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MODERN BREWERS RECREATE ANCIENT BEER

By Miguel Civil
The Oriental Institute, and the
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Linguistics,
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 132, Autumn 1991, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)



In 1950, A. Leo Oppenheim, soon to become Editor-in-Charge of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, published a large fragment of a cuneiform tablet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was a very substantial part of the 23rd tablet of the encyclopedic vocabulary HAR-ra=hubullu. This vocabulary is one of the more significant cultural contributions of Mesopotamian scribes, providing exhaustive lists of words referring to nature (trees, animals, birds, fish) and to material culture (wooden implements, metal objects, garments, etc.). The 23rd tablet is a list of about 350 lines with terms referring to a) soups and stews, b) brewing, and c) flours, breads and pastries.

Oppenheim's publications included a technological study of the over 160 terms dealing with the manufacture of beer. When I joined the staff of the Oriental Institute in the summer of 1963, the CAD team was preparing a volume of studies to be presented to Oppenheim in honor of his 60th birthday (June 7, 1964). I thought it appropriate to contribute an edition of two Sumerian drinking songs, preserved on clay tablets of the 18th century B.C. Two of the tablets had been known for some time (one had been published in 1913, the other in 1930), but the imperfect knowledge of literary and technical Sumerian at the time had prevented a successful translation. Two previous attempts, by J.D. Prince in 19196 and M. Witzel in 1938, had produced less than satisfactory results. A line that now even a first year Sumerian student will translate "you are the one who spreads the roasted malt on a large mat (to cool), was translated "thou real producer of the lightning, exalted functionary, mighty one!" by the first author, and "starkest du mit dem Gugbulug(-Tranke) den Gross-Sukkal" by the second.

Two developments during the fifties made possible a better understanding of Sumerian literature. In Chicago, Benno Landsberger was editing the Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon. In Philadelphia, where I had been working before 1963, Samuel Noah Kramer was busy making available to scholars as many literary tablets as possible from the collections in Philadelphia, Istanbul, and Jena. One of the tablets from Istanbul was a third version of the drinking songs later presented in the Oppenheim festschrift.

The Sumerian Brewing Methods

My own article remained a curiosity buried in scholarly publication until twenty-five years later, when it attracted the attention of Fritz Maytag, the president of the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco. A well-educated man with wide-ranging interests, he decided to experiment with the Sumerian brewing methods and to present the results at the annual meeting of the American Association of Micro Brewers. And so, after a careful analysis of the tablets to determine the real meaning of the text and the actual steps used in the brewing process, the brewers were able to taste "Ninkasi Beer," sipping it from large jugs with drinking straws as they did four millennia ago. The beer had an alcohol concentration of 3.5%, very similar to modern beers, and had a "dry taste lacking in bitterness," "similar to hard apple cider." In Mesopotamia hops were unknown and beer was brewed for immediate consumption, so the "Sumerian" beer did not keep very well, but everybody connected with the modern reconstruction of the process seems to have enjoyed the experience. At least I had the pleasure of having my translation commented on by a master brewer who saw through the difficult terminology and poetic metaphors, and confirmed the overall correctness of the translation.

Beer is an extremely ancient product. Some anthropologists have even claimed that barley was first cultivated not for bread but for beer. Although this opinion is far from commonly accepted, there is no doubt that when beer appears mentioned in cuneiform tablets of the third millennium, it is a traditional product whose origin is lost in the mists of time. It was certainly one of the stapes of the Mesopotamian table. Travelers carried brewing supplies to make beer on the road. The drink was used in cultic activities and was the most common base for medical potions. Even the gods, especially Enki, the Lord of Wisdom, drank beer and occasionally got drunk. One can even wonder of the scribes did not create the Lord of Wisdom in their own image. The goddess Ninkasi, for whom the modern beer was named, was the personification of beer and presided over its manufacture. Her hymn for the making of beer, and the original source consulted during the modern process, is printed below. The two songs in the hymn are always found together, though their contents differ. The first one, in four-line strophes, describes in poetic terms the step-by step process of Sumerian beer brewing, from the preparation and heating of barley mash to the fermentation of the liquid. The second part celebrates the containers in which the beer is brewed and served and includes the toasts unusual in tavern drinking songs.


If you would like to read more about Ninkasi beer, see Katz, Solomon H., and Fritz Maytag, "Brewing an Ancient Beer," Archaeology, July/August 1991, pp. 24-33.

The illustrations in this article were taken from the labels of Ninkasi beer, brewed by the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco.


Miguel Civil is Professor Emeritus of Sumerology.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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