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Ancient Beer the Oldest Recipe in the World

Updated on February 20, 2015
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An Ancient Recipe for Beer

If you look at a field of wheat and a loaf of bread, you wouldn't guess that one came from the other. But we've known about the relationship for at least 10,000 years.

Bread really is the Staff of Life

Beer is liquid bread and in ancient Sumer, beer making and bread making were different sides of the same coin. The Sumerians left us a recipe, on a clay tablet, for making beer.

It's the oldest recipe in the world.

Recipe for Beer on a Clay Tablet

The Recipe is in Cuneiform Script

Beer was made thousands of years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, and actual brewing records exist from this "dawn of civilisation."

These records are written in cuneiform script on clay tablets.

Hymn to Ninkasi

Ninkasi is the ancient Sumerian Goddess of brewing and beer and head brewer to the gods themselves. Her name means "The Lady who fills the mouth".

The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL), a project of the University of Oxford, comprises a selection of nearly 400 literary compositions from ancient Mesopotamia.

One text, the Hymn to Ninkasi, is a set of instructions for making beer. It tells of baked grains being broken into pieces and stuffed into a pot. Water and aromatics are added (creating a basic mash and wort) and left to ferment.

You can read the Hymn to Ninkasi from ETCSL or stick with the easier-to-read text below.

The Ancient Recipe for Beer

You are the one who handles the dough with a big shovel,

Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,

Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough with a big shovel,

Mixing in a pit, the bappir with 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 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.

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,

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,

Like the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Ancient Egyptian Beer
Ancient Egyptian Beer

How do you brew beer like an Egyptian?

Instead of using modern, cultured yeast, keep some yeasty residue from one brew to the next. The yeast sticks to the fabric of the brewing pots. Fermentation happens naturally from micro-flora

Get some organic unhulled barley in a health food store. Moisten barley. Keep it moist until it germinates, then heat the barley to stop the germination (the result is called malt).

Add water and yeast so the malt sugars ferment.

.Blend cooked and uncooked malt with water and produce a refined liquid free of husk by straining and mashing

Don't forget the bread, a by-product of making beer

Bappir is a twice-baked barley bread.

Here's a modern recipe for Bappir Bread

Hulled grains have the outermost hull removed (not the bran)

Brew reproduced in the early 1900s

So this is a recipe for naturally fermented beer from Sumeria over 7,000 years ago,.

Some 6,987 years later, Soloman Katz of the University of Pennsylvania and Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing followed these instructions to reproduce the brew. It was said to be reddish-orange in colour with the taste of honey. They named it, naturally enough, Ninkasi.

I would have liked to try a glass, or even sipped some through a straw, but no more has been made since that first batch a century ago.

Communal Drinking

Enjoying a beer
Enjoying a beer | Source

It was Healthier to Drink Beer

Evidence for brewing beer in the Mesopotamian region was found at the settlement of Godin Tepe (in modern-day Iran), a significant Sumerian outpost along the famous Silk Road trade route.

Beer was a staple in the daily diet of the ancient Sumerians. As only fresh water was used in beer, and had to be boiled, it was healthier to drink beer than to drink water from the canals which could be polluted. Beer also contained nutrients other beverages did not.

The ancient Sumerians kept their beer in large jars and drank them in a communal fashion.

These beers were often thick, more of a gruel than a beverage, so straws were used. Two or more drinkers would sip the beer through a straw, possibly to filter out impurities (through the teeth) or to avoid sludge at the bottom of the jar.

Perhaps they just liked drinking together.

Straws were invented in Babylon

Sipping Beer through a Straw

Workers were provided with beer as part of their daily rations and, based on art works as well as writings, it was a drink enjoyed by the lowest laborer to the highest noble and was consumed through a straw.

The straw, so common in our modern world, was developed by the Babylonians, and quite possibly created specifically for the purpose of drinking beer.

Beer was so important that in the Code of Hammurabi (18th century B.C.E), beer shop owners who overcharged customers were to be put to death by drowning.

Ancient Nubians Made Antibiotic Beer

Chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Sudanese Nubians who lived nearly 2000 years ago shows they were ingesting the antibiotic tetracycline on a regular basis, most likely from a special brew of beer. The find is the strongest yet that antibiotics were previously discovered by humans before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928.

Read about the antibiotic beer

Ancient Egyptian Brewing

Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose, California

The Egyptians learned about making beer from the Sumerians.

The Egyptians passed the Recipe on

A Barbarian,  Drinker  of Beer
A Barbarian, Drinker of Beer

Beer moves across Europe

The Egyptians taught the Greeks the beer brewing process but the Greeks preferred wine. Perhaps that's why the Greeks later taught the Romans.

The Romans didn't care much for beer at all. Wine was their choice of drink too.

