Back in 1996, the London department store Harrods sold 1,000 bottles of a special reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian beer for £50. This is approximately $75 at today’s exchange rate — and remember this was before Sam Adams released Utopias. The story of this beer starts with some archaeologists and an electron microscope, and ends up at Scottish Newcastle Brewery, but there’s some brewing history to consider first.
It is widely accepted that beer was first produced by the Sumerians somewhere around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Evidence from the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” written around 3,800 years ago, suggests that a twice-baked bread — or “bappir,” made from barley, roasted barley, malted barley and honey — was used as a source of fermentables. This was mashed along with pale malt, and dates were also used. (In 1989, Anchor Brewing produced a version of this beer that they called Ninkasi.)
There is some evidence that beer was brewed in Egypt in the “Pre-Dynastic Era” (5500–3100 B.C.), that is before the Pharaohs. The exact timing of this is not clear, so it is probable that brewing technology came to Egypt from Mesopotamia. In any case, at least by the time of the Pharaohs (3050 – 330 B.C.) beer-drinking had become an integral part of life for everyone, including the Pharaohs, who often had their own royal breweries. Until the 1990’s Egyptologists were generally of the opinion that it was brewed in a similar manner to the previously mentioned Sumerian beer. An often quoted additional source of fermentables was honey, because, like dates, it was known to be widely available in Egypt.
This all raises some questions, including what was the strength of the beer or beers produced in this way? How much of the grain starch would have been hydrolyzed to fermentable sugars, especially if it had not been malted? Was it drunk as a sort of mildly alcoholic porridge? Could the mash have been left long enough for the starch to have degraded to sugars? Or were most of the fermentables supplied by adding a large proportion of honey or dates?
Barry Kemp of Cambridge University came up with some of the answers. He was field director of a dig at the ancient Worker’s Village of Amarna, built by Akhen-aten in 1350 B.C. and destroyed by Tutankhamun just seventeen years later. What Barry Kemp’s team found was several breweries, including the royal brewery, and he got in touch with Jim Merrington of Scottish and Newcastle Breweries in Britain, who was no stranger to Egypt. It is often difficult, even impossible, in archaeological digs to find food residues because of the rot and decay which occurs over such a long time period. But, in this case the Egyptian atmosphere was so dry that traces of bread, grain and beer residues were found in the breweries at Amarna. Dr. Delwen Samuel, also of Cambridge University, and an archaeobotanist was responsible for attempts to identify these residues.
Dr. Samuel used both optical and scanning electron microscopy for this purpose, and came up with some very interesting results. First, the grain could be either barley, or emmer, an early form of wheat; these grains were usually used separately and not as a mixture. Second, there was evidence that the grain in both bread and beer residues had been malted, and may have been heated while still wet, bringing about some gelatinization of the starch. Third, dates were not used at Amarna. Dr. Samuel believes that the assumption that dates were widely used in ancient Egypt was because a hieroglyphic seen in recipes was translated as “dates,” when all it meant was “sweetness” derived from the malt. She found no evidence that other kinds of flavorings were used in the beer. Fourth, the wet malt was sieved to remove the grain hulls, and not for filtering crumbled bread as had been previously assumed.
Dr. Samuel proposed a brewing scheme where one part of grain was malted and ground then mixed with cold water. A further part of grain, which could be either malted or unmalted, was ground and mixed with hot water, and well heated. The hot and cold mashes were then mixed and let stand for an unspecified time, after which the mixture was sieved, and fermentation was carried out. Obviously, questions still remain about the extent of starch conversion, and the source of yeast, but this is somewhat closer to modern brewing procedures than the traditional view.
That might have been the end of it, except that this archaeological team wanted to go one step further and actually brew a beer along these lines. And that is where Scottish and Newcastle came in. Their team went to Egypt, studied the dig and Dr. Samuel’s findings and set to work. They analyzed water from the wells around Amarna and decided only a little gypsum addition would be needed for brewing. It was also decided that they would use emmer, which raised a problem because that’s a very scarce grain these days. It is still grown in Turkey, so they imported enough seeds for the National Institute of Agriculture and Botany in Cambridge to grow 770 lb. (350 kg). This was then malted at Moray Firth Maltings in Scotland, and all was set, except for the details of the recipe.
