Beer and Wine
Beer and Wine
Sources. Beer was a staple for all Egyptians, while wine was the drink of choice for the elite. Scholars have learned about the use of beer and wine from archaeological evidence and tomb art. There are both paintings and small wooden models that depict beer making. Tomb paintings also illustrate winemaking.
Origins of Beer. The Egyptians made beer in the Predynastic Period (circa 3100-3000 b.c.e.) and perhaps even earlier. Evidence comes from Hierakonpolis, where archaeologists have discovered large ceramic vats that contained a residue they believe was created during brewing. The residue contained wheat chaff fixed in a clear substance. Ash and charcoal surrounded the vat, and the vat’s sides were reddened. Since beer processing includes heating grain until it ferments, this evidence suggested that the vat was part of a beer-making site.
Brewing. Beer results from the fermentation of grain, which contains starch. A microorganism, such as yeast, acts on the starch, changing it first to sugars and then to alcohol. This process is speeded by heating the ingredients. Brewing is the management of this process. Egyptologists have offered two hypotheses for the way Egyptians made beer. The older consensus view is that Egyptian beer started with bread that was leavened but not baked sufficiently, so that the yeast was killed. The
bread was then crumbled over a sieve, washed with water, and then fermented in a vat. Many scholars believe that either dates or malt (barley) was added to the vat at some time in the process.
New Theory. British archaeobotanist Delwen Samuel has studied ancient Egyptian beer residue through an electron microscope, which has allowed him to identify the ingredients and changes in the structure of the ingredients. These changes suggest the procedure that was followed. The Egyptians seem to have combined sprouted grain with grain cooked in water. The sprouted grain contained enzymes that attacked the starch dispersed in the water of the cooked batch. The enzymes created sugar in the water. Then the mixture was sieved, and yeast and perhaps lactic acid was added to the liquid. These two ingredients converted the sugars to alcohol. There is no evidence of dates or other additives. This method also resembles beer making in other parts of Africa.
Beer Consistency. Egyptian beer was not clear like modern commercial beer. It was cloudy and contained remains of the grain that was its major ingredient. Samuel points out that it was rich in complex carbohydrates, fatty acids, amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. It had a high caloric value and a relatively low alcohol content. It was a major source of calories in an Egyptian’s daily diet.
Wine Originally Imported. Syrian jars that archaeologists have found in Predynastic sites suggest the origin of wine brought to Egypt. Grape wine was probably an import from Syria, dating to the Predynastic Period. The Egyptians must have imported grape vines soon after the introduction of Syrian wine and adopted their techniques of making it.
Winemaking. Tomb paintings from the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) through the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) depicted winemaking in Egypt. Grapes were collected in large vats and crushed with bare feet. Vineyard workers then transferred the juice to a new container and let it ferment for a few days. Then workers strained the juice and transferred the slightly fermented liquid to large jars. They covered the opening of the jar with stoppers made of woven reeds covered with mud. A small hole in the stopper allowed carbon dioxide to escape. Once fermentation was complete, the winemakers sealed the jars, which were usually long and narrow at the bottom. Two handles were attached to the shoulder of each jar, and the container was placed in a stand. The narrow bottom allowed residue to collect. By tipping the jars in the stands, servants could more easily pour wine into cups. Inscriptions in ink identified the vineyard, year, and quality of the wine—ranked from good to best.
Red or White? Red wine includes the grape skin, while white wine does not. Egyptologist Mu-Chou Poo believes that the grape skin remained in the mixture long enough to color the wine red. Some references in texts, for example, refer to wine as being red. The Egyptians named wine according to the vineyard where it was made, as is common in modern Europe. Popular wines were “Wine of the Eastern Delta,” “Wine of Pelusium,” and “Wine of Lower Egypt.” As these names show, the delta, or northern Egypt, was home to most vineyards.
Prices and Consumers. In the Ramesside Period (circa 1292-1075 b.c.e.) wine cost five times more than beer. Thus, wine was the upper-class drink, while all Egyptians included beer as part of their diet. Priests also offered wine to the gods and to deceased wealthy Egyptians. Wine was also associated with the goddess Hathor, who was celebrated in a “Festival of Drunkenness.”
Poo, Wine and Wine Offerings in the Religion of Ancient Egypt (London & New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995).
Delwen Samuel, “Beer,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, volume 1, edited by Donald B. Redford (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 171–172.
Samuel, “Investigation of Ancient Egyptian Baking and Brewing Methods by Correlative Microscopy,” Science, 273 (1996): 488-490.