This Is What 5,000-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian Beer Tastes Like
In a new project from the British Museum, food historian Tasha Marks joined forces with AlphaBeta brewery to accurately recreate the beer drunk by Ancient Egyptians.
Photo by Ruby Lott-Lavigna.
Here’s some ancient history you may not know: the Ancient Egyptians were real sesh heads. The beer they brewed fermented far more quickly than the stuff we drink today, which meant that they had to consume it super fast (lads) or super strong (lads!).
Food historian Tasha Marks tells me this at AlphaBeta brewery in East London, where I’ve come to taste—or, apparently, get extremely drunk on—some Ancient Egyptian beer. She’s joined by AlphaBeta head brewer Michaela Charles who, along with beer and wine expert Susan Boyle, has spent the last six months trying to brew an accurate recreation of Ancient Egyptian beer. Well, as accurate as you can be, considering the 1,500 year-long stretch of the empire.
“When we're looking at modern history, 100 years makes such a difference,” explains Marks. “But when you think about Ancient Egypt, we're looking at such a wide time period. This beer is probably based over 1,500 years.”
This isn’t a passion project for a bunch of history-nerds-cum-wreckheads. Marks was commissioned by the British Museum as part of their Pleasant Vices YouTube series, tasked with making the museum’s exhibitions more inclusive, via the medium of food and drink. (And what better way to get the general public interested in ancient history than with a nice, cold bev?) She brought Charles and Boyle on board, and the three worked together to determine the best method to brew Ancient Egyptian beer.
"A lot of my work in the past has been about trying to make museum collections accessible,” Marks tells me. “So with the theme of alcohol, I went into the British Museum and it was the artefacts that lead to this project.”
To work out how to make beer like the Ancient Egyptians, the team used the expertise of the British Museum. With advice from the museum’s head of Egyptology and access to a selection of beer artefacts, including brewing vessels and grains, the three were able to develop a brewing method similar to our Ancient Egyptian lads.
"We had the models, we had the vessels, we had straws in the museum, but we also had archaeology accounts of excavating breweries,” Charles tells me. “When they did those, they took the vessels and did microscopy analysis on the residues in the vessels, and someone took those away and worked out which order they were made in, what was combined with what, and put together a possible brew process.”
The team then turned to a more unusual (/way cooler) source of beer guidance: the Ancient Egyptian hymn to Ninkasi, the Goddess of Beer. Helpfully engraved into a clay tablet, the hymn details the Egyptian goddess’ step-by-step brewing method. According to Ancient Egyptian scripture, brewing beer was a daily ritual for Ninkasi—which is probably the holiest thing I’ve ever heard.
"In this hymn, from about 1800 BC, it outlines to process of making beer," says Marks. “That was quite a good guide for us.”
“They loved their goddesses of beer,” she continues, mentioning other Ancient Egyptian stories of angry goddesses being given with beer stained with pomegranate to feed their bloodlust for humans. "It's always goddesses of beer.”
Despite the divine guidance, the team had no idea how their beer experiment would turn out. Some historians believe the Ancient Egyptians drank extremely thick beer with a porridge-like consistency, but Marks, Charles, and Boyle’s research led them to think otherwise—not least because the alcohol percentage would make the weird porridge mix largely undrinkable.
“If it was thick, not only would people not only want to drink it, but it would have had so much starch in it,” explains Marks. “If it was a porridgy mixture that was fermented it would be such a strong beer that nobody would be able to drink it.”
"We were saying, ‘It's not going to work,’” says Charles, “You start by thinking, ‘This is going to be drinkable at best,’ and then you look back and think, ‘They made the Pyramids.’”
She continues: “We looked at the brewing process and looked at how unlikely it was to work, then you start doing it. And as soon as you start doing it, it just happens for you, you don't have to do anything.”
As Charles explains, the Ancient Egyptian brewing method is far simpler than contemporary techniques, which see water and grains heated to a certain temperature to control the production of sugars and the beer’s alcohol content.
“The Ancient Egyptian method is: you have grain in cold water. You have grain in hot water. You heat up the one in hot water. You mix the two together. You rinse into a vessel, and you ferment it,” says Charles. “There's no boiling, there's no sterilising. You're really flying blind with the Egyptian process.”
To create the final product, which took two days to ferment, the team made two batches: one unflavoured, and one infused with ingredients that would have been available to Ancient Egyptian brewers, such as pistachio, rose petal, cumin, coriander, and sesame. Brewing the beer in a large terracotta vat that looks a lot like a plant pot, the team mixed emmer grains (a precursor to wheat) and malted barley from Ancient Egypt—literally the stuff from the British Museum’s collection—together to create a beer.
Ancient Egyptians drank their beer as soon as it was fermented, straight from the terracotta vat using a straw. The team’s replica terracotta vessel is sitting on the table next to us.
“Have a smell of that,” Marks says, passing me the giant pot that would floor even the most obnoxious Rugby lad, fragile ego and all.
I take a sniff. “A bit like a sourdough starter,” I say, as the most middle class human alive.
Once the beer had fermented it in the vessel, the team bottled the brew in small, brown glass bottles—kind of like if Aesop did beer. In front of me are the finished products, and Marks pops off the cap to pour a glass. The beer is light in colour and fizzy, and looks almost like wine. I take it sip. It’s surprisingly balanced, and tastes a lot like wine too.
On this warm April day, it’s almost the perfect beverage. Cheers to the Egyptians, and cheers to the goddess Ninkasi, I think. I take another sip. It’s aromatic, and devoid of that characteristic hop flavour you get in most beers. I finish the glass. Another bottle is opened.
“It’s surprisingly good,” says Charles. “We were pleasantly surprised.”
The absolute lads of Ancient Egypt might have been able to stomach this, but I’m going to stop before this gets out of hand.