The world's oldest beer factory, in Ancient Egypt

Mysterious structures, discovered a century ago near Abydos, have turned out to be a huge brewing operation...
23 February 2021

Interview with 

Matthew Adams, New York University


A pint of beer.


Researchers at New York University and Princeton have revealed the secret of an Egyptian archaeological site from around 3000 BC. The strange collection of buildings were discovered more than a century ago near the city of Abydos, and it’s only now we know what these structures were used for. The answer… is to brew beer, in what looks to be the largest industrial brewery in ancient history! Eva Higginbotham heard from project co-director Matthew Adams…

Matthew - The overall facility covers an area of around 90 metres by about 40 or 50 metres, and it consists of 8 separate, partly buried buildings that are filled with these large pottery vats. Each one of these was used for cooking the mash - that is the grain, malt, and water - that is then fermented after cooking to make the beer. Each one of these individual buildings could cook close to 3000 litres of beer per batch, and you multiply that by 8 and you have close to 24,000 litres of beer that could be produced at a single time.

Eva - That is an unbelievably large amount of beer, even as a British person speaking here!

Matthew - Yes! A way to think about it might be it's enough beer to give every person in a 40,000 seat football stadium a pint.

Eva - Was beer particularly important to the ancient Egyptians? What relevance did beer have to them?

Matthew - Ancient Egyptians make very clear that the most important food stuffs to them were bread and beer. But in religious and ritual contexts, both of these things had added significance as offerings to, for example, sustain a dead relative in the next world.

Eva - How do you know that these vats were used for brewing beer and not for making something else?

Matthew - We're very fortunate in that our vats, and similar vats from other sites that are somewhat earlier, they frequently contain organic residues from the mash that was cooked inside. When this residue is analysed, it can be shown to contain whole and partly broken down grains; usually it's emmer wheat. The starch particles that are released from cooking the grain are also preserved - they can be seen under scanning electron microscopes. And the process of cooking that can be detected through this kind of scientific analysis is very characteristic of beer-making. It's really the same kind of process that beer makers today are using under much more controlled circumstances.

Eva - Do you reckon it would have tasted the same as a beer nowadays?

Matthew - No, there would have been similarities; but one major difference is that the ancient Egyptians did not have hops, which is a characteristic flavouring that most modern beers use - that would have been absent. So it would have been perhaps on the sweeter side compared to the more bitter modern beers. Another difference is that filtration would not have been up to modern standards, so it would have been quite cloudy probably, and also had a lot of bits of partly cooked like bread dough or something. It might've had almost a kind of runny porridge consistency. That doesn't sound very appealing from a modern perspective, but it would have been from an ancient perspective, a very hearty drink and really almost a kind of a meal unto itself. If you had a jar, they were kind of a standard size beer jar that's close to a litre, you would have had a full belly and probably also somewhat of a light head.


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