(Our First Beer You Won’t Be Able to Experience at our Brewpub)
It started with a simple inquiry this past March.
Linda Pansing, Curator of Archeology at the Ohio Historical Center, sent me an email in March outlining a project that she’s working on. OHS acquired a mummy from Egypt in 1925 from Dr. J. Morton Howell, an Ohio native, who was the first US ambassador to Egypt. She has been on display since then, but very little is known about her.
It was decided that some investigation is in order, to learn what might be discovered. In June, 2012, OHS partnered with OSU Wexner Medical Center and delivered her for CT scanning.
According to Dr. Joseph Yu, she is a woman who appears to have been in relatively good health up to the time of her death. There is no indication of osteoporosis or diminished bone density anywhere in the skeleton, which, combined with features of the skull, indicate she died at an age of between 35 and 45. Few Egyptians of her time lived beyond the age of 40, so she had lived a relatively full life. She was 5 feet 2 inches tall, which was an average height for Egyptian women at that time.
She was an attractive woman with a symmetrical face and nearly perfect teeth. She did have some damage to one of her lower front teeth caused either by a minor fracture or a periodontal infection.
She was evidently a woman of some means, because her joints do not show the damage that is typical of people who have engaged in a lifetime of manual labor. There are some traces of osteoarthritis in the knee, feet, and hands, but this would have been normal for a woman of her age. She suffered from an infection at some point in her life, possibly histoplasmosis, since the scan revealed soft tissue calcifications in the lungs, lymph nodes, and abdomen. There are no signs of violent trauma, so she appears to have died of natural causes.
Women’s options in life were limited as evident by the paucity of female hieroglyphic symbols vs. men’s. Women were designated as wife of, daughter of, mistress of, concubine of, etc. while men’s symbols include the myriad of jobs they did. That being said we assert that females played a very valuable role, regardless of the lack of written recognition. In Ancient Egypt brewing was significantly important for providing needed nutrients to the family and this food preparation task was done by women. Whether she did brewing as an occupation is unknown but we feeling that it is highly likely she brewed for the sustenance of the family at some point in her life, if not on a regular basis.
I have seen the 3D images of her, and they are stunning.
Over the past year, OHC has been piecing together information about her. Their findings will culminate with an event on September 7. It’s called Evening with Amunet.
The simple inquiry to us: “Hum, I wonder if we could get someone to do a special event beer.”
My response was that this didn’t give us much time, but that we’re fascinated for the opportunity. I started researching the subject, and discussed the possibility with Angelo Signorino, Jr, our Brewmaster.
“This is way out of my comfort zone,” was his response. No kidding.
Since the request was pretty open-ended, it was up to us to determine what would be an appropriate beer. At the start, we outlined a few goals:
- The beer should reflect the character of what was actually brewed at that time;
- Follow the spirit of whatever brewing processes we would unearth from that time; and
- Develop a beer that would be palatable to today’s tastes.
During the following months, we found that any information about ancient Egyptian beer is sketchy and conflicting. We found that there have been a few attempts to recreate an ancient beer. Scottish & Newcastle Brewery did so in 1996, selling a very limited release of only 1,000 bottles, at $78 each. They haven’t released details of what made their beer “ancient,” though. Dogfish Head Craft Brewers came up with Ta Henket, using ancient techniques, but the yeast was obtained by flying to Egypt and catching wild samples from modern Egyptian air. More recently, Great Lakes Brewing Company recreated a 5,000 year old Sumerian beer using clay pots. They admit there was a lot of guessing going on.
So, what makes up an ancient Egyptian beer? We were able to uncover a few tidbits. The best known “recipe” for this beer comes to us in the form of a poem, inscribed in 1,800 BC and translated by Miguel Civil:
A Hymn to Ninkasi
Given birth by the flowing water ……,
tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja! Ninkasi,
given birth by the flowing water ……,
tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja!
Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.
Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.
Your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.
It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.
It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.
Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.
It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates.
Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates.
It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.
It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …
Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …
It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.
Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.
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You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.
You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.
It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
From this poem, we learn that the Egyptians knew some form of malting and fermentation. They likely malted their grain by partially baking barley bread loaves over an open fire and spreading the resultant product on reed mats. They used “sweet aromatics” as part of this process, so we know they used adjuncts, probably dates and herbs.
