Discover the Oldest Beer Recipe in History From Ancient Sumeria, 1800 B.C.

Ninkasi Tablets

Image courtesy of Lock, Stock, and History

Beer, that favorite beverage of football fans, frat boys, and other macho stereotypes—at least according to the advertisers—actually has a very long, distinguished heritage. It’s older, in fact, than wine, older than whiskey, older perhaps even than bread (or so some scholars have thought). As soon as humans settled down and learned to cultivate grains, some 13,000 years ago, the possibility for fermentation—a naturally occurring phenomenon—presented itself. But it isn’t until the 5th century, B.C. that we have sources documenting the deliberate production of ale in ancient Sumeria. Nonetheless, beer has been described as the “midwife of civilization” due to its central role in agriculture, trade, urbanization, and medicine.



Beer became so important to ancient Mesopotamian culture that the Sumerians created a goddess of brewing and beer, Ninkasi, and one anonymous poet, smitten with her powers, penned a hymn to her in 1800 B.C.. A daughter of the powerful creator Enki and Ninti, “queen of the sacred lake,” Ninkasi is all the more poignant a deity given the role of women in ancient culture as respected brewers. The “Hymn to Ninkasi,” which you can read below, not only provides insight into the importance of this custom in Sumerian mythology, but it also gives us a recipe for brewing ancient Sumerian beer—the oldest beer recipe we have.

Translated from two clay tablets by Miguel Civil, Professor of Sumerology at the University of Chicago, the poem contains instructions precise enough that Fritz Maytag, founder of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, took it upon himself to try them. He presented the results at the annual meeting of the American Association of Micro Brewers in 1991. The brewers, writes Civil, “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.’” A challenge to all you home brewers out there.

Unfortunately, Maytag was unable to bottle and retail the recreation, since ancient Mesopotamian beer “was brewed for immediate consumption” and “did not keep very well.” But what Civil learned from the experiment was that his translation—in the hands of a master brewer “who saw through the difficult terminology and poetic metaphors”—produced results. Below, see the first part of the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” which describes “in poetic terms the step-by-step process of Sumerian beer brewing.” A second part of the hymn “celebrates the containers in which the beer is brewed and served” and “includes the toasts usual in tavern and drinking songs.” You can read that joyful text—which includes the line “With joy in the heat [and] a happy liver”—on page 4 of Professor Civil’s article on the Hymn.

 

Hymn to Ninkasi (Part I)
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished it’s walls for you,

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

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Listen to the Oldest Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Vonnie says:

    To me, it reads more like it was intended to be an ode to the beer makers than a recipe.

  • matt says:

    Chateau Jihau’s recipe from Dogfish Head dates back 9,000 years…1,800 BC is a young ‘un.

  • gruff says:

    We have no texts from 9000 years ago matt so there’s no way there’s a beer recipe that old.

  • Jimbo Jones says:

    Correct…DFH didn’t use a recipe, the used a microbiologist named Dr. Patrick McGovern who analyzed residue samples from a 9000 old Chinese tomb.

  • Sunwoo says:

    Apparently the ‘recipe’ was found by analyzing pottery found in Neolithic China. Not a written recipe, but a list of ingredients!

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