Sumerian Beer 

this page (except background) is copied from The article by Solomon H. Katz and Fritz Maytag appeared in Archaeology. (July/August, 1991). It is reproduced here without permission.

see also: Kitchen Anthropology: Home Brewing an Ancient Beer, by Ed Hitchcock for a homebrewing recipe based on this beer.

From: (Steve Gilford)
Subject: Sumerian Beer
Date: Thu, 12 May 94 01:30:39 PDT

Urban Nillson of Lund, Sweden was looking for the article on Sumerian 
Beer. I've had to divide it into three parts to post it but the complete 
article as posted originally by Jake follows.

There is an interesting body of research that suggests that the agricultural revolution started so that humans could make BEER.

I have an article online co-written by Fritz Maytag of Anchor Steam. PS - Since the attribution was deleted on the copy I received, I have no idea where or when this was published. Reproduced without permission!

Brewing an Ancient Beer

DID BEER COME BEFORE BREAD? To answer the question scholars helped concoct a Mesopotamian brew from a 3,800-year-old recipe etched in clay. By Solomon H. Katz and Fritz Maytag.

In the 1950s, Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago published an article in Scientific American suggesting a cause-effect relationship between bread- making and the domestication of cereal grains. He cited evidence from his excavations at Jarmo in the Taurus Mountains of modern Iraq. However, Jonathan D. Sauer, a well-known botanist from the University of Wisconsin, responded to Braidwood's article by asking if the earliest utilization of the domesticated cereals may have been for beer rather than bread. This query prompted Braidwood to organize a unique "symposium" for the journal American Anthropologiest titled "Did man once live by beer alone?"

(Photo, no caption (full page) picture of a capped Anchor-style bottle labelled "Ninkasi" (along with some presumably Sumerian script) Sumerian Beer.)

It was not an idle question. We now believe that barley was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the highland region of the southern Levant. But it seems likely that wild grains were gathered long before then. What prompted the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture? Many scholars have suggested that overex- ploitation of wild resources and climate change in the region are behind the transition. But barley can ferment naturally, as we shall explain, and the discov- ery of beer at an early date may well have been a significant motivation factor in hunter-gatherers settling down and farming the grain.

In his contribution to the symposium, Sauer, with simple elegance, explained that for hunter-gatherers the amount of work involved in cultivating grain would not have been worthwhile if the only reward was a little food. The desire for beer, he felt, might have been sufficient incentive for expending the effort to plant and raise the barley, which he believed to be the earliest crop.

Hans Helback, a botanist who had worked with Braidwood at Jarmo argued that beer was NOT the cause for domes- tication, but a much later development probably origi- nating with the drying of grain for storage. The argument against Sauer's proposal was best articulated by botanist Paul Manglesdorf, who reasoned that even though beer was a plausible incentive for the domesti- cation of grain, it was not possible to "live on beer alone." "Did these Neolithic farmers," he asked, "forgo the extraordinary food values of the cereals in favor of alcohol, for which they had no physiological need? Are we to believe that the foundations of west- ern civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication? The majority of the respondents concluded that it was inconceivable that beer came before bread, and the issue was all but forgotten.

Last year the case was reopened. The Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco, looking for a special event with which to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its new brewhouse, became aware of the Braidwood-Sauer debate after seeing an article on the subject in Expe- ditions magazine published by the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. The authors [Fritz Maytag is president of Anchor Brewing Company, Solomon Katz is a bioanthropologist at the University Museum] were intrigued by the beer-bread question , and conceived the idea of brewing a beer based on an ancient recipe. Such an effort would not only help answer the beer- bread question but might also shed new light on the ancient brewmaster's art.

We focussed on the beer-making tradition of Mesopotamia because of its proximity to the region of the earliest cereal domestication. Ancient texts preserved on clay tablets indicate that the earliest beer was Sumerian. From all that we can determine, beer played an impor- tant role in Sumerian society, and was consumed by men and women from all social classes. In the Sumerian and Akkadian dictionaries being compiled by scholars today, the word for beer crops up in contexts relating to medicine, ritual, and myth. Beer parlors receive special mention in the laws codified by Hammurabi in the eighteenth century B.C. Apparently stiff penalties were dealt out to owners who overcharged customers (death by drowning) or who failed to notify authorities of the presence of criminals in their establishments. (execution). High priestesses who were caught in such places were condemned to death by burning.

(Photo caption: The code of Hammurabi, inscribed on a basalt stela (pictured) prescribed stiff penalties for offenses at beer taverns. The king is depicted stand- ing before Shamash, the god known as "Lord of justice and law giver.")

