Saturday, 11 February 2017

Pseudo-Sumerian beer: the first experiment

Last year I made Sumerian beer, using a recipe from 1800 BCE.  It was good stuff, so I decided to try modernizing the recipe.  The aim of the game here isn't to recreate Sumerian beer, but to create a modern style that retains the characteristics of Sumerian beer while being more appealing to 21st century beer drinkers (i.e. me).  Mostly, that means carbonating it.  Last year's Sumerian beer was quite drinkable, but I would have preferred it to be carbonated and I would also have liked just a hint of hops.  The Sumerians didn't have hops, but I like them, especially the aromatic types like Tettnang and Cascade.

Pseudo-Sumerian beer

As you can see, the pseudo-Sumerian beer is a dark amber colour with a moderate head.  The taste is malty with a hint of caramel from the dates and some nice Amarillo top notes.  I chose Amarillo hops because they're not too overpowering and have a delicate citrus flavour that works well with dates, which were an important ingredient in Sumerian beer.  The hop flavour is not especially strong, but it's enough to cut through the sweetness of the malt and provide a bit of complexity.

Like the original Sumerian beer, this recipe uses barley malt, dates, and bappir.  Making bappir does take time and adds an extra step to the brewing process, but without it the beer wouldn't taste the same and you can make it ahead of time.  I described how I make bappir in this post - it's just malted barley, a little bit of spice, and some date honey mixed into a dough and then baked.

This batch came out at around 3% alcohol by volume, because I screwed up.  I hadn't used Black Rock malt before and didn't realise that you're supposed to use two cans for a 23 liter recipe, not just one.  However, there are occasions where you might want a low alcohol beer and this is a good choice.  It tastes much better than most of the light beers you can buy in Australasia.

Pseudo-Sumerian beer (PSB) recipe

500 grams bappir
250 ml date honey, which is dates that have been soaked in hot water and pureed - dried dates are fine and much cheaper than fresh ones
1 can Black Rock Amber liquid malt extract - please note that this should actually be two cans if you want a full strength beer
500 grams The Brew House light dried malt extract*
50 grams Amarillo hops, boiled for 1 hour
1 sachet dried ale yeast - you can get away with using bread yeast

The bappir needs to be mashed, but this is fairly simple.  You just crumble it into a ceramic casserole dish, cover it with boiling water, and leave it with the lid on for an hour.  Using a ceramic casserole dish keeps the heat in and thus helps extract the sugar from the bappir.

Strain the bappir mash into a 10 - 15 liter pot, then add three liters of hot water, both cans of amber malt extract, the date honey, and the dried malt extract.  Make sure the malt extracts are fully dissolved, then boil the wort until the protein break occurs and foam forms on top.  You'll also want to boil your hops while you prepare the wort.  After the wort has boiled you can strain the boiled hops into it, tip it into your fermenting barrel, top it up with cold water to make 23 liters (or 6 gallons if you're American), and pitch your yeast once it reaches the right temperature.

There are two key differences between this pseudo-Sumerian beer and real Sumerian beer.  One difference is the inclusion of hops, and the other is that I fermented my PSB a lot longer than the Sumerians probably did.  As I discussed in a previous post about Sumerian beer, I don't think the Sumerians used secondary fermentation.  They did not know how fermentation works, and may not even have understood the concept of secondary fermentation.  Since their brewing conditions would not have been very sanitary by 21st century standards, they may also have found it was unwise to leave their beer fermenting any longer than a couple of days.

Secondary fermentation starts to occur about three days into the fermentation process.  By then the yeast has consumed most of the sugar in the wort and has produced almost all the alcohol it's going to produce.  It then starts to metabolise more complex carbohydrates, which improves the taste of the beer and helps get rid of any off flavours.  Secondary fermentation is therefore an important part of the modern beer making process.  I left my pseudo-Sumerian beer to ferment for two weeks to ensure it got a secondary fermentation, then bottle conditioned it for a further two weeks.

