Beer in Ancient Egypt

Beer and wine were the two most common alcoholic drinks in ancient Egypt. Beer was drunk regularly and was therefore one of the most important things to receive as an offering after death. Numerous offering formulae mention bread and beer, almost always followed by beef and poultry. Beer is already mentioned in texts from the early Old Kingdom, and beer brewing is also depicted in a number of Old Kingdom mastabas. Of course, the scene is also known from tombs of late periods.

Beer is a kind of strong or wine-like alcoholic beverage, made, not with fruit, but with starchy grains. The invention of beer is attributed to the Egyptians. It is claimed that these people, deprived of the grapevine, searched for the secret to imitating wine in the preparation of grains, of which they had in abundance, and from which they created beer. Beer was manufactured by making dough of barley, which was first left to ferment, then partly baked in the oven, after which it was soaked in water. The moistened bread would then be kneaded by hand (or foot) through a strainer into a vat with a spout. The mash was finally poured into jars and stored for fermentation. The same mash was still used in Egypt and Sudan in recent times, by humble people as a beverage.

Statue of a female brewer. Painted limestone. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 66624
Statue of a female brewer. Painted limestone. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 66624

Brewing is usually shown alongside baking scenes. Some three-dimensional models from the Middle Kingdom also show the combination of the baking of bread and the brewing of beer. Because it has all evaporated over the course of the centuries, actual ancient Egyptian beer has never been discovered, although beer residue has been found in a few jugs and vessels. This has been analyzed and the results indicate that beer was made from various types of grain. This is confirmed by texts from the New Kingdom which mention different types of beer. Besides being a drink for the living and the dead, beer was also an ingredient in a number of medical prescriptions.

The brewer pressing out fermented bread in a basket. Beer drained through into pot beneath. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 117
The brewer pressing out fermented bread in a basket. Beer drained through into pot beneath. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. From Saqqara necropolis. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 117

Others trace the origin of beer back as far as the times of fables and say that Ceres or Osiris, while traveling about the earth, Osiris to make men happy by educating them, Ceres to find her lost daughter, taught the art of making beer to peoples to whom, in the absence of vines, they couldn’t teach the art of making wine: but when we leave the fables to stick to history, it is agreed that the usage of beer spread from Egypt to other regions of the world. It was first known as the Pelusian drink, after Pelusium, a city situated near the mouth of the Nile, where the best beer was made.

Statue of a female brewer. Painted limestone. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 66624
Statue of a female brewer. Painted limestone. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 66624

This statuette is presented in the act of making beer, kneading dough in a strainer over a large jar. This female is shown half nude, and colored in brown since she was a servant and exposed to the sun, and wearing only a long white kilt. She wears a wig over her natural hair, which is visible on her forehead. Around her neck is a large multicolored faience necklace. She has an expressive face, and looks almost as if she is speaking to someone standing in front of her. The beer was prepared in a big jar using fermented barley bread sprayed with date liquor. When fermented, the beer would flow from a hole near the base of the jar.

Making of the beer - mastaba of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty. Saqqara necropolis.
Making of the beer – mastaba of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty. Saqqara necropolis. Photo: Andrea Jemolo

There were two kinds: one, the people named zythum and the other, carmi. They differed only in some way that made the carmi sweeter and more pleasing than the zythum. They were, to all appearances, one to the other, as our white beer is to our red beer. The use of beer did not take long to be known in Gaul, and it was for a long time the drink of its inhabitants. The emperor Julian, governor of these regions, alluded to beer in a fairly bad epigram. At the time of Strabo,beer was common in the northern provinces, in Flanders, and in England.

It is not surprising that the cold regions, where wine and even cider are missing, have had to resort to a drink made of grain and water; but that this liquor has gone as far as Greece, into these beautiful climates so rich in grapes, is something one would find difficult to believe if famous authors had not vouched for it. Aristotle speaks of beer and its intoxicating effects; Theophrastus called it οῖνος κριθῆς, barley wine; Aeschylus and Sophocles, ζυθὸς βρύτογ. The Spaniards also drank beerat the time of Polybius. The etymologies given to the word beer are too flawed to be reported; we will make do with only pointing out that it was also called cervoise, cervitia; as to its properties, kinds, and the method of making it.

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