Beer was fit only for barbarians

A dark, slightly sour, beer from 550 BCE

Scientific evidence from an archeological site in southwesten Germany suggests that Early Celtic rulers liked to party, staging elaborate feasts. The business side of their revelries was located in a nearby brewery capable of turning out large quantities of a beer with a dark, smoky, slightly sour taste,

Read the article about Celtic Beer from 2,550 Years ago

Making Beer the Ancient Irish Way

The Barbarian's Beverage

Europe has a long and rich beer-making tradition, which developed independently of the Middle East

The Barbarian's Beverage presents a large amount of the evidence for beer in ancient Europe for the first time, and demonstrates the important technological as well as idealogical contributions the Europeans made to beer throughout the ages.

A study of ancient beer and its brewing, consumption and characteristics providing a fresh and fascinating insight into one of the most popular beverages in the world today.

The Beer Archaeologist

Patrick McGovern is the world's foremost expert on ancient fermented beverages, and he cracks long-forgotten recipes with chemistry, scouring ancient kegs and bottles for residue samples to scrutinise in the lab.

He has identified the world's oldest known barley beer (from Iran's Zagros Mountains, dating to 3400 BCE), the oldest grape wine (also from the Zagros, circa 5400 BCE) and the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China's Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago.

His popular book explains all :- Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

Do you enjoy a good beer?

Join the club

The Craft Beer Club discovers exceptional craft brews from around the country and delivers them each month direct-to-you or your gift recipient. Every selection is produced by small-production, independent brewers who use only traditional brewing ingredients and time-honored brewing methods.

$37.75 for 12 beers each month. There are no beer club sign up fees, no monthly dues, and no minimum obligation. You may cancel at any time for any reason.

CraftBeerClub.com-Discover exceptional Craft Brews from around the country, Home delivered each month

What do you think?

What came first - bread or beer?

See results

© 2010 Susanna Duffy

Pass me a Pint

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    • SusannaDuffy profile image
      Author

      Susanna Duffy 2 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      I don't know about you but, when putting this together, I really wanted a beer. A chilled, refreshing beer

    • RobertConnorIII profile image

      Robert Connor 3 years ago from Michigan

      Beer making is simply & fun

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Now that was fascinating. I hadn't really thought about beer beyond medieval times.

    • profile image

      sybil watson 4 years ago

      Have you ever seen the documentary "How Beer Saved the World"?. It's an absolutely fascinating history of the invention of beer and the big part it has played in the history of the world. Very interesting lens.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 4 years ago from Colorado

      Fascinating article. I think I'll pass on that gruel beer. That code of ethics for beer shop owners might put a few liquor stores out of business these days. A general drowning, or thrown into a vat of beer?

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I will sure have a new appreciation for beer when I enjoy my next cool one. Thanks.

    • CuAllaidh profile image

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      very nice, I recently found a source of seed barley and was considering making some ancient beer, just stumbled across this article :D great job.

    • myoyster1957 profile image

      myoyster1957 4 years ago

      And then there was beer, 5 pints is also a loaf

    • profile image

      chickie99 4 years ago

      beer always was first; but beer bread is the best

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I love liquid bread! I had no idea that beer was 10,000 years old, much less the oldest recipe in the world. I now have a greater appreciation for beer!

    • CyclistLiam profile image

      CyclistLiam 4 years ago

      Interesting lens. I had been led to believe it was the Belgian Monks who had initially crafted beer so this put me right on the subject. Are there any companies/ breweries that still make with the Sumerian method? Does it taste like the beer we know today?

    • MrMojo01 profile image

      MrMojo01 4 years ago

      I'm a light beer guy so not sure if I'd like this but I enjoyed reading it!

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 4 years ago

      Interesting article but I don't particularly care for beer, and this sounds kind of gross - "more of a gruel."

    • GaelicForge profile image

      GaelicForge 5 years ago

      Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to have fun" - I think Ben Franklin said that... anyway, beer can contribute to our lives in many fun ways! I like it that it's the oldest recipe in the world!

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 5 years ago

      I love the way you have presented the history of beer here! Liked the expression that beer is liquid bread!

    • profile image

      HowToKeg 5 years ago

      I would love to try some of that, not sure how it would taste though. We should pass the recipe on to Dogfish, they make everything!

    • gregoryolney lm profile image

      gregoryolney lm 6 years ago

      People used to brew beer because they didn't have a clean water supply. The adults drank the good stuff and the kids were given the "small beer".

      Nice lens !

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Hmm... Makes me wonder if the Sumerians and the Egyptians had a pub culture and disc's too! Fascinating lens. :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      fascinating

    • AsianMarketplace profile image

      AsianMarketplace 6 years ago

      I gotta admit, being a beer lover myself i don;t know too much about the history of beer. Thanks for the enriching information here. Cheers!

    • beckwong profile image

      beckwong 6 years ago

      good lens :)

    • profile image

      SHorsburgh 6 years ago

      Queen Victoria loved her ale and had one every night before she went to bed, warm ale.

    • Elle-Dee-Esse profile image

      Lynne Schroeder 7 years ago from Blue Mountains Australia

      I'll pass on the beer thanks, I'd prefer a wine. Fascinating history of beer

    • WildFacesGallery profile image

      Mona 7 years ago from Iowa

      Interesting lens. Not a beer person myself but I have a friend who brews their own so will pass this along to her.