Some Ancient Gruit Ale and Beer Recipes

Modern beers, both those from the big breweries and those from smaller craft breweries, are nothing like the original ales that people started drinking thousands of years ago.

There are several ways to attempt to recapture the flavor and character of ancient ales. The first is to find ancient recipes. One of the oldest was written some 3800 years BC, etched onto clay tablets.  A poem written around 1800 BC in tribute to the Ninkasi, the Sumarian goddess of beer, contains a fairly detailed recipe that was attempted by Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco.

The Hymn to Ninkasi
Translation by Miguel Civil

Borne of the flowing water (…)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water (…)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake,
Ninkasi, Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

You are the one who bakes the bappir
in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes
the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,,

You are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks
the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked
mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads
the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.

You are the one who holds with both hands
the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes
a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat,
which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.

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

In 1989, Anchor Brewing produced a beer called Ninkasi based upon the recipe therein.

A discussion of this is fouund at this reference, which is unfortunately paywalled: S.H. Katz and F. Maytag, “Brewing an Ancient Beer,” Archaeology 44 (4), 24-27 (1991).

Some have taken this back a little further to develop a recipe for how beer might have been prepared 10,000 years ago. This kitchen experiment also dealt with a quandry beyond the scope of this work, whether bread or beer came first. Hint: probably ‘yes.’

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery out of Milton, Delaware has also brewed a couple of beers using ancient recipes. Midas Touch is a beer that is based upon analysis of dried residues in drinking vessels from what is now Turkey, during the time of King Midas about 700 BC. This beer is reconstructed from analysis of the residues, and is thought to be mostly barley, with a some honey for sugars. Saffron was used instead of hops for bittering and flavor, because hops were not used at that time.

Dogfish Head has also created Chateau Jiahu, a brew based upon 9000 year old evidence from pottery found in Neolithic villiage of Jiahu in China. Sugars for this brew come mostly from rice, barley, and honey, as well as other ingredients like chrysanthemums. This is fermented with a sake yeast, that has a special affinity for rice.

Clone recipes for brewing Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu can be found here.

Finally, though not historical, there was a new strain of yeast found in some fossil whale bones. The fossils are approximately 35-million years old. The yeast was extracted and cultivated, and used in a series of experimental beers. Look for Bone Dusters Paleo Ale at the Lost Rhino Brewing Company next time you’re in Ashburn, VA.

Here are links to recipes for some other historical beers.

Gruit Ale and Unhopped Beers – several recipes and historical discussions

Gruit Quest – a few more gruit ale recipes

A Medieval Belgian Gruit Ale – a recipe

Brewing a 5,000 Year Old Scottish Ale – uses heather for bittering

Published by paleololigo

Scientist (Paleontology, Geochemistry, Geology); Writer (Speculative and Science Fiction, plus technical and non-technical Science); Mom to great boy on the Autism spectrum; possessor of too many hobbies.

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