Feel free to substitute other brands of malt extract.  You just need an amber malt and a little light malt to supplement it. 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Commemorating 500 years of the Reinheitsgebot

2016 has been an eventful year, and at this point the one thing I think most of us can agree on is that we could do with a beer.  With that in mind, I'm sharing my recipe for traditional Bavarian style wheat beer.  I've been perfecting the recipe this year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot.

The Reinheitsgebot ("purity order" in German) is a piece of legislation adopted in Bavaria in 1516 that regulated what ingredients could be used in beer.  To some extent it was health and safety legislation, because in 1516 preventing beer from going off was a serious problem.  Brewers experimented with various additives in an attempt to increase their beers' shelf life, and unfortunately these additives were sometimes toxic.

The Reinheitsgebot stayed in force until 1987, when the EU rightly determined that it was an objectionable barrier to free trade, but its legacy still dominates the global beer market.  Most German beer is still brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot's specifications, and even here in Australasia most commercially produced beer complies with the purity order.  It has become part of the German beer tradition.

Originally the law required beer to contain only barley, water, and hops*, but German beer drinkers quickly found this list was too restrictive.  It effectively outlawed a number of traditional German beer styles that used different ingredients, including wheat beer.  So the list of permitted ingredients was expanded, and the first exception to be made was wheat.

My wheat beer recipe is a traditional Bavarian style, and doesn't comply with any version of the purity law because it contains honey and spices.  It isn't a historical recipe, in fact it's an extract recipe** rather than an all-grain recipe, but it tastes great.  It's a bold, full flavoured wheat beer with citrus top notes and smokey, honeyed undertones.


1.7 kg wheat liquid malt extract.  I use Mangrove Jack's Bavarian wheat, which already contains hops and has a packet of yeast under the lid so I do not need to buy these ingredients separately.
1 kg wheat beer enhancer
3 tbsp honey (approximately)
1 tsp coriander seeds, crushed slightly between your fingers to break them open
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground cloves

1 pack of carbonation drops for bottling – these are optional.  You can just use sugar or glucose syrup, but the carbonation drops are easier and more convenient.  I recommend them.

This recipe will give you 23 liters of beer, or 6 US gallons.


The secret to brewing good beer with malt extract is to ignore the instructions on the side of the malt tin.  Instead, bring 3 liters of water to the boil, then add malt, beer enhancer, and spices.  Stir until everything is completely dissolved.  Boil the wort, stirring regularly, until the protein break occurs and foamy white stuff starts to form on the surface.  Once the protein break has occurred you can take the pot off the heat and leave it to cool for a while.

While the wort cools you can clean and assemble your fermentation bucket, and re-hydrate the packet of yeast that came with the malt extract by putting it in a bowl of warm water with a little sugar.  Pour four or five liters of cold water into the fermentation bucket, then add the wort.  Add more cold water until you have 23 liters of wort in the fermentation bucket.

Pitch the yeast when the wort reaches somewhere around 20 degrees Celsius  (18 to 23 degrees is apparently the optimal temperature range for ale yeasts), and ferment the stuff for two weeks.   I find fermentation can be a little slow to start with this recipe, but it should start within 12 hours.  As long as there's a kraeuzen on the top it'll be fine.

After two weeks the beer is ready to be bottled, and it should be conditioned in the bottles for at least two weeks.  Four weeks, however, is ideal.  If you drink it earlier it's likely to taste slightly "green".

*  Remember, this was over 300 years before Louis Pasteur.  They did not yet understand the role yeast plays in fermentation.
**  At some point in the future I'll do a post on the history of malt extracts.  It's more interesting than you might expect.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Homeric kykeon

Kykeon (κυκεών in Greek) is a drink made from barley, herbs, and sometimes wine.  It was a popular everyday drink in Classical Greece, although it was considered a bit low-class.  There are a couple of different recipes for kykeon in ancient Greek texts, because it was mentioned in Greek mythology.  

This is undoubtedly one of the weirdest things I've ever consumed.  What's that white stuff in it, you ask?  Grated cheese, of course.

