Beer making in ancient Egypt
One of the themes of Blavatsky is the superior knowledge of the ancients.
Regarding the ancient Egyptians she says "Their beer must have been
strong and excellent - like everything they did." Now archeological
research proves she was right again.
The first major book by Blavatsky was Isis Unveiled. It was not
so much a book of esoteric teachings - though many such teachings lie half
hidden within it - as an opening gong to awaken the thought of the time.
One of the goals for the book she asserts in the preface:
It [the book Isis Unveiled] demands for a spoliated past,
that credit for its achievements which has been too long withheld. It calls
for a restitution of borrowed robes, and the vindication of calumniated
but glorious reputations. (Isis Unveiled, Preface v.)
In this direction, ancient Egypt deserves special attention and receives
it in Vol I, Chapter XIV entitled "Egyptian Wisdom". At the outset
of that chapter she notes another writer observing how the civilization
and knowledge of ancient Egypt do not progress and grow as with other nations
but are found in place at the outset of that nation's history.
How came Egypt by her knowledge? ... "Nothing," remarks the
same writer, whom we have elsewhere quoted, "proves that civilization
and knowledge then rise and progress with her [with ancient Egypt] as in
the case of other peoples, but everything seems to be referable, in the
same perfection, to the earliest dates. That no nation knew as much
as herself, is a fact demonstrated by history."
Then Blavatsky gives her explanation:
May we not assign as a reason for this remark the fact that until very
recently nothing was known of Old India? That these two nations, India
and Egypt, were akin? That they were the oldest in the group of nations;
and that the Eastern Ethiopians - the mighty builders - had
come from India as a matured people, bringing their civilization with them,
and colonizing the perhaps unoccupied Egyptian territory? (Isis Unveiled
In the course of Blavatsky's subsequent writings she gives a variety
of arguments for the ancient age and source of Egypt's civilization and
knowledge. As a result of 20th century science we can give more. At this
point in Isis Unveiled she makes her point by reviewing item after item
of superior knowledge of ancient Egypt.
It happens that a few weeks before BN came to life on the internet, news
was released of yet another item of ancient knowledge of Egypt that had
been superior to what had been previously thought. Furthermore it had not
escaped the notice of Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled. Though students may differ
on the value of the knowledge in question, we present some information on
the brewing of beer.
Egypt pressed her own grapes and made wine. Nothing remarkable in that,
so far, but she brewed her own beer, and in great quantity - our Egyptologist
goes on to say. The Ebers manuscript proves now, beyond doubt, that the
Egyptians used beer 2,000 years B.C. Their beer must have
been strong and excellent - like everything they did. (Isis
Unveiled I p. 543)
Coincidentally, three months ago Nautral History published
a half whimsical article that commented on the difficulty of originally
Long ago I was interested in microbiology and gained a diploma in zymurgy
(if you need to, look it up - it's on the last page) from a reputable British
institution. The more I learned about the chemistry and biology of winemaking
and brewing, the more I was amazed at their history. Making
wine, in fact, is easy, even inevitable. Put a bunch of grapes
in a container and, chances are, some yeast cells will settle in and you'll
wind up with wine. The same for mead, made from honey water.
Beer is another matter. To make beer you
moisten barley (or some other grain), keep it moist until it germinates,
then heat the grain to stop the germination (the result is called malt),
and finally add water and yeast so the malt sugars ferment. At first blush
this procedure doesn't appear to be the kind of thing one would stumble
on by accident. (Natural History 5/96 p. 24)
Blavatsky's statement that "Their beer must have been strong and
excellent - like everything they did" has now been confirmed by just
released archeological findings.
In Ancient Egypt, the Beer of Kings Was a Sophisticated Brew by John
Noble Wilford, New York Times International A9, 7/26/96
No temple friezes and certainly no billboards proclaimed it the king
of beers, but it was the beer of pharaohs, and of their workers whose labors
on pyramids and stately tombs were rewarded with a generous flow of the
brews that made ancient Memphis or Thebes famous.
Artistic depictions and written sources attest to beer's popularity
in early Egypt. The elite and hoi polloi alike enjoyed beers
with names like Joy Bringer, the Beautiful and Heavenly. They
drank through tubes from ceramic cups and sometimes did not know when to
say when. An Egyptian papyrus of 1400 B.C. warned of the dangers of loose
talk "in the taverns in which they drink beer."
Scholars have not been sure how the Egyptians brewed
their beer. In some temple art, it appeared that beer was made
by crumbling bread into water and letting it ferment by yeast from the
bread, yielding a coarse liquid swimming with chaff. But
a researcher at Cambridge University in England has now examined beer residues
and desiccated bread loaves from Egyptian tombs and found evidence of much
more sophisticated brewing techniques in the second millennium B.C.
In a report being published today in the journal Science, Dr. Delwen
Samuel, a research associate in archeology at Cambridge, said
"the current conceptions about ancient Egyptian bread and
beer making should be modified." A microscopic analysis
of beer residues, she said, indicated a more elaborate
brewing process, blending cooked and uncooked malt with water
and producing a refined liquid free of husk.
The microstructure of the residues Dr. Samuel concluded, "is remarkably
similar to that of modern cereal foods."
In an accompanying article, Dr Glynis Jones, a researcher at the University
of Sheffield in England, who studies cereal-processing methods, said the
findings were "the first real scientific evidence
for the ancient brewing techniques."
The study was possible because It was the practice of ancient Egyptians
to leave food and beer in their tombs for sustenance in the afterlife and
the arid climate preserved those remains. Dr. Samuel examined with optical
and electron microscopes nearly 70 loaves of bread from several sites and
beer residues from more than 200 pottery vessels found among the ruins
of workers' villages.
Almost all of the bread was made from a type of wheat known as emmer,
sometimes flavored with coriander and fig. Both emmer and barley - not
barley alone, as previously thought - were used for brewing. No flavorings
have been detected in the beer residues.
An analysis of starch granules, in particular, showed that the Egyptians
did not use lightly baked bread as the main ingredient in brewing. Instead,
they seemed to use a two part process. The grains were deliberately sprouted
and heated to provide sugar and flavor. The cooking made the grain more
susceptible to attack by the enzymes that convert starch into sugars. This
batch was then mixed with sprouted but unheated grains in water. Yeast
was added to the combination of sugar and starch in solution, and this
fermented to make beer.
Earlier this year, Dr. Samuel and Dr. Barry Kemp, a Cambridge Egyptologist,
in collaboration with a British brewery, brewed an ale according to the
recipe inferred from this recent research. The beverage was slightly cloudy
with a golden hue.
"It does not taste like any beer I've ever tried
before," Dr. Samuel said. "It's very rich, very malty and has
a flavor that reminds you a little of chardonnay."
Perhaps the ancient Egyptians had found a way to please both beer drinkers
and the white wine crowd.