How Beer Ruled the Ancient World


Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

Imagine excavating ancient burial ground and running across a brewery. This is exactly what happened last month when the Egyptian government announced that a team of Egyptian and American archaeologists had discovered what may be the world’s oldest known beer factory. Pyramids, Pharaoh, and now tasty adult beverages—ancient Egypt had it all.

The factory was unearthed at Abydos, a site located 280 miles to the south of Cairo and west of the Nile river. Abydos is primarily known for its temples and funerary practices, with a number of monuments honoring Osiris, the god of the dead. Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, noted that the discovery was made at the site of an ancient burial ground and that the beer factory dates to the reign of King Narmer, who lived and ruled at the beginning of the First Dynastic period, more than 5,000 years ago.

Dr. Matthew Adams, of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and one of the leaders (along with Dr. Deborah Vischak of Princeton University) of the mission, said that the factory was built here to supply beer for royal rituals. The brewery itself was divided into eight large sections each of which contained 40 clay pots for mixing grain and water. In its prime, Adams added, the brewery may have produced as much as 22,400 liters of beer at a time. Beer was an important part of the ancient Egyptian diet that was drunk by everyone from Pharaohs to peasants, and workers were even sometimes paid in beer.

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As ancient as the Abydos factory is, it wasn’t the first place that beer was made. The world’s oldest alcoholic beverage likely comes from China, but beer likely emerged in the Middle East. The factory is roughly contemporaneous with ceramic vessels—still coated with a sticky beer residue—found in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerian “Hymn to Ninkasi” (ca. 1800 BCE), which was sung in honor of the goddess of beer, includes a recipe that was made by female priestesses. For ancient Sumerians, beer was a staple as it was healthier than drinking water from streams, which was often contaminated with animal waste.

Ancient Egyptian beer was flavored with mandrakes, olive oil and dates, which accounted for the sweetness; it was only with the rise of beer among medieval monks that hops were thrown into the mix. Even though hops is the most popular form of beer today, there were rivals in the medieval world. As early as the eighth century CE, brewers used gruit (a combination of botanicals that, like hops, prevent bacteria from growing in the liquid) in their concoctions. In his book Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Richard Unger argues that gruit was the most popular form of beer in the twelfth century.

For many brewers,…



Read MoreHow Beer Ruled the Ancient World

How Beer Ruled the Ancient World


Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

Imagine excavating ancient burial ground and running across a brewery. This is exactly what happened last month when the Egyptian government announced that a team of Egyptian and American archaeologists had discovered what may be the world’s oldest known beer factory. Pyramids, Pharaoh, and now tasty adult beverages—ancient Egypt had it all.

The factory was unearthed at Abydos, a site located 280 miles to the south of Cairo and west of the Nile river. Abydos is primarily known for its temples and funerary practices, with a number of monuments honoring Osiris, the god of the dead. Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, noted that the discovery was made at the site of an ancient burial ground and that the beer factory dates to the reign of King Narmer, who lived and ruled at the beginning of the First Dynastic period, more than 5,000 years ago.

Dr. Matthew Adams, of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and one of the leaders (along with Dr. Deborah Vischak of Princeton University) of the mission, said that the factory was built here to supply beer for royal rituals. The brewery itself was divided into eight large sections each of which contained 40 clay pots for mixing grain and water. In its prime, Adams added, the brewery may have produced as much as 22,400 liters of beer at a time. Beer was an important part of the ancient Egyptian diet that was drunk by everyone from Pharaohs to peasants, and workers were even sometimes paid in beer.

How ‘Sesame Street’ Was Inspired by Beer Commercials

As ancient as the Abydos factory is, it wasn’t the first place that beer was made. The world’s oldest alcoholic beverage likely comes from China, but beer likely emerged in the Middle East. The factory is roughly contemporaneous with ceramic vessels—still coated with a sticky beer residue—found in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerian “Hymn to Ninkasi” (ca. 1800 BCE), which was sung in honor of the goddess of beer, includes a recipe that was made by female priestesses. For ancient Sumerians, beer was a staple as it was healthier than drinking water from streams, which was often contaminated with animal waste.

Ancient Egyptian beer was flavored with mandrakes, olive oil and dates, which accounted for the sweetness; it was only with the rise of beer among medieval monks that hops were thrown into the mix. Even though hops is the most popular form of beer today, there were rivals in the medieval world. As early as the eighth century CE, brewers used gruit (a combination of botanicals that, like hops, prevent bacteria from growing in the liquid) in their concoctions. In his book Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Richard Unger argues that gruit was the most popular form of beer in the twelfth century.

For many brewers,…



Read MoreHow Beer Ruled the Ancient World