July 3, 2016

In the Land of Israel, Beer Came Late

The following is my original English-language essay
titled "In the Land of Israel, Beer Came Late: 
Historical Brew Traditions in the Near East." 
It appeared in German translation in the catalog
for the "Beer is the Wine of this Land" exhibit in the 
Munich Jewish Museum, April 2016.

Jews and beer have a long history together, going back at least 3,000 years.  But others have been together with beer even longer.

In fact, archaeological evidence shows that beer was brewed in the Land of Israel only after it was well established in its neighbors to the north and south: Mesopotamia (the Fertile Crescent) and Egypt.  In these two great centers of early civilization, the climate and soil were excellent for the growing of huge amounts of grain, particularly barley and wheat.  Most of the harvest, of course, went to making bread and for eating as roasted grain.  But a quantity not much less was used for brewing beer.

The same conditions that made Mesopotamia and Egypt perfect for growing cereals, made them poor for growing grapes.  In Canaan, the Land of Israel, it was just the opposite: the cooler highlands and the soil were suitable for viniculture and other fruits, but less so for grain. 

So when we look at "national beverages," Israel was the country of wine, while Egypt and the Mesopotamian empires of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia were the lands of beer.

Egyptian agricultural scenes.
But the story of beer begins long before that.  In fact, we have to go back to the Neolithic period which, in the Near East, was about 9000 – 8000 BCE.  It was during this period that our forebears went from being hunters and gatherers to being farmers and herders.  In short, life changed from being nomadic to being sedentary. 

A bit later, grains were domesticated, including wheat and barley.  What makes perfect sense, even to historians, is that farmers might have left a vessel of harvested cereals out in the rain.  The moisture soaked out the sugars in the grain.  Wild yeast cells which were in the air fell into this mixture and began the perfectly natural process of spontaneous fermentation.  Within a short time, a day or two, the liquid would have turned into a sweetish, alcoholic mixture which we would call today "beer." 

We can also assume that our forgetful Neolithic farmers, whether in Egypt or the Fertile Crescent, actually tasted the stuff and enjoyed it.  They also probably liked the way it made them feel.  And so, the very human activity of drinking beer came to be.

Everyone drank beer, men and women, old and young.  It provided concentrated nutrients – calories, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals.  Even before boiling became a step in the brewing process, beer was safer to drink than water because the alcohol killed most of the pathogenic microbes. 

Throughout the ancient Near East, beer was thought to have curative powers.  It was used to treat coughs and swollen eyes, intestinal parasites, constipation and stomach pains.  While it's true that inebriation was always a problem lurking in the background, beers at the time were relatively low in alcohol, usually not surpassing 8% by volume, much lower than wine and spirits.

In the lands of Mesopotamia especially, beer culture was always quite strong.  We have a few images on clay tablets which depict people sitting around a bowl of beverage and drinking it through straws.  The oldest one is believed to be about 6,000 years old(!) and is from Sumer.  Most historians believe the drink to be beer.

The ode to the beer goddess Ninkasi,
including perhaps the oldest recipe for beer.
As far as written texts go, there are several legends, recipes and account sheets which relate to beer.  For example, there is a 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem which honors Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing.  (Most of the deities associated with brewing were feminine, but more about that later.)  This poem also contains the oldest surviving barley beer recipe.  Two of the lines are:


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

That's a lot of beer!

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian poem originally written in Akkadian, we see how beer is one of the elements which differentiates civilization from barbarism.  Enkidu, who was raised by animals and later becomes the close friend of the hero Gilgamesh, is introduced to human culture by the prostitute Shamhat:

 Enkidu does not know of eating food; of beer to drink he has not been taught. The prostitute opened her mouth.  She said to Enkidu: "Eat the food, Enkidu, [it is] the luster of life.  Drink the beer as is done in this land." Enkidu ate the food until he was sated; of the beer he drank seven cups.  His soul became free and cheerful; his heart rejoiced. . . . He anointed himself with oil.  He became human.

