A Toast to Our Fermented Past: Case Studies in the Experimental Archaeology of Alcoholic Beverages


Author with Neolithic sickle replica during the Ale Through The Ages Lecture Series

By: Kevin M. Cullen

 Archaeologists and historians are constantly in pursuit of the tangible human past, whether it is in the form of material culture or primary written sources.  This direct evidence of the past can still leave us disconnected from the full context in which the technology or writings were employed.  Therefore, one exciting field of research is experimental archaeology, in which the past literally comes alive though the step-by-step recreation process of an ancient technology, method, or even recipe. Thus, in an effort to make that intangible past more meaningful for the general public, in 2008 I began a brewing series in Milwaukee called Ale Through The Ages at Discovery World a nonprofit cultural institution located on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Relying on published data of ancient fermented beverages (Patrick McGovern, Delwan Samuel, Jeremy Geller, etc.), independent research, and the methods of experimental archaeology, to date we have recreated over thirty ancient and traditional fermented beverages from around the world.  More than a thousand people have attended these brewing programs, where participants are treated to a geographical, archaeological, botanical, chemical, and cultural overview of the recipe being recreated.  People then add the necessary ingredients to the brew at designated times and return two or so weeks later for bottling and sampling.


Ale Through The Ages Lecture Series at Discovery World

Since the earliest beginnings of human consciousness, we have sought to alter our cognitive perceptions for various cultural, political, or religious purposes. The most ubiquitous substance that provokes mind-altering effects is ethanol alcohol, derived naturally from yeast fermentation of sugars. Whether it was from honey, fruit, grain, tubers, or a combination thereof, humans have found nearly every way possible to turn nature’s bounty into one sort of fermented beverage or another.  What began as a happy discovery, led to a formalized institution of craft specialists who were also seen as alchemists that could combine ingredients of the earth with elements of fire, wind, and water to produce a fermented beverage that was refreshing, nourishing, and cognitively pleasing.  It can be argued that the production of beer in particular, played a critical role in spurring the transformation of wild grain gathering in western Asia to a more formalized system horticulture, which guaranteed more consistent crop yields (Janick 2002). This incentive in prehistoric societies to make more and different types of beer not only helped induce an agricultural revolution, but it played a critical role in all aspects of social life wherever it was imbibed.

For the purposes of this audience, I will focus on two experimental recipes, from ancient Egypt and ancient Anatolia.  Many different styles of beer were brewed throughout the long history of these regions; however, one ancient Egyptian recipe we brewed in a recent Ale Through The Ages program was based on archaeological evidence found at sites such as Hierakonopolis and Amarna (Geller 1989, Samuel 1996).  It must be stated that it is virtually impossible to create the exact same fermented beverages brewed by the ancient Egyptian brewers given the geographic and temporal differences between North America and Egypt, nevertheless, the botanical ingredients and brewing methods have not changed all that much.

Beer in Ancient Egyptian

Beer, called henqet (Hnq.t)     in Ancient Egyptian, was a vital staple in the diet of all social classes. An Egyptian brewer was called ‘fty  .  One could argue that the massive pyramids of Giza may not have been built without the daily rations of bread and beer for the laborers, which offered critical nutrients and caloric intake.  Moreover, pyramid texts at Saqqara (earliest ca. 2400 BCE) mention several different types of beer: “dark beer,” “iron beer”, “garnished beer”, “friends beer”, “beer of truth”, and “beer of eternity.”  Classical Greek writers called beer Zythos “to foam”, and the Greek writer Strabo wrote of Egyptian beer: “Barley beer is a preparation peculiar to the Egyptians, it is common to many tribes, but the mode of preparing it differs in each” (Geography).

Perhaps one of the most compelling discoveries of brewing beer in ancient Egypt comes from the ancient site of Hierakonpolis (City of the Hawk) in Upper Egypt. Excavations led by Jeremy Geller et al. beginning in 1989, yielded evidence of large scale brewing activities.  Known as the Vat Site (HK24), it dates to 3,500-3,400 BCE. The name comes from the discovery of six coarse ceramic vats in two parallel rows set within a mud platform.  This platform was likely originally covered with an ad hoc superstructure to contain heat.  It was estimated that each vat could hold about 16 gallons.  Hence the brewery could produce 300 gallons a week, allowing two days for fermentation in the vat. Residue analysis indicated that emmer wheat with dates and possibly grapes were added to provide the necessary sugars for fermentation.

Excavating Hierakonpolis 2007 Field Note 1: http://www.archaeology.org/interactive/hierakonpolis/field07/1.html

Our Ancient Egyptian Ale

A total of 25 gallons of Ancient Egyptian Ale was brewed for our Ale Through The Ages Ancient Egyptian ale class.  The original gravity turned out to be 1.062 (15˚ Plato) due to the addition of wheat malt barley malt and sweet dates. 12 gallons were fermented with a Bavarian Wheat yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) strain and another 12 gallons were fermented with natural yeasts present on Algerian dates (Phoenix dactylifera) that were put directly into the cooled wort.  Traditional fermentation in ancientEgypt likely occurred from wild yeast found on dates and/or grapes that were placed in fermentation vessels. Fermentation may also have taken place by adding previously fermented beer (which would have already contained yeast) into the fermentation vessels.