They mashed their malt using “honey and wine.” It is unlikely that they used much, if any, wine as we know it. Wine was made for the aristocrats, not to be consumed by the masses. Likewise, procuring and processing honey was laborious, hunting for it in the wilds. It is unlikely that it was used to make common beer. But the poem forms an underpinning to understanding the elusive ancient Egyptian beer.
From other readings, we learned that beer was brewed as a safer alternative to drinking water. Even back then, the Nile was polluted. We know that the Egyptian slave diet consisted of wheat and barley, both in the form of bread and beer, supplemented with peas, dates and grapes. Beans and meat were a luxury.
Now, about our journey to brewing the beer you’ll get to experience on September 7.
First, we never intended to duplicate what we think the beer was. We know that beer then was intended as a safer alternative to water. It fermented in clay pots, with spontaneous yeast for a relatively short time—perhaps just days. Hops would not be used in beer for another 6,000 years or so.
The result would have to be a rather sour, low alcohol beverage with little carbonation. Your modern palate would not recognize, nor likely appreciate, this concoction. We were uncomfortable brewing something that we knew would require spit buckets. But still, we were intrigued.
In collaboration with Actual Brewing Company and North High Brewing Company, we formulated a recipe, using a Belgian-style yeast.
Actual owns a pilot brewing system that’s ideal to test on-the-fly, but at the time, their brewery was busy getting ready to go into full scale production. That’s when we turned to North High Brewing Company as the third leg of this collaboration. They own a brew-on-premise operation where anyone can come in and brew their dream beer. It was an ideal setup for us.
One day in July, our Brewmaster Angelo Signorino, Jr and I met with Fred and the folks at North High Brewing to brew five variations on a theme. Others came to witness this event, including Victor Ecimovich III of Hoster Brewing Company and Dan Cochran from Four String Brewing Company, among others. It was a great play day.
Those test batches included combinations of coriander and lemongrass, both known to be indigenous to the area at that time. We know that the Egyptians had trade routes as far away as Greece and China, so we also experimented with bitter orange peel, black peppercorns and juniper berries. No hops were used.
Of the five batches, three were truly undrinkable. Think blue cheese hiding in your son’s used soccer socks. The fourth tasted like lemonade, only not so much. The fifth was actually pretty tasty.
But with only a month before Evening with Amunet, we had hardly an option to get the beer brewed. There simply wasn’t enough time. We had intended that the beer we’d brew to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Smokehouse in early August would have been this ancient ale. But that beer had to be brewed earlier this summer. We had no room in the schedule to squeeze this beer into our production schedule. Actual was busy with their production. What to do? Honestly, we thought everyone was out of luck, after all this time.
It turns out, though, that all was not lost. The beer we brewed for our anniversary celebration had a lot of the characteristics of what we were shooting for. That beer is on tap now at our brewpub, known as Sexy Sadie Sixty Season Saison.
It was brewed with barley and wheat (√) we included coriander and lemongrass, indigenous to ancient Egypt (√) and we added cracked black peppercorns, bitter orange peel and fresh ginger, available from ancient Egyptian trade routes (√.)
We used a French Saison yeast, which is as good a guess as anyone’s as to yeast origin. Remember, the Egyptians didn’t even know what was falling into their concoction. So, we actually had a reasonable backbone for riffing this into homage to ancient Egyptian beer.
We didn’t have a clay pot, so we used our exotic vessel, a used oak barrel. There, the beer matured for an additional month. To that barrel, we added bacteria to impart a sourness that certainly was some of the character of an ancient elixir.
The oak barrel not being authentic, we departed authenticity a couple other ways to make the beer more palatable. There are hops in this beer. We thought that since we’re not 100% authentic, why not make one more whimsical departure? We added black currants to the barrel. Black currants certainly would not have been available to the Egyptians, but it is a fruit, we had some on hand, and after all, black currants are B.C!
KA is ancient Egyptian for beer. We call our beer KA Amunet, our tribute to a remarkable lady who would be shocked to know that thousands of years later, she is not forgotten. It took awhile, but she finally got a beer named after her.
We actually think there’s a chance that Amunet could have been a brewmistress. Because she wasn’t born into nobility, and because she doesn’t appear shop-worn, she likely would have done something of value and great import to her society—like brewing beer.
What started with a simple request, then almost became the beer-that-wasn’t, ends up at the Ohio Historical Society as a feature to what looks to be a remarkable evening. Like the beer we’ll be serving, it’ll be part art; part science; part magic.
This beer will only be available at Evening with Amunet on September 7. Join us. Click here for details and ticket information.