It was decided that they would shoot for a 6% ABV beer, which would be flavored with coriander and juniper. Coriander grew widely in ancient Egypt and was known to have been used there in baking; the reasoning behind adding juniper appears less sound. Mashing and boiling would be along more modern lines in the pilot plant brewery at Scottish and Newcastles at its Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh. A fast-fermenting “modern” yeast strain, selected from the National Yeast Collection was to be used. According to one source (which I have not been able to verify) the grain was moistened and ground in a pestle and mortar, which took 14 hours! The same source stated fermentation was carried out in one-gallon jars. Another source stated that the emmer was ground in the pilot plant, which could be run only at one-tenth of its normal speed because the grain was so hard.
Whichever was true, a batch of Tutankhamun Ale was successfully brewed and 1,000 bottles filled, labeled and sent off to Harrods. At 0.9 pint (0.5 L), a bottle that would have taken around 130 gallon jars if we can believe that source! It was described as having a hazy, gold color, and tasting fruity, grainy, with caramel/toffee, sweet, spicy/astringent and with a dry finish.
What about a recipe for homebrewers? Well, for a start you’re going to find it difficult to get hold of emmer, but it shouldn’t be much of a departure from authenticity to simply use regular wheat malt. You can use a grist consisting of 100% wheat malt, but that can often cause severely set mashes. Therefore, I recommend a 40:60 mixture of wheat malt to barley malt. For extract brewers, you can buy either an American wheat beer extract, or a Weizenmalt extract, both of which should be suitable. The choice of yeast is problematic; we could go for a neutral yeast, or a wheat beer strain. I took another route, and opted for an abbey strain, on the basis that this would be a sweet beer, so the estery fruitiness such yeast should impart would give the beer a little more balance. I did go for “normal” fermentation temperatures, but the Ancient Egyptians may well have fermented their beer at higher temperatures, and you may want to try it at 70–80 °F (21–27 °F) if you favor authenticity over drinkability!
A New Royal Brew
Scottish and Newcastle never made another batch of this beer, and closed their Edinburgh brewery in 2002. And then they themselves disappeared and their brewing empire was carved up by Heineken and Carlsberg between them. So that’s the end of the story of Tutankhamun Ale.
Or is it? Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver released a Tut’s Royal Gold. This beer was specially brewed in conjunction with Tutankhamun and the Great Pharaohs, an exhibition running at the Denver Art Museum in 2011.
Wynkoop’s beer is about 6% ABV and uses pale malt, honey, wheat and teff — a grain native to north-east Africa — as sources of fermentables. It is flavored with tamarind, coriander, grains of paradise, orange peel and rose petals. Head Brewer Andy Brown stated that, “We wanted to create a beer that echoed what ancient Egyptian royalty might have consumed back in Tut’s day. It’s a hybrid beer inspired by Egyptian ingredients, but brewed with the benefit of 3,000 additional years of brewing science.”
Andy also says he was inspired by a brewer from Belgium talking about how wit beers might have tasted like 1,000 or so years ago.
“Things like spontaneous fermentation, sour, cloudy, spiced and consumed within days of being brewed all apply to both ancient Egyptian and old school Belgian beers, so I made a hybrid recipe,” said Andy.
Andy was kind enough to give me his recipe (for 20 barrels), and I have adapted it for a 5-gallon (19-L) brew. For the grain bill I have used the BYO standard of 65% extract efficiency, and made the assumption that the teff grain will give a yield about the same as for the unmalted wheat. Andy says teff is grown in Idaho by the Maskal Teff Company; if you cannot get it simply substitute it with the same amount of malted wheat.
Converting the figures for the spices presents a problem, since the numbers are small enough that they can only be given in grams. If you don’t have a gram scale, you will have to resort to around a teaspoonful of each, except for the coriander which should be only the proverbial “pinch.” The spices were added in a grain bag during whirlpool, and the bag then suspended in the fermenter. You might find it simpler not to add the bag in the boiler but directly to the fermenter before running in the wort.
Marty Jones from Wynkoop Brewing Company was kind enough to send me some Tut’s Royal Gold, and I tasted it with a few other beer-lovers. The consensus was that it did taste very much like a Belgian witbier, with a lot of flavor coming from the yeast. The notes from the spices and “sweeteners” were subdued, but added a subtle layer of complexity beneath the almost smoky wheat flavor.
