|The Hymn to Ninkasi, picture from Tulane University. It was written around 1800 BCE by an unknown scribe.|
Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer. The Hymn to Ninkasi is not exactly a beer recipe in the modern sense, but in lines 13 to 48 it contains a fairly detailed description of the process by which Sumerians made beer four thousand years ago:
It is you who handle the ...... and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the ...... and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ....... Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes .......It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.1 line damagedYou ...... the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ....... You ...... the sweetwort to the vessel.You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
- Translation by Miguel Civil available at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University.
Let's recap this process:
- Ninkasi bakes beer bread flavoured with aromatic herbs and/or spices. This is a special type of bread called bappir which was used to make beer. In 1800 BCE cuneiform it is denoted by a combination of the sign for beer and the sign for bread.
- Ninkasi malts grain, and prepares an infusion mash.
- She mixes wort with honey and wine, then ferments the resulting mixture.
- Finally, Ninkasi filters the fermented beer and then it's ready to drink. This beer does not get a secondary fermentation like the beers we're familiar with today, and it doesn't get carbonated.
Unfortunately, the poem doesn't give any guidance as to how much of each ingredient should be used, so I will just have to guess the ingredient quantities.
Dates were probably one of the flavouring agents used to make bappir, and I would expect that some herbs and spices were included as well. Ancient Mesopotamian people liked spiced food and the Sumerian recipes that survive tend to use multiple flavouring agents*.
I'm a little confused as to whether the grain used to make the bappir is supposed to be malted. It's possible to make bread from malted grains and the malting process is necessary in order to release fermentable sugars from the grain. The Hymn seems to imply the bappir has already been made by the time Ninkasi gets started on the malt, but there are scholars who think bappir was made from malted grains. Perhaps it was made with an earlier batch of malt? This is possible. Bappir could be stored for relatively long periods and seems to have been a way of preserving grain for future use.
Another question is why the stuff Miguel Civil translates as "sweetwort" appears to be something Ninkasi can hold in her hands, when wort is a liquid. Is this just a poetic metaphor? Is she squeezing the grain/bappir residue to extract as much wort as possible? It's hard to tell exactly what's going on here.
According to Miguel Civil, the honey mentioned in the hymn is likely to be date honey, while the wine could be either wine, grapes, or raisins. If it is meant to be grapes or raisins, this may be how the Sumerians introduced yeast to their wort; yeast grows naturally on the skin of grapes.
Exactly how long should the beer be allowed to ferment? Well, I think the hymn gives us an answer when it says the fermenting vat makes a pleasant sound. Beers and wines make an audible bubbling noise during primary fermentation. When you can no longer hear bubbling, the primary fermentation is complete. I suggest the hymn is telling us, in its poetic way, that the beer was ready to drink after primary fermentation had finished.
The key problem with interpreting the Hymn to Ninkasi is that in order to understand it we have to filter it through modern knowledge about how the brewing process works. The Sumerians did not have a modern understanding of the science behind brewing so there's no guarantee that what makes sense to a modern researcher bears any resemblance to what the Sumerians actually did. In some ways the Hymn to Ninkasi raises more questions than it answers, but there's enough there to have a crack at brewing some Sumerian beer and a number of researchers have done so. There are modernized recipes based on the Hymn available here courtesy of Brew Your Own, and here courtesy of the Maltose Falcons.
Note that these modern recipes include rice hulls. Brewers add rice hulls to their mash to prevent it getting sticky and clumpy, but rice did not grow in ancient Sumeria. We don't know what, if anything, the Sumerians used instead. A potential answer lies in the fact that bappir was not eaten on its own, except during famines. This possibly (though not necessarily) indicates the bappir was unpalatable. If that's the case, I suspect bappir contained barley husks as well as the grain itself.
Some researchers question whether Sumerian beer contained alcohol. Personally I'm inclined to think the question is more how much alcohol it contained; remember the hymn specifically says the fermenting vat makes a pleasant sound. In other words, something is definitely fermenting in there. But exactly how much alcohol the beer contained is open to question and different types of beer may have differed in strength. I have a hydrometer now, so I can put this to the test when I make my Sumerian beer. At a guess I'd say it will be comparable to modern commercial beers - about 5% alcohol by volume, however the inclusion of date honey means it would theoretically be possible to make a brew with a higher alcohol percentage.
In the next post I'll share the practical results of all this theory!
* D.T. Potts. 1997. Mesopotamian Civilisation: The Material Foundations. London: The Athlone Press.