In the ancient world, beer was a fundamental part of daily life. It was offered as gifts to the gods, received as working wages and enjoyed during special occasions and festivals. In fact, beer was so central to ancient life that some archaeologists believe that beer brewing may have played a part in the development of agriculture 10 000 years ago.
Although it was probably discovered independently by many ancient cultures, a beer-drinking scene carved on a 6 000-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablet is the earliest known evidence of beer. Mesopotamia is a region between the Tigres and Euphrates rivers, in what is known today as Iraq. Ancient Mesopotamian beer was a sweet, thick brew made from malted barley, dates and honey. Because it was unfiltered, people used straws to penetrate the layer of solids that floated on top of the beer.
Beer first appeared in Ancient Egypt about 5 000 years ago. Like many other ancient peoples, Ancient Egyptians believed beer was invented by the gods and so worshipped the goddess Hathor, who was called the “inventress of brewing”. She was also associated with singing, dancing, love and general merriment. As a goddess, Hathor took on many forms, but often she was represented as a lion or a gentle cow. Each year, Egyptians danced and drank beer at a festival to honour Hathor at her temples at Philae, Edfu, Esna and Dendera.
Beer in Ancient Egypt was sweet, strained and a staple of life. It was made in households and in huge quantities in temples and palace breweries. Because Egyptian beer was made from fermented malted barley or wheat bread, breweries were often equipped with their own bakeries. The most detailed painting of ancient Egyptian brewing scenes are on an Old Kingdom wall in the Tomb of Ti, a high official in the pharaoh’s court who was buried in the royal city of Saqqara.
Grain is drawn from the stores (A), measured (B), and then registered (C). The grain is then pounded (D), ground on a grinding stone (E), and the resulting meal is sieved (F).
Special bread is made for brewing. First, the grain is moistened (G). Then, the dough is kneaded (H) and worked into an oblong load (I). A worker carries a tray of these prepared loaves to the brewer (J). The loaves are placed in moulds and stacked up and heated only slightly – the centres are left uncooked (K). Liquid is added to the bread (L) and, while still in the mould, the bread is placed on a stand and broken up by hand (M).
Yeast and perhaps a flavouring substance is added (N) at the beginning of fermentation. A brewery official supervises the work (O). A pair of workers strain the beer (P). Other workers fill (Q) and seal (R) the jars. The authenticity is guaranteed by stamping the wet clay on the stopper, probably with a personal or royal seal (S).
Beer was also brewed in Nubia, an important and sophisticated African civilisation in what is today southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The riches of ancient Africa were traded through Nubia into Egypt, including gold, ebony, ivory, leopard skins and bitter-tasting Nubian beer, which was prized above all other beers by Egyptian pharaohs. Many aspects of ancient Nubian culture survive today, including the practice of making beer from sorghum, the grain used to prepare traditional African beer.