos and those elsewhere, believes Matthew, is that in this period, right at the beginning of a unified Egyptian state, beer is part of a huge state-run propaganda machine. 

“What's the most basic aspect of kingship throughout all of its history in Egypt, as we perceive it? Building big. They're building huge pyramids, they're building huge temples, and we see the origin of that logistical ability right here, at Abydos, at the start. 

“The production of beer at this scale is part of a whole constellation of royal activities that together are being used to define the nature of kingship at the beginning of Egyptian history.”

Ordinary Egyptians would have known about brewing. Evidence of household-scale brewing has been excavated in many homes in Abydos from around this period. So when people of the time heard about a brewery producing enormous quantities of beer for rituals – more per batch than they would be able to produce at home in a lifetime – it seems likely they would have been pretty impressed. 

“That scale really established the king and the administrative structure around him, as something really other,” says Matthew. 

A question of taste

Impressive, no doubt. But did the Abydos beer taste any good and how pissed would it have got you? 

It’s impossible to say at this stage. Residues were found in the earthenware vats at Abydos but they haven’t been analysed yet. The plan is to get microbiologists, biochemists and geneticists out to the site this winter to do that work, with a view to publishing data on the chemical composition of the beer towards the end of next year.

Based on the results of analysis done on beer residues at other Ancient Egyptian brewing sites, it’s likely that emmer, an ancestor of modern wheat, and barley, will figure prominently. Hops weren’t used in brewing until the Middle Ages, but barley may have served a similar role as a preservative. Dates, figs and other fruit are also known to have been added by Egyptian brewers, whether to aid the fermentation process, add flavour or a combination of the two. 

Even once you’ve identified the ingredients, however, it’s not like you’ve got yourself a recipe – chemical analysis can tell you if an ingredient was present but it can’t tell you how much of it. And while artworks and papyri offer some clues to production methods, we don’t have any written evidence from the brewers themselves to help guide us. 

All that said, it’s likely the beer would have been tasty. If you’re presenting a foodstuff as an offering to an ancestral king, you’re not going to give him any old rubbish now, are you? 

Modern attempts to recreate Ancient Egyptian beer, based on chemical analysis, archaeological clues and a fair amount of trial and error with unusual ingredients, have had mixed results. 

It does not taste like any beer I've ever tried before

In the nineties, the now defunct Scottish and Newcastle Breweries created a Tutankhamun Ale in collaboration with Egyptologist Barry Kemp and archaeobotanist Dr. Delwen Samuel. Delwen’s verdict at the time? "It does not taste like any beer I've ever tried before. It's very rich, very malty and has a flavour that reminds you a little of chardonnay.”

More recently, Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, USA, worked to recreate a series of ‘ancient ales’ with Dr Patrick E. McGovern, who heads up the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. 

In 2010 the pair created Ta Henket, an ale brewed using emmer, hearth-baked bread, dom-palm fruit, za’atar spice blend, and wild yeast collected in a date palm grove outside Cairo. It sold badly and was taken off the market soon after its release, as Dr Pat – as he likes to be known – recalls in his fascinating book Ancient Brews Rediscovered and Recreated:

“The dom fruit and especially the za’atar, with its intense herbal flavours, were probably too much for the average American palate. Some people loved it, while others were repulsed by its taste. Such a brew might work better in the Middle East, where these intense flavours are widely appreciated.” 

Midas Touch, a beer, wine and mead hybrid inspired by residues found in the 2,700-year-old tomb of the real King Midas in central Turkey, went down much better with the public and won a host of awards for Dogfish Head. 

Whatever the Abydos beer tasted like – and you can bet that some enterprising craft brewer will attempt to recreate it once the chemical analysis of the residues is published – Matthew and his team’s discovery of the world’s oldest large-scale beer factory isn’t just important because of what it tells us about Ancient Egyptian society. It’s important because it helps bring to life a time that can otherwise feel almost unimaginably distant from our own.

Images: licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal

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