Seven Questions with… the women behind an Ancient Egyptian brew
What does it take to make 5 000-year-old beer? We sat down with the three women behind brewing the first true Ancient Egyptian beer to find out more about their research, the brewing process and to, of course, take a sip of this unique beverage…
Tell us a bit about yourselves…
Tasha Marks: I’m a food historian and founder of AVM Curiosities. I was approached by the British Museum in early 2018 to create Pleasant Vices, a four-part YouTube series inspired by the collection, which explored some of our historical pleasures: beer, chocolate, sugar and aphrodisiacs.
Michaela Charles: I’m head brewer at Alphabeta Brewery, based in Pitt Cue at Devonshire square. I started as a humble apprentice, ‘gypsy brewing’ under the name Upstairs Brewing, and have been making beer for six years now.
Susan Boyle: I am a beverage researcher based at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, Dublin. I’m researching the significance of place and storytelling to beverages and I also work as a drinks consultant, drinks writer, beer judge and I host beer tastings on Irish television.
Can you explain the Ancient Egyptian beer project you have been working on?
TM: My initial brief was to make a video about alcohol, but after seeing the artefacts in the British Museum, I realised that the museum’s resources on ancient Egyptian beer were the ideal story to engage with. We started with artefacts, relics from tombs and objects from the organic archive, but we had further input from the museum curators and bio-anthropologists to focus our findings. Coupled with an ancient Sumerian hymn, called ‘The Hymn to Ninkasi’ (the goddess of beer), which outlines some of the processes of beer production, we were ready to start experimenting. Our aim was to use traditional methods and ingredients to get as close as possible to what the Ancient Egyptians would have drunk.
MC: When I was initially approached to work on this project I was filled with excitement. As a child, I was enthralled by trips to the Egyptology section in the British Museum – it’s full of mystery and ancient wonders, the perfect place to start an adventure.
From the beginning, it was very clear that we did not want to make a commercial beer. Doing research on the internet we came across beers that claimed to be brewed in the Egyptian style but on closer inspection were not much more than modern brews with the addition of an ancient Egyptian inspired ingredient. What we wanted to do was look at the method of brewing they used, and by following that, discover what their beer may have been like.
What was the role of beer in the everyday lives of Ancient Egyptians?
SB: Beer was essential to the everyday life of the Ancient Egyptians. They documented the brewing and there is a vast amount of archaeological evidence remaining including vessels, remnants of brewed products, grain etc. They also produced detailed miniatures of breweries which illustrate the steps in the process and show that both men and women brewed.
TM: Beer was so essential it was treated principally as a type of food; it was consumed daily and in great quantities at religious festivals and celebrations. It was an essential for labourers, like those who built the pyramids of Giza, who were provided with a daily ration of ‘one and a third’ gallons (over 10 pints). Yet it still had divine status, with several gods and goddesses associated with beer. Hathor, the goddess of love, dance and beauty, was also known as ‘The Lady of Drunkenness’.
How did you go about deciphering the ancient ingredients and brewing processes?
MC: All of our references came initially from the British Museum. They were very helpful in letting us look in detail at artefacts in the collections and allowing us time to talk to the Egyptology experts themselves. We were almost overwhelmed with the richness of the resources.
However, our main source was the evidence from an excavation of the workers’ village of Armana, built in 1350BC, which contained several breweries, including a royal one. Field director Barry Kemp and Dr Delwen Samuel, who worked on the excavation, had identified the brewery residues and Dr Samuel also deciphered a very basic flow diagram of ingredients and process. So the process was already outlined, but as far as we can tell had never actually been followed before. As a brewer, I went through the writings of Dr Samuel and made a list of requirements for our brew.
We also looked at the tomb model of breweries that were intended for the afterlife. These depicted different stages of the brewing process, the ingredients and the vessels used, and were a great visual indicator. We also discussed the grains present at the time at Gilchester Organics. They were able to advise and supply us with the equivalent ancient grains from their research project. And finally, we looked at the ancient Sumarian hymn to Ninkasi.
You had to have a ceramic vessel specially made for brewing the beer didn’t you?
