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Sumerian Beer

The Modern Recreation of Ancient Sumerian Beer

Beer appears to have been an important part of Sumerian culture: the word “beer” appears in many contexts relating to religion, medicine and myth.  In fact, the oldest evidence of beer comes from a 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet depicting people drinking a beverage through reed straws from a communal bowl, and the oldest surviving beer recipe can be found in a 3,900-year-old ancient Sumerian poem honouring Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing, fertility and the harvest.  The poem describes how bappir, Sumerian bread, is mixed with “aromatics” to ferment in a big vat.

The production of beer in Mesopotamia is a controversial topic in archaeological circles. Some believe that beer was discovered by accident and that a piece of bread or grain could have become wet and a short time later, it began to ferment into an inebriating pulp. However, others believe that the technique of brewing beer was an early technological achievement and may have even predated the Sumerians in the lowlands of the Mesopotamian alluvial plane.

But the Sumerian’s beer-making capabilities have not just caught the attention of historians and archaeologists.  Brewing companies have been trying to replicate the ancient Sumerian recipe for decades and have already recreated beers from prehistoric China and from ancient Egypt.  The latest to take their hand to the challenge was the Great Lakes Brewing Company, a craft beer maker based in Ohio, which has a particular interest in artisan beer. Archaeologists teamed up with the Great Lakes Brewing Company to resurrect an ancient recipe to recreate a  5,000-year-old Sumerian beer

“How can you be in this business and not want to know from where your forefathers came with their formulas and their technology?” said Pat Conway, a co-owner of the company

For the last year, the company has been trying to replicate the beer using only a wooden spoon and clay vessels modelled after artifacts excavated in Iraq.  They successfully malted barley on the roof of the brew house and also used a bricklike “beer bread” for the active yeast. Current results have yielded a beer full of bacteria, warm and slightly sour.  It is a great achievement and perhaps in the future archaeologists may unlock the secret as to the true origin of beer production.

By April Holloway

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