What We've Learned From Ancient Egypt's Oldest Large-Scale Brewery

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The ancient Egyptians loved beer. According to Mohamed A. Farag, a Professor of Chemistry at The American University in Cairo:

"Together with bread, beer was considered a staple food for the ancient Egyptians. Moreover, it was an essential provision for their afterlife as shown by numerous depictions and models of brewing found in their tombs."

Egyptians young and old drank the beverage, and even worshipped a goddess of brewing: Tjenenet.

But while much is known about beer in ancient Egypt from a cultural perspective, far less is known about what it was made of and what it tasted like. Thus far, we've gathered that hops, a mainstay of modern brewing, was out, while emmer wheat and fruits were in.

"To a modern-day beer drinker, an Egyptian brew would taste more like a fruit drink than the familiar beverage. Dates and honey were added for sugar, taste, and higher alcohol content, and then yeast in order to increase fermentation," Joshua J. Mark wrote for Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Brewers and chemists have attempted to recreate beer from ancient Egypt, but recognize that their efforts are mostly just educated guesses. Without similar equipment, methods, and recipes, who's to know if what they brew actually tastes like the real thing?

In a new paper published to the journal Scientific Reports, Dr. Farag and an international team of colleagues sought to provide an in-depth chemical recipe of ancient Egyptian beer. They conducted detailed chemical analyses with infrared and mass spectrometry on residues found in large, 5,600-year-old vats discovered at the world's oldest-known large-scale brewery, unearthed in Hierakonpolis, Egypt. The site could have produced 325 liters of beer at one time, equivalent to about 650 modern bottles, the researchers say.

The researchers' analysis confirmed that emmer wheat, barley, and dates were all used in the brews, but the exact ratio was impossible to determine. An intricate breakdown of the chemicals in the beer residues can be found here.

Most significantly, Farag and his colleagues discovered, for the first time, high levels of phosphoric acid, which today is used as an effective preservative.

"This suggests that the early brewers had acquired the knowledge needed to efficiently produce and preserve large quantities of beer," the researchers write.

The takeaway: Beer in ancient Egypt may not have needed to be imbibed soon after brewing, as has long been believed. Instead, it could have been bottled and distributed. Who knows? Perhaps this site at Hierakonpolis could have been an early Budweiser or MillerCoors? 

Source: Farag, M.A., Elmassry, M.M., Baba, M. et al. "Revealing the constituents of Egypt’s oldest beer using infrared and mass spectrometry." Sci Rep 9, 16199 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-52877-0

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