Friday, 18 March 2016

Sumerian beer

This Sumerian beer is made using a combination of fruit, malted grain, and bread.  It's very, very different from the kinds of beer we're familiar with today, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable.

Sumerian style beer, made according to the instructions in the Hymn to Ninkasi.

In my last post I discussed the Hymn to Ninkasi and what it tells us about Sumerian brewing practices.  I used the Hymn to develop a recipe for Sumerian style beer, and this is the result.

I won't lie to you: I didn't really expect this stuff to be very nice.  It has no carbonation at all, and no hops.  It also didn't get a secondary fermentation, which is usually an important part of the brewing process.  But this beer surprised me.  It isn't bad at all; in fact I like it.  It has a fresh, clean flavour and is pleasantly refreshing on a hot day after work.  The taste of barley comes through strongly and there are also distinct fruit flavours, but it's not very sweet and I think the different flavours are fairly well balanced.  The alcohol content is 4.5% by volume, so it's comparable to regular commercially produced beer in that respect.

I suggest serving this beer around 12 degrees C - cellar temperature, not chilled like a lager.

Even after filtering the beer through cheesecloth there is still a layer of sediment on the bottom of the bottle, which is visible in the picture.  Using a straw enables you to avoid the sediment layer and that, I suspect, is why the Sumerians drank their beer through straws.

Although I've tried to follow the Sumerian brewing process as far as possible, I have made some modern compromises.  I've used modern equipment because that's what I have in my kitchen, and a modern approach to sterilization because life's too short for bad homebrew.  You can get food poisoning from drinking bad brews.  I also added some dried bread yeast.  The Sumerians may have used the yeast that grows naturally on grape skins to ferment their beer, but I decided to use dried yeast rather than rely on the grapes, because who knows what's on the skins of supermarket grapes?

The Challenge: Juicy Fruits.  A combination of dates and grapes helps to give this beer a distinctive flavour.

The Recipe: Technically, this beer requires two recipes.

For the bappir (beer bread)

500 grams two row barley malt
A splash of date honey
Spices - I used a quarter teaspoon each of aniseed and cumin, both of which were used by the Sumerians.
Enough water to turn the ingredients into a stiff dough

Because of the barley husks the dough will not stick together very well, but that's okay.  Just do the best you can.  Shape the dough into a flat, round loaf on a pizza stone or baking tray; I recommend using baking paper.  The dough is baked twice, like biscotti.  I baked it for 30 minutes at 180 degrees C, then sliced it into strips and put it back in the oven (which I had turned off) to dry out.  It smelled great, but due to the presence of barley husks I wouldn't eat it unless I had to.

This is what the bappir looked like when it came out of the oven:

It did crumble a bit, but that's fine.  It has to be broken up for mashing anyway.

For 3 liters of Sumerian beer

Bappir from previous recipe
600 grams two row barley malt
Half a liter of date honey
A good handful of grapes
A teaspoon of bread yeast

I crumbled the bappir into a bowl, added the grain, and mashed them at 55 degrees C for 60 minutes.  Then I strained the mash and added date honey and grapes.  I pitched the yeast at 25 degrees C and let it ferment until the lack of bubbling noises indicated primary fermentation was over, then I bottled it.

I strongly recommend filtering the beer through a piece of cloth before bottling.

Note that my recipe only makes a small quantity.  You can of course scale it up to meet your requirements, but this stuff won't keep and should be consumed within a few days of brewing.

The Date/Year and Region: Southern Mesopotamia, c1800 BCE.

How Did You Make It: I developed the recipe based on the Hymn to Ninkasi.

Time to Complete:  About four hours' preparation time, plus three days to ferment.  Bear in mind though that most of that preparation time is just waiting for things to bake, or mash, or cool down enough to pitch the yeast.  The amount of actual, hands on work involved is fairly minimal.

Fermentation could take more or less time depending on the yeast and the environmental temperature, as with any beer.  It's ready to drink when you can't hear any more bubbling in the fermentation vessel.

Total Cost: $10.80.  This was a comparatively expensive beer recipe, because I had to buy dates.  Note however that although dates are expensive in New Zealand, they would have been cheap and readily available in ancient Mesopotamia.

How Successful Was It?  Much more successful than I thought it would be.  Because it's so different to the beers we're familiar with now it may be an acquired taste for modern beer drinkers, but I say put your expectations aside and give it a chance.

Leaving the barley husks in the bappir was a good idea, even though it made the dough difficult to mix and shape.  As I mentioned in the last post other people who have tried Sumerian beer have found that their mash stuck, but I didn't have that problem.  I think that was probably because of the barley husks.

How Accurate Is It? It's as accurate as I could get it based on my current understanding of Sumerian brewing.  To some extent I've had to make interpretations and use my best judgement, and the ingredients may not be exactly like the ones the Sumerians used.  Barley, for  instance, has probably changed a bit in the last 4000 years.  And, of course, I've used modern equipment.  But on the whole I think it's a fairly reasonable recreation of Sumerian beer.

I think this is a reasonable interpretation of the Hymn to Ninkasi, and one that fits the evidence we have about Sumerian brewing,  but other interpretations are possible and they are equally valid. 


  1. Interesting! I imagine that ancient Egyptian beer, which was also sipped through a straw, would have been similar.

    1. Probably. It depends to some extent on whether Egyptian beer contained dates, since a lot of that sediment comes from the dates. At some point I'll do the research and try an Egyptian recipe.