So, if you’d like a taste of what Tutankhamun may have been drinking, give these recipes a try.
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.060 (14.7 °P)
FG = 1.014 (3.6 °P)
SRM = 4–5 ABV = 6.0%
5.0 lbs. (2.3 kg) white wheat malt
7.5 lbs. (3.4 kg) pale 2-row malt
0.35 oz. (10 g) coriander seeds
0.35 oz. (10 g) juniper berries
White Labs WLP500 (Trappist Ale) or Wyeast 1214 (Belgian Abbey) yeast
Step by Step
Mash the ground grain at 150–152 °F (66–67 °C) for 90 mins. Sparge so as to collect 5.0 gallons (19 L) of wort; bring to boiling and keep it there for 15 minutes, or until hot break is clearly visible. Crush the coriander and juniper and boil a further 10 mins, then switch off heat, cool to fermentation temperature and pitch yeast. Ferment at 65–70 °F (18–21 °C) for 5–7 days before racking to secondary for a further 1–2 weeks. Keg or bottle and shoot for 2–2.5 volumes CO2.
(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.059 (14.7 °P)
FG = 1.013 (3.6 °P)
SRM = 4–5 ABV = 6.0%
8.0 lbs. (3.6 kg) liquid wheat malt extract
0.35⅓oz. (10 g) coriander seeds
0.35⅓oz. (10 g) juniper berries
White Labs WLP500 (Trappist Ale) or Wyeast 1214 (Belgian Abbey) yeast
Step by Step
Thoroughly mix extract with enough hot water to give a final volume of 5.0 gallons (19 L); bring to boiling and keep it there for 15 minutes, or until hot break is clearly visible. Crush coriander and juniper and boil a further 10 minutes, then switch off heat, cool to fermentation temperature and pitch yeast. Ferment at 65–70 °F (18–21 °C) for 5–7 days before racking to secondary for a further 1–2 weeks. Keg or bottle and shoot for 2–2.5 volumes CO2.
Wynkoop Brewing Co. Tut’s Royal Gold clone
(5 gallons, 19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.057 (14.0 °P)
FG = 1.009 (2.3 °P)
SRM = 5 ABV = 6.3%
6 lb. 4 oz. (2.8 kg) Rahr Premium 2-row pale malt
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) coarse ground ivory teff flour
1 lb. 8 oz. (0.68 kg) Simpson’s Golden Naked Oats
1 lb. 12 oz. (0.8 kg) unmalted wheat
1.0 lb (0.45 kg) malted wheat
5.0 oz. (0.14 kg) rice or oat hulls
5.5 g grains of paradise
4.0 g Pakistani rose
7.0 g bitter orange peel
5.5 g tamarind paste
2.3 g ground coriander
1.0 oz. (28 g) pitted dates
10 oz. (0.28 kg) wildflower honey
White Labs WLP400 (Belgian Wit Ale), or Wyeast 3522 (Belgian Witbier) yeast.
Step by Step
Mash all the grains at 138 °F (59 °C) for 30 minutes. (The rice or oat hulls are to assist run-off which can be problematic with wheat beers; you should add them to the mash along with the other grains.) Add sufficient boiling water to raise temperature to 155 °F (68 °C) for a further 30 minutes. Run off and sparge to collect 5.5–6.0 gallons (20–23 L) of wort, and boil it for 60 minutes. Cool, run into fermenter, adding spices in a hop or muslin bag and pitch yeast. Mix the honey and dates with enough boiling water (about 0.5–1 pint) to give a pourable slurry and add to the fermenter after the high kräusen has fallen. Rack to secondary after 5–7 days, leave 1–2 weeks to clarify and reach finishing gravity, then bottle or keg as per normal procedures.
Malt Extract Version
You can’t substitute the pale malt with pale extract and do a partial mash with the other grains, because the presence of so much unmalted wheat will likely give just a sticky mess. I suggest a different route, namely start with a witbier kit. These are available from suppliers, and you should follow their directions up to the end of the boil. Then as above, cool, run into fermenter, adding spices in a hop or muslin bag and pitch yeast. Mix the honey and dates with enough boiling water (about 0.5–1 pint) to give a pourable slurry and add to the fermenter after the high kräusen has fallen. Rack to secondary after 5–7 days, leave 1–2 weeks to clarify and reach finishing gravity, then bottle or keg as per normal procedures.