The Ebla Tablets discovered in Syria about 40 years ago are clay tablets, mostly written in Sumerian cuneiform, from about 4,500 years ago.  They tell us a lot about daily life in that city, including the production of beer.

About 4,000 years ago, the famous law code of King Hammurabi regulated the sale and the strength of beer.  For example, stiff fines were imposed on anyone selling beer at inflated prices. 

From the language, it was clear that this was referring to women innkeepers.  They were also warned that they had to accept grain as payment for beer, and not insist on silver.  Mesopotamian priestesses could not drink beer in public.  The code states:

          If a [priestess] who does not reside within the cloister should open a tavern or               enter a tavern for some beer, they shall burn that woman.

I doubt if public drinking has ever since had such a harsh penalty!

Even though priestesses and other women were denied access to taverns, they were among the most prominent brewers.  This was true when most beer was brewed in the home, of course, since women were in charge of the family's food and drink requirements.  Brewing was closely associated with baking bread because the ingredients were so similar: grain, water and perhaps other additives for flavor.

When brewing became industrialized, actually a big business, women also continued to work in the breweries.  Some temples also had their breweries, and these were staffed by the priestesses.  Other professions had their patron deities, but only those for beer brewing were goddesses, Ninkasi (the Sumerian goddess who covered the production of beer), Siris (the Mesopotamian goddess of beer and Ninkasi's daughter), and Siduri (who covered the enjoyment of beer). 

As the beer industry grew, male workers also joined in.  Several archaeological sites in Mesopotamia have revealed large quantities of vats, jugs and strainers, and these are assumed to be professional breweries.  Sumerian tablets found at Lagash and dating over 4,400 years ago report on the supply of grain to brewers and on the supply of the beer itself.  Some 60% of the cost of beer went towards wages, a proportion which is probably accurate even in modern breweries.

In other professions, a ration of beer was part of the wages.  A simple laborer in Sumer received approximately one liter of beer a day.  Low-ranking officials received two liters; officials of a slightly higher rank and women in the royal court got three; high-ranking officials took home five liters a day!  These quantities demonstrate that beer was indeed a major part of the average diet.  They also point to the fact that this beverage must have had a very low alcoholic content.  If not, all of Sumer would have been walking around inebriated every day!

With beer such a universal and accessible drink, there was a need for variety.  According to tablets relating to beer, Mesopotamians were familiar with at least eight different beers made from barley, eight brewed from wheat, and three which used a combination of grains. 

The use of hops as a flavoring in beer was unknown, since these were first used no earlier than the ninth century CE in Europe.  But beers were flavored with such additives as honey, date syrup, grapes, figs and sycamore.

The brewing process in Mesopotamia was different from modern brewing.  These days, the malted grain itself is steeped in water which then undergoes fermentation with yeast.  In the Fertile Crescent, there was an intermediate stage: baking the grain into loaves of bread.

This is how it worked: The grain was first steeped in water for two to three days.  The water was poured away and the softened grains began to germinate, releasing enzymes which converted the starch to sugars.  At this stage, the germination was halted by roasting the grain or just heating it in the Middle Eastern sun.  This process, called malting, is still basically done today as the first step in brewing.

But then the grain was ground, mixed with spices (or not) and baked into loaves of bread.  This intermediate baking process, some brewing experts claim, is akin to the modern day process of roasting the malt in kilns, where the dry heat prevents mold growth and assists the development of enzymes.   
When these loaves were crushed and left to soak in a vat of water, the fermentation process began.  After several days, this sweet liquid would drip through holes in the bottom of the vat into another container.  Here it would continue to ferment for a few more days as the alcoholic content rose.  And voila!  Beer.

What happened then?  There were no cans, no bottles.  Unlike wine, beer at the time could not be stored for long periods.  It had to be drunk as soon as possible after it was made.  The fresh beer was poured into ceramic vessels for transporting it to wherever there were drinkers: homes or taverns or temples.  The most common type of beer container in Mesopotamia was large and pear-shaped, and had to be rested on a stand. 