Kykeon made with barley and pennyroyal was a central component of the Eleusinian mysteries.  According to mythology the goddess Demeter consumed this drink to ease her grief at losing her daughter; pennyroyal can be used as a mild sedative.  During the Eleusinian religious festival humans consumed kykeon as part of the initiation process.  This kykeon obviously had some special additives not usually present in everyday versions of the drink, because the Eleusinian initiates' experiences show that it was psychoactive.  It's often suggested that Eleusinian kykeon may have contained ergot, but there are other psychoactive ingredients that were available in ancient Greece and could have been used.  

In the Iliad 
(XI, 638–641and the Odysssey (X, 234), kykeon was made with wine and grated goat cheese as well as barley.  In the Iliad kykeon is served to Nestor and his companions, and in the Odyssey Circe gives it to Odysseus' men.  Of course, Circe's kykeon contains a drug which incapacitates the sailors and allows her to turn them into boars.  Some scholars probably interpret Circe's potion as a hallucinogen, but personally I don't see a need to rationalise the story into something that could have actually happened.

My kykeon is the Homeric kind, made with wine, and it most definitely doesn't contain ergot.  I like to think I'm a reasonably adventurous eater, but I have my limits.  

People who have made kykeon attest that the way to do it is to put all the ingredients in a pot and stir them together over a heat source, so that's what I did.  I cooked wine and barley flour on a low heat until the mixture thickened up, then I grated goat cheese over the top.  The cheese didn't melt, because goats' milk has a different protein structure to cows' milk and won't melt no matter what you do with it, but it did break apart into particles that mixed in with the kykeon.

The result was surprisingly palatable.  It smelled really good while it was cooking, and tasted mostly of wine with a little sweetness from the barley.  The grated cheese seems weird, but in fact it was quite good.

The Challenge: Myths and legends.

The Recipe: Wine and barley flour simmered together for 10 minutes, with grated cheese on top.

The Date/Year and Region: The Homeric epics were written down in the 8th or 7th century BCE, but they are set in the Late Bronze Age.  It's possible that the recipe dates back to the Late Bronze Age and I'm inclined to think it probably does, because the Iliad gives the recipe along with a very accurate and detailed description of Mycenaean furniture, but it's impossible to know for sure.

How Did You Make It: I put everything in a pot and simmered it for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.

Time to Complete: Ten minutes.

Total Cost: All the ingredients were ones I already had on hand in my kitchen.

How Successful Was It? While it's definitely a strange concoction by 21st century standards, it wasn't at all unpleasant. 

How Accurate Is It? I cheated by using an electric stove and stainless steel saucepan.  Other than that, I followed the recipe in the Iliad, but it's difficult to say how closely my kykeon resembles the original in terms of consistency and flavour.  The Homeric epics specifically state Pramnian wine was used to make kykeon, so I chose a rich, dark, relatively sweet wine (Peter Yealand's 2014 Merlot - it's a nice wine and I recommend it), because apparently that's what Pramnian wine was like.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

A monochrome Delphos, colonial style

Leimomi of The Dreamstress spent the first two weeks of July living in 1916 (well, as close as it's possible to get).  If you haven't read her blog posts about it you should; go ahead, I'll wait.  On the 16th Leimomi was kind enough to invite a few of us Wellingtonians to a ladies' afternoon tea in 1916.

This meant I needed clothing suitable for 1916.

The obvious solution was the Delphos dress, created by Mariano Fortuny in 1909.  The Delphos has a number of attractive features from my perspective.  It's quick and easy to make.  It does not require any pattern drafting or fitting.  It does not require period underwear.  In fact it was meant to be worn with no underwear, which is still a bit risque a hundred years on and must have been downright scandalous in 1916, but it also works well with 2016 underwear.

By happy coincidence this month's Historical Sew Monthly theme is Monochrome, and I have some pleated black cotton in my stash, as well as white glass beads.  The original Delphos dresses were available in "black, gold, and the tones of old Venetian dyes", so black is quite appropriate for a 1916 Delphos.  In fact monochrome became rather fashionable during WWI, in response to dye shortages.