TM: The ceramic vessel is key to the Ancient Egyptian fermenting process, as its porous interior is the ideal surface for the wild yeast culture to grow. It’s also cooler to the touch than the ambient temperature, which would be an obvious advantage to brewing in a hot, arid climate. With this in mind, it was incredibly fortunate that Michaela’s father was a ceramicist. He was able to fabricate a contemporary ceramic vessel for us to ferment the beer in. Like the examples in The British Museum collection, it had a wide, open mouth to allow air to circulate and encourage wild yeast to enter. The slight evaporation from its walls also cooled the fermentation.
MC: Initially the team started looking for a vessel in garden centres. It seems funny to me now that I overlooked my father David White’s profession – he is a teaching ceramicist. Whereas modern vessels are fired twice, once to turn the soluble medium into a solid and again to give it a waterproof glazed finish, the Ancient Egyptians would have been using single fired, unglazed vessels. My father used a redware clay, similar to those seen in the British Museum, and fired it as high as possible, stopping just before it turns to liquid.
It usually takes a couple of times to get a new recipe right. How was that process for you?
MC: Strangely enough, we were never expecting to make the delicious beer that we did. The goal of the project, for myself especially, was the recreation of the method. However, the beer has become a very delicious side effect! But the most surprising aspect of this beer was the simplicity. I can honestly say I would love to brew in huge terracotta vessels continuously bubbling and fermenting. But to follow the method honestly, I would have a live beer that may not last too long, would be very difficult to store and certainly wouldn’t pass our modern food production guidelines. In its current state of production, I would compare it to raw milk, or homemade yoghurt. It’s free from preservatives, process aides and physical filtration. It would be wholesome and live.
SB: This really wasn’t an exercise in getting it right – we had no idea what this beer would taste like. We had a pretty good feeling it would be delicious because us humans have evolved our sense of taste and we like to eat and drinks delicious things. Yet we did not know exactly how this was going to work out. We were lead in our efforts by a desire to find out if the archaeological evidence we had could produce something that was recognisable as beer. We embarked on in-depth research and followed the methods as accurately as we could and tried not to let our understanding of the modern brewing process influence our decisions.
TM: To look back on it now, the Egyptian method makes a fool of modern brewers. We have added so many steps to improve on ancient methods, but our trial illustrates that Ancient Egyptian beer ferments faster and is materially more efficient. Working without thermometers and starch tests, without the microbiology of yeast and enzyme conversion, the Ancient Egyptian brewers could still create a crisp refreshing beer, that could have been made continuously in huge volumes. It is amazing that one can look back and assume the ancient knowledge was lacking in some way. Perhaps there wasn’t a need to store beer for long times. Perhaps there was a perfectly good method of extending the shelf life of a beer that we have not found evidence of. But I think it is a mistake to look back into history and assume it was in any way primitive or less than extraordinary.
What do you think we can gain from projects like this that dive into the ancient uses of food?
TM: To understand history through making is one of the greatest parts of my job, thinking not just about the context and practicalities of the object, but a sensory understanding of museums and things. What would that taste like? Feel like? Smell like? Authenticity is a dangerous word, as it’s hard to be fully historically accurate, but recreating something from the past gives you a taste of history that would otherwise have been out of reach. Taste and smell are the senses most closely linked to memory, so engaging with collections through these mediums give a unique angle for experience and understanding, as well as plenty of food for thought.
MC: Projects like this bring other sides of these civilisations to life for us and relate them to us. It also should have been no surprise that the Egyptian method was infinitely more advanced in its results. To look back and expect something primitive was a mistake. It is magical in its simplicity. I for one will be looking at my brew practice, assessing its effectiveness and seeing if I can utilise what I have learned. I doubt I will be installing terracotta fermenters any time soon, but this project has left me questioning almost everything I thought I knew about brewing and keen to ask more questions.
SB: This project reminded me that writing things down, documenting, is so important. Otherwise, things get lost or assumed or the gaps get filled in incorrectly. I believe we have a lot to learn from our past in relation to our understanding of food and beverages. We developed as communities around shared food-related activities such as hunting, farming and brewing. When we sever the relationship between food production and the people who consume it through over industrialised production of food; when people lose the skills to prepare food and, as a result of food poverty, people do not have the means or knowledge to choose the food they eat; when something simple like sitting down together to share a home-cooked meal is a rarity, I wonder what damage this is doing to the very foundations our society was built on.
You can see the Ancient Egyptian beer episode of Pleasant Vices by The British Museum here.