Drinking could be done alone, with food, or more usually, in social situations.  As was pointed out above, one of the more common clay depictions of social life in Mesopotamia (particularly on cylinder seals from the third millennia BCE) is two or more men sitting together and drinking beer with straws out of a common bowl.  The straws were necessary because seeds, straw, chaff and chunks of bread would usually be floating on the top of the beer, and the straws enabled the imbibers to get to the clear liquid underneath. 

For the wealthy, even beer-drinking straws could be signs of social status.  Gold straws were found in the royal tomb of the Sumerian lady Pu-abi in the city of Ur Kasdim, next to the silver vessel which probably held her daily beer ration.

Another clay tablet from Dur-Sharrukin, the capital of Assyria 2,800 years ago, shows four noblemen drinking their beer out of tankards without straws.  Apparently, this beer had been pre-strained, as befits the social class of the drinkers.


From all accounts of documentation (papyrus and wall hieroglyphics) and drawings, beer brewing and consumption was even more widespread in Egypt than in Mesopotamia.  Many Egyptologists are convinced that it was the production and distribution of grain for baking and brewing that supported the entire economic and political structure of ancient Egypt.  Witness the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, where the distribution of stored grain during a famine led to the concentration of all land into the hands of the Pharaoh.    

The earliest textual reference to beer is from the time of the Fifth Dynasty, around 2500 BCE.  The word used then was washenket, but beer generally was called heket or tenemu

There is evidence, however, that beer was brewed in the Nile Delta region even earlier, in the fourth millennium BCE.  Beer could certainly be called the "national drink" of ancient Egypt, the "wine of this land."  
Model of Egyptian beer brewers.
As in Mesopotamia, beer had a divine feminine source, in this case the goddess Hathor, called "the inventor of beer brewing" or the "Lady of Drunkenness."  There was an annual festivity at her shrine in Dendera, where unlimited supplies of beer were distributed to the pilgrims.  No doubt public drunkenness became a big problem.

Another legend has it the god Osiris, associated with fertility, death and resurrection, who taught the Egyptian forefathers how to brew beer.  And although Hathor may be closely associated with beer, it was actually Tjenenet who was the goddess of beer.  With polytheism, there is always a choice.    
People from all levels of society had their daily beer ration: from the Pharaoh and the nobility, to the common laborers, soldiers and even schoolchildren.  The basic daily ration of the "employed" workers who built the pyramids at Giza, for example, was five loaves of bread and two jugs of beer.  We're not sure if this included the "slave" laborers.   
To provide for all of this consumption, every Egyptian household had the necessary implements to brew its own beer.  As in Mesopotamia, brewing and baking were in the hands of the women.  In addition, quite a few sites have been found throughout Egypt which were clearly industrial-scale breweries.  These include Kahun, Tel el-Amarna, Kom el-Nana, and Hieraconpolis.   

In March 2015, workers at a building site in Tel Aviv discovered 17 storage pits for produce which were 5,000 to 5,500 years old.  The pits contained a 6,000-year-old dagger and flint tools, as well as animal bones and hundreds of pottery shards dating back 5,000 years. 

Some of the pottery was made with straw and other materials which link it to Egyptian vessels used for brewing beer.  This would make it the northernmost Egyptian site during the early Bronze Age, as well as the northernmost Egyptian brewery which was ever discovered. 

Were these vessels made in Egypt and imported to Tel Aviv, or were they made by Egyptians living in Tel Aviv?  Were the Egyptians living there making the beer only for themselves, or did they share it with the locals?  Archaeologists are still looking for these answers.

What we can assume, however, is that the Egyptian brewery in Tel Aviv used the same process as other Egyptian breweries and which is well portrayed on a wall painting from the tomb of the Egyptian official Ti at Sakkara, dating back to the third millennium BCE. 

An Egyptian depiction of the
various steps in brewing beer.
Here we can see and read each stage in the beer brewing process: Storing the grain in silos; crushing the grain with large mortars and pestles; grinding the grain on flat stones (done by men and women workers) and sifting the flour; adding water and kneading the dough into loaves; pressing the loaves through a sieve to break them up and soaking them in water; pouring this mixture into pans which are then stacked up and baked; crumbling the baked loaves and adding leavening and water; kneading this mixture and leaving it to ferment; straining this liquid, which is now fresh beer, into a vat, and then pouring it into clay vessels which are then sealed with conical stoppers.