In combing the surviving Sumerian literature for a starting point, we examined the "Hymn to Ninkasi." This document, which dates to about 1800 B.C., sings the praises of the Sumerian goddess of brewing. The text, known from tablets found at Nippur, Suppar, and Larsa, had been translated by Miguel Civil of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1964. Coded within the Hymn is an ancient recipe for beer. We would return to the Hymn time and again before attempting to brew the Ancient recipe. On several occasions we met with Civil to discuss parts of the text that were vague or ambiguous. In responding to our questions Civil was led to refine his transla- tion of certain Sumerian words such as honey and wine. His revised translation of the hymn, presented here for the first time, allowed us to successsfully re-create the Sumerian beer.

(Caption: The front of this lyre from Ur is decorated with a bull's head of gold and lapis lazuli beneath which are inlaid panels showing animals in beer drink- ing scenes.)

We then returned to Braidwood's question: Did beer come before bread? Although Sumerian beer was made several millennia after barley was first domesticated, the process used by the Sumerians is a "time platform" from which we can ask questions about earlier practices. When the "Hymn to Ninkasi" was written, beer was made using bread. But bappir, the Sumerian bread, could be kept for long periods of time without spoiling, and so it was a storable resource. We also know, from various annotations on bappir and beer in the Sumerian and Akkadian dictionaries, that bappir was eaten only during food shortages. In essence, making bread was a convenient way to store the raw materials for brewing beer.

Which was more nutritious? Since Braidwood first raised the beer-bread question, we have learned that many traditional food preparation practices involve steps that lower the toxicity and improve the nutri- tional properties of plants, and become a regular part of traditional cuisine. For example, through fermenta- tion of barley-derived sugars into beer, yeast de- creases the levels of tannins, stomach-irritating chemicals, and increases the levels of B vitamins and essential amino acids. But for fermentation to occur, yeast cells need a higher concentration of sugar than is normally present in raw barley. Coincidentally, a unique property of sprouted barley seeds is their production of large amounts of enzymes that can convert starch into sugar. Barley thus has both starch, and, in its sprouted form, enzymes that convert starch to sugar. The seeds can be sprouted any time of year, and the final product has excellent nutritional value and can have mildly intoxicating levels of alcohol.

Collecting and processing wild barley seeds requires tremendous effort, and at the time of the transition to agriculture, barley was not the only exploitable food resource - in fact many others were probably more accessible. It is hard to imaging that the effort spent collecting wild seeds would have been for produc- ing loaves of bread. The alcohol content and higher nutritional levels of beer, however, might have been incentive enough.

Finally, it is worth noting that Nature herself may well have produced the first beer. After harvesting, wild barley seeds might have been placed in a container for storage. If the seeds were exposed to moisture they would sprout. Sprouted barley is sweeter and more tender that unsprouted seeds, and therefore more edi- ble. Sprouted seeds might have been dried for later consumption . Exposed to airborne yeast and more moisture, the barley would have fermented, producing beer. We may never know when some brave soul actually drank the "spoiled" barley. But we do know that some- one did.

Secrets of the Stanzas

(Caption: The Hymn to Ninkasi, inscribed on a nine- teenth-century B.C. tablet, contains a recipe for Sumerian beer.)

To make sense of the "Hymn to Ninkasi," we approached it on several levels. First, we had to determine if its sequence was linear. That is, did the ordering of the stanzas reflect the actual sequence of stages in a brewing process. Second, we had to examine the Hymn for metaphors and other literary devices that could give us clues to the meaning of the text. Third, we needed to decipher the specific steps that were sug- gested in each stage of brewing. Finally, we wanted to determine whether any of the stages of the brewing process had been left out. Our interpretation of the Hymn rested on a combination of the archaeological evidence - Sumerian texts, artistic representations of beer drinking, and artifacts once used in the consump- tion of beer, such as straws made of gold and lapis lazuli; a thorough knowledge of the stages involved in beer making, and an understanding of the biochemical and nutritional characteristics of barley and wheat- brewed beers.

We soon learned that the Hymn was, in the broadest sense, a linear description of brewing - the prepara- tion and heating of a mash in which enzymes convert the cereal starch into sugar, the boiling of the processed mash, or wort, the addition of flavoring and the fer- menting of the wort using yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol and improve the nutritional content of the beer. By following the stanza-by-stanza instructions, we could duplicate the process used by the Sumerians.

(Photo caption: This mid-third-millenium B.C. impres- sion from a cylinder seal depicts the drinking of beer through straws.)

Stanza 1 refers to being "borne of flowing water." This conjured up images of the flowing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which are known today for their high salt content. The dissolved mineral content of water can affect the quality of a brew. For example, calcium and bicarbonate have important effects on the acidity of beer. Levels of calcium and magnesium are important in stabilizing enzymes and facilitating the fermenta- tion process. The value and function of dissolved minerals in the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, however, were probably not understood in antiquity. (Today, some of the best breweries are located over wells that flow through lime and dolomite deposits.)

