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Beer from Ancient Egypt to modern Germany

Christine Lehnen | Carl Holm
February 16, 2021

Remains of a 5,000-year-old brewery have been uncovered in Egypt. So, how did beer make its way from the land of the Pharaohs to Germany?

remains of vats used for beer fermentation, in a complex which may be the world's "oldest" high-production brewery, uncovered in the Abydos archaeological site near Egypt's southern city of Sohag
Remains of vats used for beer fermentation were uncovered Image: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities/AFP

Archaeologists from the USA and Egypt have unearthed an ancient brewery on the banks of the Nile. Cairo's tourism ministry says the site, which dates back 5,000 years, would once have been capable of producing 22,400 liters of beer per batch.

In antiquity, the fermented barley juice served as a drink for almost the entire population and was regarded as a staple food. The beer was made from a mixture of water and barley that was heated and then fermented. That mixture was partly seasoned with fruit juice concentrates, filtered and served as a thick, sweet drink.

This find and others in the last 12 months have created hope for new breath of life into Egypt's mummified tourism sector. In 2010, some 14.7 million tourists came to Egypt. Those figures collapsed in 2011 during and after the Arab Spring; and took another blow from Egypt's military coup in 2016. The industry slowly regrew for the next few years, only to be flattened again by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, the country had 13.1 million tourists; that had shriveled to just 3.5 million in 2020.

The discovery of what the Egyptian tourism ministry is calling "the oldest high-production brewery in the world," at Abydos, near Luxor, could help build a thirst for Egyptian tourism again.

As the discovery of the "snack bar" in Pompeii in 2020 proved, culinary finds are very popular with the public. Archaeologist and director of the Burg Linn Museum, Dr. Jennifer Morscheiser agrees: "As an archaeologist you know what the press loves: All finds that have to do with sex, alcohol or seasonal holidays."

Cooler climate, falling wine production — a beer storm was brewing

In 2011, Morschheiser herself stumbled over the remains of an ancient brewery — in Bonn on the banks of the Rhine — built by the Romans 2,000 years ago.

"It is a credible idea that there was a move to make drinks more preservable and relatively germ-free, especially 2,000 or 5,000 years ago, when wells, sewage systems and rivers were only partially separated from one another," explains Morscheiser.

That might explain why beer brewing became popular thousands of years ago. But how did beer brewing come to be in the area where Germany is today, in Northern and Central Europe?

There are several possible pathways. The Greeks are thought to have learned to brew beer from the Egyptians during the third century BCE, but it's unclear whether the Romans learned from Greeks or from the Egyptians after the Roman conquest in North Africa, in 32 BCE.

ÄAbydos archaeological site, remains of what may be the world's "oldest" high-production beer brewery, with mountains, trees and modern building in the background.
The Abydos archaeological site is seen as the oldest high-production beer brewery uncovered to dateImage: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities/AFP

In Central Europe, there is evidence that the Celts were fermenting grain to make alcohol around the same time; and it's entirely possible that other European peoples discovered the fermentation process independently.

"Beer and mead were already known to the Celts, but the hype and mass production didn't begin until the middle of the second century AD," explains Morscheiser.

'The aqueducts were left to decay, but not the brewing'

Although the Romans may have regarded it as a second class drink, the Teutonic love for beer has remained ever since.

"As far as I can see, brewing has continued since then," says Morscheiser.

"It even survived the fall of the Roman Empire — the aqueducts were left to decay, but they didn't want to give up brewing beer."

But beer in Europe was still being fermented on a small scale; and that's the way it would stay until the Middle Ages, when Christian monasteries started to brew larger quantities. It was only with the industrial revolution that Europe began brewing on an industrial scale.

All you need to know about German beer culture

Nowadays, beer is a big tourist drawcard for Germany. That point is abundantly clear every September when around six million tourists usually visit Oktoberfest in Munich.

But the brewery which was recently uncovered by archaeologists in Egypt may have been about making beer for a less cheerful occasion. The head of the excavation, Matthew Adams of New York University, believes it's possible that the brewery's purpose was to provide drinks for the funeral rites of the pharaohs.