Monochrome Delphos in black cotton with white glass beads.

This isn't a very convincing replica of a real Delphos, because the fabric is quite different.  Delphos dresses were made of silk, whereas this is cotton.  However, it is entirely plausible that a kiwi woman who couldn't get a real Delphos would make an imitation like this one.  It's a very kiwi thing to do.  In the 19th and 20th centuries many things weren't available here in the colonies, and fashion-forward New Zealanders often had to improvise.  Eve Ebbet's book In True Colonial Fashion contains a particularly memorable account of a woman who made a bustle pad by stuffing her skirts with straw.  Unfortunately, the wind blew her skirt open and the straw was revealed.

The Delphos is a very simple thing, and very easy to make.  Fortuny patented the design, and the patent diagram shows how it was constructed.

Patent diagram for the original Delphos.

Item F on the diagram is a gathering cord under the arm, and this is the key to getting the sleeves to sit right.  There's also a gathering cord at the neck, which strengthens the neckline and allows it to be adjusted.

The Challenge: Monochrome.

Fabric: 3 meters of crinkled black cotton.

Pattern: There isn't one.  It's a tube.

Year:  Early 19-teens through 1920s.

Notions: Cords made from black crochet cotton, white glass beads, and a belt made from grosgrain ribbon with two thread buttons.

How historically accurate is it?  As a Delphos replica, 50% at best, but as an example of colonial ingenuity it's probably a  bit better.  The construction is certainly feasible for 1916 and is based on photos of Delphos dresses as well as the patent diagram.

Hours to complete: About 8.  The side seams are machined, but everything else is hand stitched; because of the way the dress is constructed, it really needs to be hand stitched.

First worn:  On the 16th of July, to Leimomi's afternoon tea in 1916.  It's a great dress and I want to make another one, in a shorter length.  The long, slightly-more-than-floor-length skirt is period, but it is also impractical.

Total cost:  I suspect the fabric cost something like $8/meter (everything came from stash and it's been there a while), and I have no idea what I paid for the beads.  So, maybe somewhere around $40.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Mock food in the South Pacific

This fortnight's Historical Food Challenge is Mock Foods - "Historic cookbooks are full of recipes meant to imitate rare, expensive or impractical ingredients. It’s your turn to help your food pretend it’s something that it isn’t!"

New Zealand is geographically isolated.  Historically, many foods from overseas weren't available here, or were expensive.  That's still true to some extent, and it seemed appropriate to make a distinctly Kiwi entry for Mock Foods.  So what unobtainable delicacy will I be imitating in this blog post?  Turtle?  Caviar?  Nope.  This is New Zealand we're talking about here.  I'll be making imitation processed cheese.

Rex Luncheon Cheese was an Australian processed cheese product sold in cans.  Apparently it was popular but expensive, and it may have been difficult to get hold of in more isolated parts of the country.  So Kiwi housewives figured out how to make imitation Rex Cheese at home.

Advertisement for Rex Luncheon Cheese printed in The Age, 12 June 1925.

Recipes for imitation Rex Cheese began to appear in the 1920s.  This one is from The New Zealand Truth, 18 September 1930, and seems to be fairly representative of its type*.  It involves cheese, egg, vinegar, mustard, and cayenne pepper.  Advertisements described Rex Cheese as "piquant", which was apparently the product's point of difference and gave it a competitive edge over other canned cheese products.

The recipe is easy to make; you just put all the ingredients in a saucepan and stir until thick.  You have to stir constantly and vigorously, because it tends to curdle a bit like scrambled eggs.  This is actually the mixture starting to thicken up.  The "curds" are soft, and if you stir vigorously enough you'll get a thick and reasonably smooth consistency, but it looks like it's going to be a horrible disaster and it doesn't smell all that wonderful either.  I spent the whole cooking process looking at this stuff in horror and thinking "should it be doing that?  Ye gods, I think it is supposed to do that!"

Imitation Rex Luncheon Cheese.  I just love the gloriously artificial-looking orange colour.   In fact that's from the egg yolks, there's no colouring in there at all.