Ancient Egyptian Ale undergoing fermentation in Discovery World’s THIRST Lab

Not surprisingly, the commercial yeast took off right away and fermented down to a gravity of 1.008 in three days (i.e. 7% ABV).  Meanwhile, the batch with the wild date yeast underwent a slower fermentation and resulted in a soured flavor and a final gravity of 1.020. Finally, a small two gallon batch was fermented in a replica Egyptian earthenware jar.  A teaspoon of dry ale yeast was sprinkled on top of ale, which had an original gravity of 1.052 (12.5˚ Plato).  After three days its final gravity was 1.005 (i.e. 6% ABV).  For authenticity, this small batch of Ancient Egyptian Ale was served directly out of the ceramic container at room temperature and slightly carbonated. The result was a very clean and refreshing ale, similar to bread with hints of coriander and dates.  The batch fermented with Bavarian Wheat yeast was very palatable with bready notes and a champagne-like character. The batch fermented with the dates is certainly funky with apple cider and vinegar flavors overlaid on a malty sweetened date backbone.  Based on all of our experimentation, it is clearly evident that yeast/bacteria inoculation plays a critical role in the final result of the beer flavor. Nevertheless, we should all raise our glasses to the brewers of ancient Egypt, and may scientists and scholars continue to discover more insights into their prolific brewing tradition in the years to come.

Our Anatolian Ale

Alcohol in Anatolia is equally as ancient and arguably diverse as the Egyptian tradition. For instance, situated in an agriculturally rich valley and ideal for cereal grain cultivation, is the site of Gordion in north central Turkey. Of particular interest at this site were the remains of several buildings identified as possible breweries/bakeries, based on charred grains, germinated barley, grinders, ovens and ceramic vessels that are all indicative of beer brewing and consumption at Gordion (McGovern 2009). Specifically, evidence of an elite fermented beverage came from the residues found inside a large number of bronze vessels that were buried with a 60-65 year-old male who was laid to rest inside a wooden tomb, over which an enormous earthen mound was constructed.  Known as Tumulus MM (Midas Mound), this elaborate burial was believed to have been built for a Phrygian King, initially interpreted to be King Midas.  However, recent dendrochronology analysis of the tombs timbers indicate a construction date of 740 BCE, several decades before King Midas was known to have assumed the Phrygian throne. Therefore, it may be the burial of his father Gordios, after which the city became known.

Buried with this elderly king were 14 pieces of wood furniture believed to have been used as serving and dining tables for a funerary banquet eaten by the mourners during the burial ceremony. There were also three large bronze cauldrons that could hold at least a 150 liter capacity.  A lion-headed situla and a ram-headed situla were also discovered in addition to two jugs with long spouts, nineteen small jugs and at least 100 bronze drinking bowls. Upon closer scrutiny of the residues found inside these vessels, it was determined by Dr. Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania Museum that these residues included calcium oxalate which is indicative of barley fermentation, tartaric acid, which indicates grape wine, as well as beeswax compounds, which suggests a fermented honey or mead addition.  The resulting “Phrygian grog” as McGovern called it, was likely a braggot-style ale fermented with barley, grapes, honey, and the potential addition of saffron for color, taste and preservation (McGovern 2009:134).


Fermenting Anatolian Ale in Discovery World’s THIRST Lab

In February 2010 and again in October 2011, two experimental renditions of this ancient Anatolian ale were brewed for the Ale Through The Ages series, based on the molecular archaeological analysis of residues.  Therefore, using these molecular data and the availability of likely ingredients, I was able to construct a recipe for our experimental Anatolian Ale. The resulting beverage had an original Gravity of 1.074 which was fermented for three days at room temperature, before adding Muscat grapes. At 9% ABV, this beverage was a delightfully robust grape flavored ale, amber in color, with a mild smoky finish.  It gained both strength and character with age and became a crowd favorite for all who tried it.  This recipe and previous recipes we’ve created can be found on the Distant Mirror blog.

Anatolian Ale label

One reason for the great staying power of beer is that it entices our full range of human experiences: visual, audible, olfactory, and of course taste.  Combine all these together and the result is a neurological chain reaction that induces the euphoric and often sought after beer buzz. Tip another and our inhibitions become muted while our conversations become amplified. A common reward at the end of a laborious work day is often a beer, which is why it is affectionately known as “happy hour.”  Although, happy hour is not a new phenomenon, it has been around for thousands of years.  From the laborers that built the great pyramids of Giza to the countless armies from Mesopotamia or the soldiers of the American Revolution and beyond, all were incentivized by the provisions of beer.  Over the millennia and across the world, our beloved family of beer has evolved into one of the oldest and most diverse beverage categories on the planet.  Today beer continues to play an important role as a social lubricant and is abundantly evident at concerts, sporting events, family gatherings, even religious celebrations. Every time we take a sip of beer, we are literally imbibing our fermented past.  It is what connects us to our distant and more recent ancestors.  Cheers!

Kevin Cullen is an Archaeologist at Discovery World in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.



Samuel, Delwen 1996    Archaeology of Ancient Egyptian Beer.  Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists. Vol 54.

McGovern, Patrick 2009    Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages. University ofCalifornia Press

Janick, J. 2002    Ancient Egyptian Agriculture and the Origins of Horticulture. Acta Hort. (ISHS) 582:23-39 http://www.actahort.org/books/582/582_1.htm

Geller, J.R. 1989    Recent excavations at Hierakonpolis ant their relevance to predynastic production and settlement.  CRIPEL, II: 41-52, pls. 4-6.

Strabo c. 22 CE   Geography, XVII.i.52-53, ii.4-5; XVIII.i.12-13


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