Thursday, June 2, 2011

Beer in the Ancient Middle East

Beer is probably the oldest alcoholic drink known to man, dating back at least 6000 years. The first definite proof of beer is through written records, such as Chinese writings 5000 years old that talk about Kui. The Babylonian king Hammurabi regulated tavern keepers on his famous Codex, his law for the people. Similarly, the Sumerians had Nin-kasi, a main goddess in their pantheon, from their early dynastic period on (2900-2350 B.C. ). As the daughter of the goddess of birth Nin-Ti and the head God En-ki, she was a very important deity! As the brewer of the gods, she was named “She who sates the desires”. Not surprisingly, beer was an important gift for the gods, through libations and as offerings to various temples. It is also known that the Egyptians possessed beer, and highly valued it. Ancient Egypt had their priorities straight: beer was part of the daily diet of everyone, including Pharaoh, and was thought of as the most proper gift to present to him. It also was a valuable thing to sacrifice to the gods in various rituals.
Interesting to note, is that both in Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was women who were brewers. (shoutout to all you women in beer world: there are great antecedents for what you're doing!)  Perhaps that has to do with the fact that brewing beer and making bread was so intimately linked. There is ample evidence that they existed side by side. A great Ushabti Egyptian model of a bakery/brewery (a small funerary statue or model given with the deceased to serve them in the afterlife) has been found in the tomb of Meketrê, prime minister to MentuhotepII (11th Dynasty, ruling somewhere between 2050 and 2000 B.C. It is currently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the text explaining this particular model states: “"The overseer with a baton sits inside the door. In the brewery two women grind flour, which another man works into dough. After a second man treads the dough into mash in a tall vat, it is put into tall crocks to ferment. After fermentation, it is poured off into round jugs with black clay stoppers." Every single person in Egyptian society was entitled a ration of beer, from Pharaoh down to the lowest slave working on the building projects. It was a great addition to their diet, and was used for various medicinal purposes as well.
Even in ancient Israel, beer was known and well liked, albeit quite unknown to us. There are several references in the bible to ‘Shekar’ (שכר), a word that some scholars translate as beer. A great verse in the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 14,verse 26) states: “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. “ Not only was beer known, God wanted his people to drink it in His presence to celebrate! Michael M. Homan wrote an excellent article about this subject in ‘Biblical Archaeology Review’, about which Managing Editor Dorothy D. Resig wrote because of some mistranslation, mistreatment and misidentification on the part of Bible scholars and archaeologists, the important role of beer in Israelite daily life has been largely overlooked.” That brings me to how the ancients made beer.
They did not use hops (even in Europe the use of hops in beer did not become widespread until the late Middle Ages), but rather baked loaves of barley bread, that were then placed in a jar with water, where it would then start fermenting. The beer would not stay fresh for long, so had to be consumed rather quickly after brewing. Drinking occurred from vases or drinking vessels that either had some sort of filter/mesh build in to keep out large particles of what was left of the bread, or they would use straws to drink from (metal straws have been found, and are commonly depicted in murals and drawings).
One of the problems with this is that it is hard to find conclusive archaeological evidence of brewing, partly because it was so linked with and almost indistinguishable from baking bread, and partly because beer was consumed so quickly that there rarely is enough residue left in the ceramic jars (contrary to wine, which can be kept for years in the same jars). The process of using the grains to make a rough dough, wetting them, then baking them resembles the malting process, which then enables those grains to release the starches and sugars to the water (forming the mash), which in turn would start fermenting with wild yeasts. The ancients already observed that making beer in already used vessels would give better and more reliable results, and traveling brewers would bring their mashing jars with them.
With that in mind, it seems very plausible that people discovered that wet or soaked bread that was left for a while would turn into a pleasing drink, and the historical records show they discovered this very early! So when you next grab a beer, and sit back relaxed as you enjoy that beer, raise a toast to our earliest ancestors, who knew from the very beginning of civilization how important beer is to society and to personal enjoyment of life. Prosit!

For the fun of it: here is part of probably the oldest drinking song ever recorded, a Sumerian song written on a clay tablet about 2 to 3 millennia B.C.

In the troughs made with bur grass, there is sweet beer.
I will have the cup-bearers, the boys and the brewers stand by.
As I spin around the lake of beer, while feeling wonderful, feeling wonderful, while drinking beer, in a blissful mood, while drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated, with joy in the heart and a contented liver — my heart is a heart filled with joy!
I clothe my contented liver in a garment fit for a queen!
The heart of Inana is happy once again; the heart of Inana is happy once again!
A …… to Ninkasi!

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