The recipe I used was intended as a filling for pastries, but the traditional way to serve imitation Rex Cheese is in cheese rolls.  These savoury snacks, sometimes called the sushi of the South, are a regional dish from Otago and Southland that you don't often see here in the North Island.  And that's a shame, because they are delicious in the way that only cheese-based junk food can be.  Of course, modern cheese roll recipes don't use imitation Rex Cheese.  They use a completely different cheese filling, and while I waited for my cheese rolls to toast I was uneasily aware that there might be a good reason for that.

Cheese rolls made with imitation Rex Luncheon Cheese.  They certainly look like they're made with processed cheese, but were they edible?  Read on to find out.

The Challenge: Mock Foods.

The Recipe: This one.

The Date/Year and Region: 1930s New Zealand.

How Did You Make It: As per the recipe.

Time to Complete:  25 minutes.

Total Cost: I didn't need to buy anything for this challenge because I already had the ingredients on hand.

How Successful Was It?  If there's one thing even less appealing than Depression-era canned cheese, it would have to be imitation Depression-era canned cheese.   But to my great surprise, the imitation Rex Cheese tasted okay.  It was cheesy and savoury and, yes, piquant.  It also held together and didn't ooze out of the cheese rolls when I toasted them, which was good.  In fact my only complaint is that the recipe has too much mustard.   If you make this recipe, I suggest you halve the amount of mustard.  In all honesty however, there are better cheese roll recipes out there.

How Accurate Is It? Well, I followed the recipe and I think it did turn out the way it was supposed to.   I'd love to know what Rex Cheese was really like and whether this recipe was a convincing imitation, but, sadly, Rex Luncheon Cheese is not available today.  The company that produced it no longer exists.

The consistency of my imitation cheese was more like a thick custard than any cheese product I've ever encountered, and I find it hard to believe the texture of this ersatz recipe was anything like the texture of real Rex Cheese, but then again we know Rex Cheese was spreadable and could be purchased in jars, so maybe this version isn't so far off after all.  Presumably the taste was at least reasonably similar.

* Although the recipe doesn't specifically mention Rex Cheese, its ingredients and preparation appear to be typical of imitation Rex Cheese recipes.  Compare it with this recipe provided by the Otago Daily Times, which was published in 1984 and is therefore ineligible for Historical Food Fortnightly challenges.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Sumerian beer

This Sumerian beer is made using a combination of fruit, malted grain, and bread.  It's very, very different from the kinds of beer we're familiar with today, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable.

Sumerian style beer, made according to the instructions in the Hymn to Ninkasi.

In my last post I discussed the Hymn to Ninkasi and what it tells us about Sumerian brewing practices.  I used the Hymn to develop a recipe for Sumerian style beer, and this is the result.

I won't lie to you: I didn't really expect this stuff to be very nice.  It has no carbonation at all, and no hops.  It also didn't get a secondary fermentation, which is usually an important part of the brewing process.  But this beer surprised me.  It isn't bad at all; in fact I like it.  It has a fresh, clean flavour and is pleasantly refreshing on a hot day after work.  The taste of barley comes through strongly and there are also distinct fruit flavours, but it's not very sweet and I think the different flavours are fairly well balanced.  The alcohol content is 4.5% by volume, so it's comparable to regular commercially produced beer in that respect.

I suggest serving this beer around 12 degrees C - cellar temperature, not chilled like a lager.

Even after filtering the beer through cheesecloth there is still a layer of sediment on the bottom of the bottle, which is visible in the picture.  Using a straw enables you to avoid the sediment layer and that, I suspect, is why the Sumerians drank their beer through straws.

Although I've tried to follow the Sumerian brewing process as far as possible, I have made some modern compromises.  I've used modern equipment because that's what I have in my kitchen, and a modern approach to sterilization because life's too short for bad homebrew.  You can get food poisoning from drinking bad brews.  I also added some dried bread yeast.  The Sumerians may have used the yeast that grows naturally on grape skins to ferment their beer, but I decided to use dried yeast rather than rely on the grapes, because who knows what's on the skins of supermarket grapes?

