Egyptian Beer Brewing; Practices, Uses, and History

Egypt may not have invented the practice of domesticated fermentation, but they did document it extremely well, and execute it to perfection. Acquiring the practice from the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, Egypt continually evolved the process and left depictions of it in numerous vaults, murals, and other monuments all over the land. Brewers were held in very high regard, as beer was as much a part of everyday life as food and water, for both the rich and poor alike.

Egyptians believed that beer was invented by the sun god, Re, as he was regarded as the source of life. As the story goes, Re, the god of the sun, along with his wife, Nut, the goddess of the stars, had a daughter named Hathor. Hathor was beautiful and alluring, and Re lusted after her (of course early Egyptians did not have taboos regarding incest). Hathor would disrobe for Re, and when she drank beer, she became the “goddess of love, lust, joy, singing, dancing, and laughter.” Hathor’s brew was known as an aphrodisiac, which contained mandrake bark that elicited a narcotic effect. Lovers would often meet under her sacred sycamore tree and share in this intoxicating and exciting effect.

Beer was also a great way to preserve abundant grains. Egyptians regarded it as food, and along with bread became an Egyptian “meal” depicted as an early hieroglyph. Beer, bread, dried fish, and onions was a staple meal all Egyptians shared. Beer, much like other crafts, became varied, with some being regarded as finer than others. In all, eight types of beer emerged in Egypt, made of barley and emmer, and flavored with many things including ginger and honey; all containing various alcohol strengths. The finest beers were often brewed to a color of red that resembled human blood.

Brewing eventually became a monopoly of the state, and only those that obtain brewing licenses were allowed to participate. Beer was often used in religious ceremonies and during five week long feasts honoring Hathor. During these feasts, unrobed dancers would perform erotic dances wearing just a string of hollow, pebble filled pearls around their waist. As the spectators became increasingly intoxicated, the rhythmic sounds of the pearls, combined with the eroticism of the dancers and the music became amplified. This practice was used to create a connection between Egyptians and the heavens and to celebrate and appreciate the mystery of life and death. Hathor was also considered to be a “friend of the dead,” and “accompanied (them) on their journey to the beyond.” Because of this, during the feast, crocks of beer were also given to the dead to help them on their journey. Not only was it common to drink until well intoxicated, it was considered rude not to. Wealthy Egyptians would often be carried home by two slaves in a hammock after a trip to a tavern or banquet.

Beer was also a common currency and was used to pay craftsmen, religious priests, and government officials. Every Egyptian was entitled to a regulated amount of beer daily. For example, a queen could have two crocks of beer and ten loaves of bread a day, while a princess could only have one crock for her ten loaves. Royal guards would receive twenty loaves as well as two crocks of beer, and slaves would receive two or three loaves of bread, yet two crocks of beer as it was considered “the nectar of the gods” that even slaves were entitled to.

By the time Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, high-end brewing techniques were so well established that they survived well through the “wine-drinking” Greek rule. In fact, Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian historian once wrote “They make a drink from barley in Egypt, which is called zytum, and it compares not unfavorably in pleasantness of color and taste to wine.”

After centuries of being tax free, Cleopatra VII finally levied a tax upon beer to finance her wars. This was so outrageous to Egypt, that it would compare to a tax on water today. Publicly she declared this as a way to decrease drunkenness. While many people think of Cleopatra’s foreign affairs and sexuality first. beer drinkers will always remember her as the originator of the alcohol tax.

Unfortunately, after Egypt’s fall to the Romans, breweries gave way to bakeries. Romans, who did not have a taste for beer, converted the Nile valley into a granary for Rome, and well established, high quality brewing practices declined immensely. Later, as Islam washed over Egypt, the last of these brewing practices was lost forever, only to be immortalized on the walls of ancient buildings and tombs all along the mighty Nile.