Whew!  How much experimentation, trail-and-error, and human intelligence must have gone into perfecting this process?  And all to produce a better cup of beer!

Harvesting grain.
The grain used to make this beer was either barley or emmer wheat, the main wheat variety grown in Egypt during the Pharaohs.  Quite a few types of Egyptian beers are mentioned, including dark beer, date beer, sweet beer, iron beer (perhaps having a red or rusty color), thick beer, garnished beer, and friend's beer. 

There was also "beer of eternity," which was placed in tombs to accompany the deceased to the afterlife.  It didn't have to taste very good – just have a long shelf life.  On one wall painting from Dendera, the deceased is pictured sitting on his chair while his wife offers him a jug of beer with the words: "Refreshing beer from your cellar, for your Ka, the sustaining vital powers."

The Land of Canaan/Israel

When we come to the Land of Canaan/Israel, archaeological evidence of beer brewing is much harder to find.  We have no recipes of brewing or allocation of beer, no pictures or clay tablets of noblemen or women drinking beer with a straw, no paintings of how to brew beer, no patron deities of brewing, no poems or epic adventures involving beer, and no sites attesting to industrial brewing (except those belonging to foreign invaders!).      

Even the earliest vessels associated with brewing – pottery jugs, baking pans, large vats, large mixing bowls (kraters), and pottery vessels with a single hole in the bottom for straining – were mostly all found in areas which were controlled and inhabited by Egyptians!  Beginning from the late fourth millennium BCE, these objects were found in En Besor and Deir el-Balah near Gaza and at Arad in the Negev Desert.

Also reflecting possible Egyptian influence are the findings of bronze straw strainers at Gezer, Megiddo and Tell el-Ajjul in Gaza.  These unusual implements, which are assumed to have been attached to the bottom of drinking straws, are from the Middle Bronze Age, 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.      

But what about the "natives" – the Canaanites, the Philistines and the Israelites?  Here, it's not until the Iron Age, "only" 3,000 years ago, that we find any evidence of beer brewing and drinking.  Instead of sitting around drinking beer through straws, the inhabitants of Canaan had individual beer jugs.  The unfiltered beer was poured into the top of these jugs.  The drinker held the jug by a handle and drank the beer through a spout which came out of the side of the vessel.  Very convenient. 

But what made the beer jug special was that the beer was filtered through holes in the clay before it traveled down the spout and into the mouth.  In some examples of these jugs, there was a ceramic strainer in the top as well, so that the raw beer was filtered twice: once when it was poured into the jug, and again just before it was drunk. 

Jugs like these were used by the Philistines and the Canaanites/Israelites.  The only archaeological differences we can see is that the Philistine jugs were better crafted and had extensive painted decoration, while the Canaanite/Israelite jugs were somewhat cruder.  But they both functioned in the same way – to give the imbiber a pleasant, clean and tasteful experience while enjoying beer.

Whatever else is known about the beer-making and beer-drinking habits in the Land of Israel is found in the Tanach, also known by Jews and Christians as the Bible, and in the Talmud, the record of rabbinic teachings compiled between the first and the seventh century of the common era.  And that is covered in the next essay.    


Dayagi-Mendels, Michal.  Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times.  Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1999. 
History of Beer.  Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_beer
Hornsey, Ian S.  A History of Beer and Brewing.  Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.
Horst Dornbusch, (August 27, 2006).  Beer: The Midwife of Civilization.  Assyrian International News Agency (Online)
Smith, Gregg.  Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries.  New York: Avon Books, 1995.


  1. This is really interesting and I have been looking at trying to find out more. Have you heard of Patrick McGovern?

    1. Yes. Very amazing work, if you like that chemical analysis stuff. My son, who is getting his Ph.D. in Archaeology this Thursday (Yay!), has used the services of bio-molecular archaeologists to determine what's been in vessels and garbage dumps.


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