Beer for this Life and the Next

A history of how beer was born in Egypt

Model Bakery and Brewery from the Tomb of MeketreThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Beer for Wages

Beer was a staple in ancient Egypt. Nutritious and cheap, it was daily fare for most Egyptians, unlike the more expensive wine consumed only during festivals. Beer was also a key economic commodity. It was used to pay wages—the pyramid builders, for example, received rations of beer—and to barter for other commodities. It also played a role in rituals, where it was presented as offerings to the dead.

The archaeological record is replete with examples of how ancient Egyptians made and drank beer. Tomb scenes, models, and statuettes show many aspects of beer production, but it is experimental archaeology and scientific analysis that have added key pieces to the beer puzzle.

Scientific analysis has shown, for example, that the ancient Egyptians mastered the malting process central to making beer. Their beer usually had a base of malted cereal grains (most likely barley, perhaps with the addition of emmer wheat) or lightly baked bread. However, it was not hopped and could be quite sweet.

Model of Brewers, Bakers, and ButchersThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Beer forever

Beer was as important for the afterlife as it was for daily life. This composite model would have symbolically provided the tomb owner with all the sustenance needed after death: it shows butchers at work (at the far right), while brewers and bakers work in the centre of the scene. 

This  3-in-1-combo model is just symbolic. In reality, butchers would not have been operating so close to beer and bread production, which were very closely linked and probably took place in the same space, since beer was often made of lightly baked bread loaves.

Figure of a male beer-maker (ca. 2649–2100 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Production

We know a lot of about beer production from ancient Egypt based on statuettes like this one showing the sieving or pressing process. The material being sieved has been deciphered through ethnographic and scientific assessments. Cooked grain and an uncooked malt mixture would have been used for the beer, and here they would have been pressed through the sieve to release the liquid, leaving the coarse chaff-rich remains behind. The sieved liquid would have then been fermented into beer.

Tomb Chapel of Raemkai: North WallThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is another example of the close link between bread and beer. A figure standing pressing the malt and grain mixture into a sieve (seen in the previous slide as a model) appears again here.

Sitting in front of the sieve is a squatting man with jars next to him. He is ready to fill the mixture coming out of the nozzle in the middle of the big pot into jars for fermentation. 

Malted Cereal GrainsRAWI Publishing

Experiment

In experimental archaeology, the aim is to try to recreate an ancient technique as faithfully as possible. This technique has been key in our understanding of beer production. One such experiment has been conducted by Dr Leslie A. Warden, Associate Professor of Art History at Roanoke College. 

She aimed to brew an ancient Egyptian-style beer with as much focus on authenticity in process as possible.

Two teams were involved, a team of archaeologists working in Egypt as part of the German Archaeological Institute's ‘Realities of Life’ project at Elephantine Island (in Aswan, south of Egypt) and a second team composed of a (remote!) class of undergraduates at Roanoke College. 

The grain was malted, kilned, milled, and brewed with the goal of understanding the process, labour and space demands of the industry so we might apply these considerations to the Egyptian settlement record and daily life evidence. The photos show several stages, including the malted grain (last photo to the right).

JarThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Studying Remains

Beer was not only important for this life, but for the afterlife as well. This jar would have contained beer and was found in the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 BCE) tomb of Queen Meritamun. However, it does not actually date to that time period. It was made during the Third Intermediate Period (1070–1000 BCE) and is believed to have belonged to a 21st-dynasty woman whose burial intruded on Meritamun's tomb.
How do we know it contained beer? Scientific analysis shows that the jar contained some unknown liquid, Nile mud, and beer yeast, which led the experts to conclude that the jar may have held beer offerings for the 21st-dynasty lady.

Brewer's Vat of Queen Mother Ankhenes-Pepi Brewer's Vat of Queen Mother Ankhenes-Pepi (ca. 2246–2152 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Everflowing Chalice

While some, like the previous unnamed lady, got a whole jar of beer for the afterlife, others got symbolic beer offerings that would have nevertheless provided beer in perpetuity. This miniature of a large clay brewer's vat resting on a stand made of woven reeds would have magically provided the deceased with beer throughout their afterlife. 

Storage of Wine and Beer, Tomb of Nebamun (ca. 1479–1458 B.C.) by Charles K. WilkinsonThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Introducing Beer to the World

While Egyptians were well versed in the art of beer making and drinking, it was a process completely unknown to the Greeks. When the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt in the 5th c. BCE, he documented much about how Egyptians lived at the time and observed that they drank a beverage unfamiliar to him, one that he could only describe as ‘wine made from grain’.

Under the Greeks, wine production flourished in Egypt and gradually replaced beer, but ancient Egyptian beer lives on today in the form of a malted grain drink called buza still made in Egypt, though it is a tradition that is dying out. The word ‘booze’ probably originates from this beverage, which in turn derives its name from besa, the ancient Egyptian word for malt. 

For more of what the ancient Egyptians ate and drank, check out this story on bread.

Credits: Story

Images:
Malted Cereal Grains by Leslie A. Warden

Credits: All media
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