Did Sumerians Really Produce Beer?
January 18, 2012

Did Sumerians Really Produce Beer?

Even though there is evidence of Ancient Sumerians having the ingredients to make beer - barley, malt and emmer (a type of wheat) - there is no textual evidence of the processes used to make the mysterious brew.

Peter Damerow (1939-2011), a historian of science and cuneiform writing from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, examined the beer brewing technologies of the Sumerians in a scholarly paper, casting doubt on the myth that what they brewed was even beer.

There are many 4,000 year old cuneiform texts that record deliveries of the ancient beer ingredients to breweries. They also document the activities going on at the breweries, but what is left out is the recipe and production process. Damerow says the texts were more than likely written to an audience familiar with the processes. The texts were not meant to teach the modern reader about ancient brewing.

Also the Sumerian bureaucrats used different numbering systems when recording this information, depending on what was measured or counted.

The administrative texts never count the Sumerian “beer bread” or “bappir” as bread but as measuring units like ground barley. The texts show that the central administration maintained the exact amount of raw ingredients to the brewers over long periods of time. According to Damerow this high degree of standardization makes it difficult to base any recipes on the ingredients.

Even the mythological poem the “Hymn of Ninkasi” that glorifies the brewing of beer does not provide any insight about the components and steps to the ancient brewing process. Damerow states the procedure for brewing is not conclusively described.

The poem offers no insight on how the germination of the malt was interrupted at the correct moment. Researchers only speculate that the barley was layered and the germination was stopped by heating and drying the grain as soon as the root embryo was the right size.

Damerow even mentioned that the results of the Tall Bazi experiment, where a group of archeologists made an experimental brew meant to reconstruct the ancient brewing processes, must be treated with skepticism. He says the results only show that modern methods can be used to produce a beer under the same conditions that were prevalent at Tall Bazi.

In the paper published in the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, Damerow asks if it is possible to compare ancient products with modern ones. He wrote, “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.”

Was the drink more similar to kvass, the Eastern European bread drink? Or was it like a pilsner or wheat beer?


Image Caption: Archaic writing tablet from Mesopotamia (approx. 3000 B.C.): The tablet which contains proto-cuneiform writing, belongs to the most ancient group of written records on earth. It contains calculations of basic ingredients required for the production of cereal products, for example, different types of beer. © M. Nissen, 1990


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