Sip Like a Sumerian: Ancient Beer Recipe Recreated from Millennia-Old Cuneiform Tablets
Nowadays, people drink beer for its good taste and feel-good effects. However, thousands of years ago, beer played a much more central role in society. The Sumerian word for beer appears in many contexts relating to religion, medicine and myth, and Mesopotamian workers were even paid with beer. The ancient art of beer-making goes back at least 6,000 years and, in recent years, beer breweries have teamed up with archaeologists to recreate ancient Sumerian beer recipes, as recorded in millennia-old cuneiform tablets.
The oldest known depiction of beer-drinking can be found in a Sumerian tablet that dates back approximately 4,000 BC. It shows people sipping beer from the same vessel through reed straws.
Lucky for us, the Sumerians were very good record keepers, and they even left behind a beer recipe in the 3,900-year-old poem of Ninkasi, goddess of brewing, fertility and harvest. The poem describes how bappir, Sumerian bread, is mixed with “aromatics” to ferment in a big vat.
The oldest depiction of beer-drinking shows people sipping from a communal vessel through reed straws (Brauerstern)
Beer Production in Mesopotamia
Historians are not in agreement as to how beer was first discovered. Some believe it was purely accidental, that a piece of bread or grain became wet and started to ferment into an inebriating pup. However, others maintain that beer production was an early technological achievement and may even have started in Mesopotamia before the emergence of the Sumerian civilization.
Cuneiform Pictographs Recording the Allocation of Beer. Thought to be from southern Iraq Late Prehistoric period, about 3100-3000 BC (CC BY 2.0)
Brewing Companies Replicate Sumerian Recipes
Imagine sipping on a beer knowing you were drinking the exact same brew that ancient people had been drinking five millennia ago. That is now possible thanks to a collaborative effort between archaeologists and brewing companies, who have been able to use ancient records, as well as archaeological findings in the form of traces of ingredients left in vessels, to recreate the same beer the Sumerians were drinking.
A number of companies have already succeeded in reviving ancient beers and wines from China, Egypt, Iraq and Europe. One of 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. GLBC completed their project to revive a 5,000-year-old Sumerian beer several years ago, and even served it up in clay vessels similar to those that would have been used by the Sumerians. Although they have stated that the project was more of an educational exercise and they do not plan to sell it to the public.
“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.
As well as replicating the ingredients used by the Sumerians, which included coriander, cardamom, figs, dates, and pomegranates, the company also aimed to follow the same process, 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. The final outcome was a beer full of bacteria, warm and slightly sour. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste!
Top image: Impression of a Sumerian cylinder seal from the Early Dynastic IIIa period (ca. 2600 BC). Persons drinking beer are depicted in the upper row. (Cuneiform Digital Library Journal)