In Stanzas II and III water is referred to again. Perhaps the reference to a sacred lake and great walls calls attention to the use of a lake as a reservoir for the irrigation of crops such as barley from which the beer was made. The sacred lake also attests the impor- tance of religious belief in the production of beer. Stanza III also introduces us to the gods and goddesses who made up Ninkasi's family. A minor goddess in the Sumerian pantheon, Ninkasi's name literally means "you who fill my mouth so full."

(Photo caption: Sir Leonard Woolley discovered gold and lapis-lazuli beer-drinking straws in the tomb of Lady Pu-abi at Ur, ca. 2650 to 2550 B.C.)

Stanza IV addresses the particulars of Mesopotamian beer production. The process begins with bappir, a sweet and possibly pungent bread made from barley dough. It is mixed with "sweet aromatics" using a "big shovel... in a pit" and then baked (Stanza V). Bappir seems to have served several purposes. In brewing it served as a source of both hydrolyzed or gelatinized starch for rapid and efficient sugar production, and of proteins and flavors for the mashing process.

The fermentation processes depended on enzymes from malted, i.e. sprouted, barley seeds for the conversion of starches to sugar. It is not surprising that "the noble dogs keep away even the potentates" (Stanza VI) since sprouted barley was a very delicate and valuable resource. Sumerian bappir probably contained little, if any, malt, and truly was a barley bread. Flour from malted barley containing the necessary enzymes was probably added later in the process.

Unfortunately, the meaning of "aromatic" has not been sufficiently understood to determine which aromatic was used. However, it is almost certain that dates or date juice provided flavoring. Dates have the aromatic flavor that the Hymn specifies, but we did not know if the flavor would survive the fermentation process. Other candidates for the aromatic were skirret weed, a licorice-flavored plant, and "Assyrian root" or radish, both of which were added to bouza, an Eqyptian beer made for the past 5,000 years and consumed until a few years ago when stricter laws on sanitization and vend- ing curtailed production.

(Photo Caption: in the upper register of this impres- sion of a seal discovered at Ur straws sprout from a globular jar containing beer.)

Stanza VII describes the malt being soaked in a jar in which "the waves rise, the waves fall." Presumably this motion refers to the mashing process during which the malt and the bappir are commbined with additional barley, (possibly including hulled and crushed seeds that have been toasted or heated to make it easier for the enzymes to convert their starch into sugar. Al- though it is not mentioned in the Hymn, the mash proba- bly would have been heated if the process were similar to modern brewing methods. How the Sumerians main- tained control of the mash temperature remains a bit of a puzzle. The correct temperature and timing probably developed as a result of skill and practice. The pro- duction of high quality beer may have become a profes- sion because of the need for such expertise.

In Stanza VIII the "cooked mash" is spread on mats. This action could have served two purposes. Spreading out the mash would have been an ideal way to remove the spent grains from the mixture, and it would also allow the liquid to drain. Cleaning out the spent grains would have been beneficial to Sumerian drinkers who otherwise would have had to rely on straws to bypass the hulls. By the time the Hymn was inscribed, a "filter" had become the symbol of professional brewers. Once filtered, straws were not necessary, and the beer could be consumed directly from cups. The Hymn states that after the "cooked mash" has been laid out, "cool- ness overcomes." It is therefore highly likely that the mash was heated.

(Caption: A beer jar and straws are depicted on an impression from a seal found at Ur.)

After cleaning, the mash, now referred to as "wort," is placed in containers for fermentation. Fermentation proceeds best if the wort is cool, since the high temperature of the mashing step would kill heat-sensi- tive yeast. Thus the references in Stanza VIII to "coolness overcomes" is a crucial step that preceded the addition of yeast for fermentation.

Stanza IX, which describes brewing the "great sweet wort" with honey and wine, was difficult to understand. We were struck by the use of honey. Was it really honey, or was it date juice? Thanks to a reinterpreta- tion by Sumeriologist Miguel Civil, we believe that "honey" meant date juice. Gestin, translated as "wine" was another matter. In sumerian gestin means grape, wine and raisin. At this point in the recipe, yeast needs to be added to start the fermentation. Yeast occurs naturally on the skins of grapes and raisins. While it will survive the drying process, yeast on grapes fermented into wine will not remain active. Thus we reasoned that wine could be eliminated as a candidate for gestin, and that the Hymn refers instead to grapes or raisins.

Stanza X mentions the fermentation (collector) vat. Long, narrow-necked vessels would have been preferred over vessels with large, open mouths. The latter form would have allowed too much mixture of the ingredients with air. Exposure to air would have increased the risk of secondary contamination, as well as allowing the acidity to decrease too much, resulting in a lower production of alcohol and stimulation of the growth of yeast.

