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Sumerian Beer Project

Posted by at 7:25 pm | Category: Craft Beer History 0

Originally written in ____, Anchor historian Dave Burkhart recounts the details of a unique project to re-create an ancient method of brewing.

sumerian_image2The historical roots of beer brewing are entwined with those of early bread baking; this is well known to every serious brewer. In 1988, we at the Anchor Brewing Company conceived the idea of exploring the historical relationship between brewing and baking. Our interest came from reading a newspaper article about Professor Solomon Katz, of the University of Pennsylvania, who espouses the theory that the earliest farmers were moved to stop their nomadic hunting-and-gathering way of life and settle down to a life built around agriculture because of the desire to cultivate barley, not for baking bread, but for making beer!
We contacted Professor Katz, who visited the brewery, and soon we were eagerly discussing his theory. This led us to speculate about beers of a slightly later time, when brewing was organized and in the hands of professionals.

Ninkasi-Tablet-1-95Most brewers are aware that beer was made thousands of years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, and that actual brewing records exist from this “dawn of civilization.” These records are written on clay tablets and come from the ancient culture of Sumeria and its descendants.

Professor Katz assured us that these tablets could be seen and studied, and thus we conceived the idea of attempting to brew a beer based on these recipes.

Hidden away among the details on Anchor’s 1988 Christmas Ale label is a hint of our early enthusiasm for this project, a tiny picture of two people drinking beer from a large jug through long straws.


This 6000-year-old design is the oldest known depiction and evidence of people enjoying beer together. We reproduced it on our Christmas label with the permission of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of our new brewhouse in August, 1989 we had been planning to brew something special. When the Institute for Brewing Studies asked us to make a special beer for the Micro Brewery Conference to be held in San Francisco that month, we knew, with the combination of circumstances, it was the perfect occasion to brew the Sumerian Beer!

After reviewing the available literature, and with Professor Katz’s assistance, we began to consider the questions involved. Gradually, a plan evolved. On the label of our Sumerian beer is the phrase “Essay, August, 1989″; this expresses the spirit of our effort. It is an attempt, a try, an essay.


We do not claim to be correct in all details, but we have made a sincere effort to bring the art and craft of today’s brewer to bear on the mystery of how the ancient beers of earliest man might have been made over 5000 years ago. There were many questions to be answered and many decisions to be made before we could brew. During this time we studied a number of documents and benefited greatly from the counsel and assistance of many people.

Our final plan was as follows: We would try to duplicate mankind’s earliest professionally brewed beer by using the “Hymn to Ninkasi” as our principal guide. This beautiful document dates from around 1800 BC and clearly describes the brewing process in its many phases while singing the praises of Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian Goddess of Brewing. Her name appears in English and Sumerian on our beer’s label. As we studied this beautiful poem, we were intrigued to find almost every detail had its counterpart in modern brewing practice. So many of the details ring familiar to a practical brewer’s ear. It was a joy to study this poem line by line, matching its imagery with modern brewing and malting. We used it as our basic structure, integrating Ninkasi’s brewing process into our own. We would follow it where we could understand it, and where there was a mystery or a question, we would answer it as best we could. If we deviated from it, we would know why. The English translation from Sumerian is by Professor Miguel Civil of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. To our great joy, we soon discovered that Professor Civil was not only willing to help us with our many questions, but he brought to our quest a spirit of cheerful enthusiasm that inspired us.

From this moment, we began to feel a thrilling link with brewers of ages past. There was a sense of awe as we began to use the ancient words of the Goddess Ninkasi familiarly. After many thousands of years, bappir, munu, lal, gestin and sim were discussed again in a brewhouse. Soon these ancient words began flying around the world by phone and by fax. We called Cairo and London and Chicago, Davis and Redding and Philadelphia. We consulted bakers and food technologists, grain millers and Sumerologists, farmers and archeologists. We learned that in Crete today shepherds bake special bread called “paximathia” from barley; in Sardinia there is a shepherd’s barley bread called “carasau”; in the Ukraine beer was once made using barley bread. We met a Polish archaeologist who had actually tasted the modern cousin of our brew, Bouza Beer, from Egypt. The search continued during the spring and summer, and we enjoyed the sense of integrating the brewing trade with the other trades, especially with that of scholars of the great Sumerian civilization.

Although the “Hymn to Ninkasi” dates from approximately 1800 BC, our goal was to duplicate a beer from an even earlier era, the earliest beer we could imagine being made in a professional brewery, at least 1000 years earlier than the poem. This was the reason for our decision to use barley as the only grain in our beer. Emmer wheat, and possibly other wheats, were used in small quantities, along with barley from very early times. We remain uncertain as to whether or not beers made only from barley would have been the earliest beers, but our hunch is that they were. In the poem we find the phrase: “. . . the piles of hulled grain. . .”, and we took this to mean various forms of barley such as malted, unmalted, and roasted.

Hops were apparently unknown at that time. From a brewer’s perspective this is very significant because today’s beers benefit enormously from the flavors and aromas of hops. Even in the most modern brewery today, hops have a beneficial effect on preventing spoilage of beers. There is inconclusive evidence of alternate flavorings or spices in the Sumerian beer. We chose to use none at all; however, a sweet substance of uncertain nature is mentioned twice in the hymn, so we used honey and dates because we believe these were the most likely.

To the modern brewer, the most interesting aspect of these ancient beers is that they were made from bread. Actually, as the hymn makes clear, the loaves of bread, “bappir,” were mixed with malted barley to form a mash and thus, just as in some modern breweries, the natural enzymes in the malt would convert other starch sources into sugar, forming a complex, sweet, unfermented wort. Our Sumerian scholars told us that this “bread” was not only used in brewing, but was also stored in government warehouses on the national highway system. For this and other reasons we gradually formed the opinion that the bread had to have been very dry if it would keep indefinitely. Baking experiments with barley, and advice from several sources, led us to conclude that this bread would have thus been “twice baked.”

We used a ratio of about one third “bappir” bread to two thirds malt in our mash. With hindsight, we would dare to use more bread. We think it would give our beer more flavor.

Other facts that may interest our fellow craft brewers are as follows:

Ninkasi-Bottle-100* Bread “bappir”: from barley, roasted barley, malted barley and honey
* Gravity: Original: 11.1 plato; Final: 2.6 apparent
* Alcohol: 3.5% by weight
* Mashed with typical “upward infusion” mashing temperatures
* Syrup of dates added to final mash
* Wort not boiled
* Wort cooled quite gradually to simulate lack of modern cooling
* Pitched with a standard top-fermenting yeast.

Anyone desiring further technical information may contact us.

Many people helped us with their advice and effort, and we wish to thank the following: 
Carol Field, Solomon Katz, Miguel Civil, Al Giusto, Martha Peterson, Marak Marciniak, Sotiris Kitriliakis, Wolfgang Heimpel, Terry Wilfong, Bob Moore, and Charlie Papazian.


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