Sunday, April 26, 2009


“The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer.” ~ Ancient Egyptian Proverb

The Egyptians didn’t create the art of brewing, but it was of great importance in their society. In previous posts (see posts with a common theme “History of Beer” on the right), I discussed brewing in the ancient civilizations of Sumer and Babylon, this post continues chronologically with the Egyptians.

Some 5,000 years ago, beer was the king of fermented beverages (Don’t confuse with the “King of Beers”). In comparison to the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Egyptians left us the best documentation of ancient brewing techniques. Most of what we have learned about Egyptian brewing has come from murals in vaults, pyramids, and sacrificial chambers. These images exhibit the importance the art of beer-making held in Egyptian society.

Perhaps some of the best preserved relics came from the tomb of Meketre. Meketre was chancellor and chief steward during the reign of Mentuhotep II and Mentuhotep III. His tomb contained several wooden replicas, representing the daily activities and life in Ancient Egypt. Because the inner chamber of Meketre's tomb was untouched by grave robbers when it was discovered by Herbert E. Winlock in 1920, the wooden models give us an intimate three-dimensional view of how Egyptians lived. These wooden models represented Egyptians at work. There was a carpentry shop, an abattoir, a granary, a kitchen, river boats, and ... a brewery!

The brewery model from Meketre’s tomb dates from around 2009 to 1998 B.C. A card at the exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where this model is preserved) explains what is going on in the brewery: "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."

Ties to the Gods

Beer was a regular part of life for every Egyptian both the pharaohs and the working class alike. Beer was the currency of power and social structure, connected to the gods and the state. In Egyptian culture, all power derived from the sun (as you can imagine in an area of the world where the sun seems so utterly pervasive). The god of the sun, Re, was regarded as the source of all life and nourishment. Accordingly, he was considered the creator of beer. Re and his wife Nut, the goddess of the stars, were considered the creators of the Egyptian pharaohs and of all lesser gods. Their favorite daughter was Hathor, a pretty and alluring thing (Re kind of had a love jones for Hathor, which is kind of sick, by our modern attitudes toward incest). When Hathor drank beer, she turned into the goddess of love, lust, joy, singing, dancing, and laughter.

Hathor’s sacred tree was the sycamore, under which lovers would meet to share a crock of beer. Her brew was an aphrodisiac, often flavored with mandrake, a plant whose bark contains an alkaloid that has a narcotic effect.

The god of the dead, Osiris, was hailed as the guardian of beer. Egyptian beer was brewed from both emmer and barley and it was believed these grains had sprung spontaneously from Osiris' mummy, as a gift to mankind and as a symbol of life after death.

Ties to the State

The god-like pharaohs turned brewing into a state run monopoly and strictly licensed brewing rights to entrepreneurs and priests. Many temples opened their own breweries and pubs, all in the service of the gods. The port of Pelusium became a large brewing center, and trading in beer became big business.

Egyptians used beer as a currency to pay slaves, tradesmen, priests, and public officials alike. Every Egyptian was entitled to a particular amount of daily beer. This beer ration was strictly regulated, even amongst the royalty. A queen was entitled to 10 loaves of bread and two crocks of beer a day. This allotment was usually guaranteed to her by her husband, the pharaoh, as part of the marriage contract. A princess was due 10 loaves a day, but she was only entitled to one crock of free beer a day. An officer of the guard fared better, as he was due 20 loaves and two crocks. Even the daily ration of the slaves who provided the muscle for building the pyramids, were entitled two to three loaves of bred and two crocks of brew. The nectar of the gods was even a slave's entitlement.

Beer and Medicine

In addition to offering sustenance to the laborers and pharaohs alike, beer was also used for medicinal purposes. Ancient Egyptian medical documents (dated approximately 1,600 BC) list roughly 700 prescriptions regularly prescribed by doctors, of which about 100 involved beer. The Egyptians used beer as a gum-disease treatment, a dressing for wounds, and even an anal fumigant—a vapor borne pesticide to treat diseases of the anus (nasty, I realize).

Egyptian brewers unfortunately exited history for good due to the fall of the ancient Egypt (The fall of Egypt is a history lesson beyond my expertise), but it is believed that the Greeks learned the art of brewing from the Egyptians, perhaps a future post?

Drink like an Egyptian,


Note: If you are interested in learning more about the Egyptians and beer read Horst Dornbusch's article titled, "Egyptian Beer for the Living, the Dead ... and the Gods." I pulled info from all over to write this post, but I "borrowed" heavily from Mr. Dornbusch's superb article.

1 comment:

Jack Plumber said...

Love the proverb about a mouthful of beer - fantastic and true