The "pleasant sound" in Stanza X probably refers to the trickling of the beer through the filter and into the fermentation vat below. Finally, in Stanza XI, the finished beer is poured out of the fermentation vat, and into the drinking containers. The pouring of the finished product must have been spectacular, the Hymn describes it as rushing out like the "Tigris and Eu- phrates." These rivers were the source of life for the Ancient Mesopotamians, so the reference to these two great waterways must have been symbolically connected to the Sumerians appreciation of this fine fermented beverage.

(Caption: Banquets and beer drinking were often depict- ed on seals during the Early Dynastic period (2600-2350 B.C.))

The Hymn to Ninkasi

Translation by Miguel Civil

Borne of the flowing water (...)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water (...)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake,
Ninkasi, Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough, 
   [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles 
   the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

You are the one who bakes the bappir 
    in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes 
    the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,,

You are the one who waters the malt 
     set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt 
     set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks 
    the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked 
  mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads 
   the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.

You are the one who holds with both hands 
    the great sweet wort, 
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (...)
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes 
    a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of] 
    a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, 
    which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of] 
    a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer 
    of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of 
    Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the
  filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of 
  Tigris and Euphrates.

A Thrilling Link With the Past

Satisfied with our interpretation of the "Hymn to Ninkasi," we decided to give the recipe a try. From this moment on we began to feel a thrilling link with brewers from ages past. After nearly 4,000 years, Sumerian beer terms such as bappir and gestin would be spoken in a brewery once again.

To reproduce the recipe in a modern brewery, we made certain assumptions about the Ancient method and a few modifications in production in order to meet the stand- ards of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, where the beer was to be produced.

First, we used a honey and barley flour mixture to make the bappir. Although in antiquity dates may have been added to sweeten and flavor the bappir before it was baked, we added them only to the final mixture of the bread when it was being put into the mashing vat. (The Federal Government strictly limits such additions, and permission had not been obtained to put in dates.) We decided to use a combination of unmalted, malted and roasted barley for the flour. However, in baking it we found that it did not dry out and was not storable in baked form. So we baked it a second time, which made the bread much like the present-day Italian biscotti and similar to traditional breads still baked on the island of Crete. Since Ancient sources say that bappir was stored, we believe that the bread was twice-baked in antiquity. However, until we have evidence of this technique in the Ancient texts, we will avoid further speculation. The bread, which had a consistency like granola, was delicious. However, it should be noted that our bread was not as nutritious as Sumerian bread since ours probably contained less yeast.

We conservatively mixed one-third bappir and two-thirds malt in the mash tank, to insure that all of the starch would convert to sugar. We were initially concerned that the heavy amount of suspended particles from the bappir would foul the modern lautering equipment used to filter the mash, and produce a major plumbing prob- lem in the Anchor brewing vats. Our fears turned out to be unfounded, fortunately, and the lautering proc- esses went just fine.

We allowed the wort to cool naturally instead of using modern artificial techniques. The mixture was wonder- fully sweet and fragrant, just as the Hymn mentions - the aroma of toasted barley and the scent of dates. We brewed using only a standard brewing yeast in lieu of the gestin mentioned in the Hymn. We wanted to prevent any foreign yeast from infecting the tanks, and to keep the product within controllable standards of purity. In modern beer making, hops are used to provide aromat- ic flavor and to preserve the beer. Since we could not identify an Ancient plant additive that would have served as a hop-like preservative, the beer was flash- pasteurized to assure preservation. The final product yielded an alcohol concentration very similar to modern beers of 3.5% by weight. We were ready for the final test. How did it taste?

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Anchor Brewing Company at its present location, we served the Ninkasi brew to members of the American Association of Micro Brewers, who were having their annual meeting in San Francisco. The beer was consumed in proper Sumerian fashion: sipped from large jugs using long drinking straws fashioned to resemble the gold and lapis-lazuli straws found in the mid-third millenium tomb of Lady Pu-abi at Ur.

Seven months later, a second group, convening at the University Museum to discuss our work, sampled our Ancient brew. Not all of the beer had survived, even with refrigeration. However, those bottles that were still good had aged, much like fine wine - the beer had a dry flavor lacking in bitterness. Aged Ninkasi beer tasted similar to a hard apple cider but retained the fragrance of dates. According to the Museum's Patrick McGovern, the beer "had the smoothness and efferves- cence of champagne and a slight aroma of dates." We had reproduced the beer that made Ninkasi famous! We do not claim to be correct in all of the details, but we have made a sincere effort to bring the art of the modern brewer to bear on the mystery of how Ancient beer might have been made four millennia ago.

(Caption: Facing page: Brewers begin by baking bappir loaves, while scholars consult the Ancient text. The bappir is then mixed with malt to form the mash. Left: the mash, or wort, is allowed to ferment after filter- ing and cooling. The final product is sampled and bottled.)