The Challenge: Juicy Fruits.  A combination of dates and grapes helps to give this beer a distinctive flavour.

The Recipe: Technically, this beer requires two recipes.

For the bappir (beer bread)

500 grams two row barley malt
A splash of date honey
Spices - I used a quarter teaspoon each of aniseed and cumin, both of which were used by the Sumerians.
Enough water to turn the ingredients into a stiff dough

Because of the barley husks the dough will not stick together very well, but that's okay.  Just do the best you can.  Shape the dough into a flat, round loaf on a pizza stone or baking tray; I recommend using baking paper.  The dough is baked twice, like biscotti.  I baked it for 30 minutes at 180 degrees C, then sliced it into strips and put it back in the oven (which I had turned off) to dry out.  It smelled great, but due to the presence of barley husks I wouldn't eat it unless I had to.

This is what the bappir looked like when it came out of the oven:

It did crumble a bit, but that's fine.  It has to be broken up for mashing anyway.

For 3 liters of Sumerian beer

Bappir from previous recipe
600 grams two row barley malt
Half a liter of date honey
A good handful of grapes
A teaspoon of bread yeast

I crumbled the bappir into a bowl, added the grain, and mashed them at 55 degrees C for 60 minutes.  Then I strained the mash and added date honey and grapes.  I pitched the yeast at 25 degrees C and let it ferment until the lack of bubbling noises indicated primary fermentation was over, then I bottled it.

I strongly recommend filtering the beer through a piece of cloth before bottling.

Note that my recipe only makes a small quantity.  You can of course scale it up to meet your requirements, but this stuff won't keep and should be consumed within a few days of brewing.

The Date/Year and Region: Southern Mesopotamia, c1800 BCE.

How Did You Make It: I developed the recipe based on the Hymn to Ninkasi.

Time to Complete:  About four hours' preparation time, plus three days to ferment.  Bear in mind though that most of that preparation time is just waiting for things to bake, or mash, or cool down enough to pitch the yeast.  The amount of actual, hands on work involved is fairly minimal.

Fermentation could take more or less time depending on the yeast and the environmental temperature, as with any beer.  It's ready to drink when you can't hear any more bubbling in the fermentation vessel.

Total Cost: $10.80.  This was a comparatively expensive beer recipe, because I had to buy dates.  Note however that although dates are expensive in New Zealand, they would have been cheap and readily available in ancient Mesopotamia.

How Successful Was It?  Much more successful than I thought it would be.  Because it's so different to the beers we're familiar with now it may be an acquired taste for modern beer drinkers, but I say put your expectations aside and give it a chance.

Leaving the barley husks in the bappir was a good idea, even though it made the dough difficult to mix and shape.  As I mentioned in the last post other people who have tried Sumerian beer have found that their mash stuck, but I didn't have that problem.  I think that was probably because of the barley husks.

How Accurate Is It? It's as accurate as I could get it based on my current understanding of Sumerian brewing.  To some extent I've had to make interpretations and use my best judgement, and the ingredients may not be exactly like the ones the Sumerians used.  Barley, for  instance, has probably changed a bit in the last 4000 years.  And, of course, I've used modern equipment.  But on the whole I think it's a fairly reasonable recreation of Sumerian beer.

I think this is a reasonable interpretation of the Hymn to Ninkasi, and one that fits the evidence we have about Sumerian brewing,  but other interpretations are possible and they are equally valid. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

Let's take a look at the Hymn to Ninkasi

The Hymn to Ninkasi, picture from Tulane University.  It was written around 1800 BCE by an unknown scribe.

Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer.  The Hymn to Ninkasi is not exactly a beer recipe in the modern sense, but in lines 13 to 48 it contains a fairly detailed description of the process by which Sumerians made beer four thousand years ago:
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.
1 line damaged
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.

- Translation by Miguel Civil available at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University.

