Last month, NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and Princeton University announced that their joint archaeological team had uncovered the world’s oldest-known industrial-size brewery at the southern Egyptian ruins of Abydos. Archaeologists have dated the brewery to about 3000 B.C., meaning it might’ve churned out beer during the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
“The fundamental significance of the Abydos brewery is its scale relative to anything else in early Egypt,” project co-leader Dr. Matthew Adams said via email. The brewery likely produced about 22,400 liters of fairly sweet, cloudy beer with each batch, possibly weekly. “That is a huge amount of beer by any standard, even in modern terms,” says Adams. “It’s absolutely unique.”
Apparently, it would’ve been enough output to provide 8,800 Egyptian workers with their daily suds (yes, their wages included beer). But Adams suggests that this beer was mostly ceremonial and used for ritual offerings and royal funerary rites.
Unearthed in 2018, the brewery features eight parallel installations, each containing about 40 ceramic vats where a water-grain mash would’ve slowly cooked before fermentation. Many of these vats still contain the mash’s glassy residue. Wood charcoal and grain kernels have also been discovered.
The brewery excavation offers a snapshot into the ancient world’s potable passions. “For all of ancient Egyptian history, bread and beer were the two most basic foodstuffs,” says Adams. “If you had bread and beer, you had the means to live.”
Adams and Dr. Deborah Vischak, the project’s co-leader, believe the brewery enhances our understanding of the massive resources early Egyptian kings could muster.
The site also points to a critical time for Egypt, when symbols of power were changing. “[The breweries] illustrate how the early rulers incorporated what had already been established as an important dietary and likely ritual staple into the formalized ideology and practice of kingship,” Vischak explained via email.
Egypt’s early kings came from Abydos, and the ruins are packed with their royal temples, tombs and monuments (these might be viewed as templates for later cemeteries at Giza and the Valley of the Kings). Adams proposes that these were linked to the brewery, based on the many beer vessels found throughout Abydos. So we may know more now about the beer Egyptian kings were taking into the afterlife with their boats, servants and jewels. Hopefully some frosted glasses, too.
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