The oldest brew in the world, made after a song for the ancient Sumerian beer goddess

An old Mesopotamian clay tablet shows people drinking beer through straws.

An old Mesopotamian clay tablet shows people drinking beer through straws.

Beer has been around for ages, more than 5.000 years actually. But the stuff our ancient ancestors drank was quite a different brew than the large variety of beers we know today. In 2013 the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland (USA) joined forces with archaeologists from the nearby University of Chicago to brew a beer in the way people did 5.000 years ago in Mesopotamia. As a recipe they used a song the Sumerians made for their beer goddess: the Hymn to Ninkasi. This brew never hit the market but there are some modern versions available. Or you can just make your own Sumerian beer.

Beer was pretty popular in the ancient civilization Sumer, nowadays Southern Iraq. The text of the Hymn to Ninkasi was written on a clay tablet around 1800 BC, but archaeologists believe the recipe is at least 5.000 years old. This theory is backed up by many historical finds. In 1992 archaeologists discovered chemical traces of beer in this area, which date back from around 3500 BC. The Sumerians also left other clay writings that speak of big beer productions, as well as pots and other tools needed in the brewing process.

The Goddess
Without a doubt the goddess Ninkasi was one of the most important gods of the Sumerians, as both beer and brewing were her domain. Not only because they loved the taste of beer and the pleasant buzz it gave them. It was also a vital good in Sumer as uncooked water was undrinkable. No wonder an unknown poet wrote an ode to the goddess of beer. The version below was translated into English by Miguel Civil.

The Hymn to Ninkasi
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 it’s 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.

Copy of the tablet with the Hymn of Ninkasi.

Copy of the tablet with the Hymn to Ninkasi.

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 a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on 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.

Archaeological Brew
Even though written as a poem or a song, this text gave quite a good idea of how the Sumerians made their beer. The brewers of Great Lakes wanted to follow this ancient process as closely as possible. With the help of archaeologists they recreated ancient tools and ceramic pots, in the style of finds done in Iraq. The barley was malted on the roof and to get the bappir (beer bread), as mentioned in the ode to Ninkasi, they asked a baker from Cleveland to prepare them a kind as used in ancient Sumer.

Sanitation
Very interesting to mention is also that no modern cleaning methods were used. Sanitation is usually the key word when it comes to brewing, but the brewers from Cleveland wanted to stick to the classic method and keep the natural bacteria. To top things off the brew was brought to a boil on a fire that was fueled with manure, just like the good old days.

The Beer
According to the brewers the final result was absolutely drinkable and therefor a success. However the taste was very sour for our modern taste, as this basic beer reminded a lot of vinegar. However we don’t have to give up hope that a nice ancient Mesopotamian craft beer will be available at some point. The brewers of Great Lakes said that they would try to come up with a less sour version and this year they did. Their Gilgamash (named after a Sumerian king) is made with dates and several Sumerian spices.

Ancient Homebrew
For those who want to give it a try themselves, we found a recipe through Brew Your Own Magazine. This too is said to be an ancient Sumerian beer. Since it contains quite a lot of honey and date wine, it’s probably more to your liking than the basic beers from the ancient times.

Ingredients:
2 kg smoked malt
1.6 kg bappir (1.4 kg smoked malt,  0.45 kg wheat flour, 0.6 kg honey and water)
0.7 kg rice hulls
0.7 kg honey
3.8 liter date wine (1.6 kg dates and water)

Preparation:
We’re making everything from scratch. First the date wine, then the bappir 1 or 2 days later. Let that cool overnight and then you can start brewing.

Date Wine
Pit dates and place them in a large nylon grain bag. Put fruit bag in the bottom of a sanitized bucket fermenter and crush the fruit with a potato masher (or your feet). Add water to make 1 gallon (3.8 liter). Let the wild yeast on the fruit begin to ferment the juice.

Bappir
Grind barley malt into flour. Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Fold in honey. Slowly add water and knead dough until it is roughly the consistency of cookie dough. Form dough into large, flat loaves about one inch (2.5 cm) thick. Bake at 180 °C on a pizza stone until outside browns. Remove from oven and let cool. Cut cooled bread into “logs” about 4 cm thick (think biscotti). Rebake at 180 °C until bread just hardens. Let cool overnight.

Beer
Add crushed malt and crumbled bread to your kettle. Bring the temperature for this mash up to 55 °C , while adding 11 liters of water. Bring the heat up to 69 °C, while constantly stirring for 45 minutes. Heat mash to 77 °C and transfer it to your lauter tun. Stir in rice hulls. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then recirculate briefly and run off wort to kettle. Collect 15 liters in total. Boil for 15 minutes, then cool to 21 °C.

Remove bag of date skins from fermenter. (If you can get a friend to hold the bag, you can use two cookie sheets to gently press the pulp and yield a bit more juice.) Combine fermenting date wine with your fresh wort, then stir in honey. Add water to make 19 liters (5 gallons), aerate and let ferment at 21–27 °C until fermentation subsides. Keg or bottle.

Micky Bumbar

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Related articles on Lords of the Drinks:

Xenophon’s beer experience in Armenia

Mbaba Mwana Waresa, the goddess who gave the Zulus beer

The legend of Gambrinus, the King of Beer

10 Good reasons why you should  drink craft beer

13 Common mistakes with homebrew

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7 thoughts on “The oldest brew in the world, made after a song for the ancient Sumerian beer goddess

    • Thanks mate. Yeah, Iwould love to try this old school brew. Might just give it a try, although dades are quite expensive in Holland unfortunately.
      Cheers,
      Micky

      Like

  1. Pingback: 10 terrible beers that are way too popular and pollute the international beer scene | Lords of the Drinks

    • True that. One can argue that without beer we would still all be nomads and civilization would be lightyears behind.
      Cheers,
      Micky

      Like

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