Let's recap this process:

  1. Ninkasi bakes beer bread flavoured with aromatic herbs and/or spices.  This is a special type of bread called bappir which was used to make beer.  In 1800 BCE cuneiform it is denoted by a combination of the sign for beer and the sign for bread. 
  2. Ninkasi malts grain, and prepares an infusion mash.  
  3. She mixes wort with honey and wine, then ferments the resulting mixture.
  4. Finally, Ninkasi filters the fermented beer and then it's ready to drink.  This beer does not get a secondary fermentation like the beers we're familiar with today, and it doesn't get carbonated.

Unfortunately, the poem doesn't give any guidance as to how much of each ingredient should be used, so I will just have to guess the ingredient quantities.

Dates were probably one of the flavouring agents used to make bappir, and I would expect that some herbs and spices were included as well.  Ancient Mesopotamian people liked spiced food and the Sumerian recipes that survive tend to use multiple flavouring agents*.

I'm a little confused as to whether the grain used to make the bappir is supposed to be malted.  It's possible to make bread from malted grains and the malting process is necessary in order to release fermentable sugars from the grain.  The Hymn seems to imply the bappir has already been made by the time Ninkasi gets started on the malt, but there are scholars who think bappir was made from malted grains.  Perhaps it was made with an earlier batch of malt?  This is possible.  Bappir could be stored for relatively long periods and seems to have been a way of preserving grain for future use.

Another question is why the stuff Miguel Civil translates as "sweetwort" appears to be something Ninkasi can hold in her hands, when wort is a liquid.  Is this just a poetic metaphor?  Is she squeezing the grain/bappir residue to extract as much wort as possible?  It's hard to tell exactly what's going on here.

According to Miguel Civil, the honey mentioned in the hymn is likely to be date honey, while the wine could be either wine, grapes, or raisins.  If it is meant to be grapes or raisins, this may be how the Sumerians introduced yeast to their wort; yeast grows naturally on the skin of grapes.

Exactly how long should the beer be allowed to ferment?  Well, I think the hymn gives us an answer when it says the fermenting vat makes a pleasant sound.  Beers and wines make an audible bubbling noise during primary fermentation.  When you can no longer hear bubbling, the primary fermentation is complete.  I suggest the hymn is telling us, in its poetic way, that the beer was ready to drink after primary fermentation had finished.

The key problem with interpreting the Hymn to Ninkasi is that in order to understand it we have to filter it through modern knowledge about how the brewing process works.  The Sumerians did not have a modern understanding of the science behind brewing so there's no guarantee that what makes sense to a modern researcher bears any resemblance to what the Sumerians actually did.  In some ways the Hymn to Ninkasi raises more questions than it answers, but there's enough there to have a crack at brewing some Sumerian beer and a number of researchers have done so.  There are modernized recipes based on the Hymn available here courtesy of Brew Your Own, and here courtesy of the Maltose Falcons.

Note that these modern recipes include rice hulls.  Brewers add rice hulls to their mash to prevent it getting sticky and clumpy, but rice did not grow in ancient Sumeria.  We don't know what, if anything, the Sumerians used instead.  A potential answer lies in the fact that bappir was not eaten on its own, except during famines.  This possibly (though not necessarily) indicates the bappir was unpalatable.  If that's the case, I suspect bappir contained barley husks as well as the grain itself.

Some researchers question whether Sumerian beer contained alcohol.  Personally I'm inclined to think the question is more how much alcohol it contained; remember the hymn specifically says the fermenting vat makes a pleasant sound.  In other words, something is definitely fermenting in there.  But exactly how much alcohol the beer contained is open to question and different types of beer may have differed in strength.  I have a hydrometer now, so I can put this to the test when I make my Sumerian beer.  At a guess I'd say it will be comparable to modern commercial beers - about 5% alcohol by volume, however the inclusion of date honey means it would theoretically be possible to make a brew with a higher alcohol percentage.

In the next post I'll share the practical results of all this theory!

* D.T. Potts. 1997.  Mesopotamian Civilisation: The Material Foundations.  London: The Athlone Press.