Beer is almost universally popular. It’s drunk in virtually every country in the world and is responsible for some of the best times and worst ideas that the human race has ever had. Many countries claim that they made the world’s best beer. Whether they do or not is a subjective question, so we’re not even going to attempt to answer it today. However, what we might have an answer to is the question of where people brewed beer first – and it probably isn’t where you’d expect.
The biggest beer drinkers in the world per capita are, according to our research, Romania, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. You’ll already have spotted that there’s a European theme going on here. The origins of beer, though, don’t appear to lie in Europe at all. Instead, the creation of beer might be yet another thing that we have to credit the ancient Egyptians with. Thanks to a discovery that was first reported in February this year, we’re now able to suggest with some confidence that the world’s first large-scale beer manufacturing facility was based in Abydos, Egypt.
If we’d given you a pen and a piece of paper and asked you to write down the twenty countries most likely to have invented beer, we’re reasonably confident that Egypt wouldn’t have appeared on your list. The ancient residents of the African nation had an incredible knowledge of medicine, astronomy, and construction, but never before has there been a suggestion that they were quite so interested in producing industrial quantities of alcohol. It simply isn’t something the country is known for. When we think of Egypt, we think of deserts, pyramids, pharaohs, and the Valley of the Kings. These are the stereotypes that are perpetuated in film, television, and even other branches of entertainment like online slots websites, where Egyptian-themed slots are all the rage. There’s perhaps a little cultural overlap here, too, because the Brits like to think they invented beer, and their enthusiasm for the liquid is parodied in the online slots game “Down the Pub” at Rose Slots Canada. It turns out that you probably can’t rely on the creators of online slots to give you an accurate picture of history – and nor can the Brits compete with the findings of this archaeological survey.
After making the discovery in February, the Egyptian-American archaeologists responsible for the find have had a few months to study, test, and explore the Abydos site. That’s allowed them to reach some surprising conclusions. To the amazement of everybody connected to the project, the brewing facility they’ve found in the desert is five thousand years old. That takes it back to the time of King Narmer, the mighty leader who unified Egypt as a country and thereby commenced the First Dynasty era. Perhaps he used beer as a means of bringing the country together! That’s unlikely, but it’s clear that whoever owned and operated this brewery wasn’t simply making beer for their own personal consumption. The scale of the operation is impressive, and its sophistication is surprisingly advanced for the era.
The Abydos brewery contains eight different brewing units, each around seventy feet long, with forty earthenware brewing pots split between them. Analysis of the substances inside those pots proves that workers used them for heating a mixture of water and grain. The ceramic basins were held in place with a complicated system of levers arranged in a ring formation. That process would have produced a fairly tasteless form of beer. Experts say that this site would have had a production capacity of roughly 22,400 litres of beer if every container was full. It wouldn’t be an especially pleasant thing to drink, but then, on the other hand, craft beer made using “old world” techniques is extremely popular at the moment. Maybe if someone were to create the beer that was brewed here, it would be the hit of the summer with bearded real ale enthusiasts. This beer wouldn’t be strong – but it doesn’t need to be strong when you have more than twenty thousand gallons of it!
Even though this brewery would clearly have had beer to spare, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily available to everyone. Historians think that the site might have been used sparingly and only when beer was specifically required for royal rituals – perhaps those that happened at funerals or other special occasions. Archaeologists have, in the past, also found evidence that beer was used during sacrificial rituals. As a tipple of choice, most Egyptians preferred wine to beer when it came to recreational drinking. You won’t find much Egyptian wine at your local store today, but thousands of years ago, it was considered to be among the finest in the world. We’ve known for a long time that the ancient Egyptians made wine five thousand years ago because archaeologists have been able to prove it with discoveries made in the past. Now we know that they were making beer at around the same time.
Abydos is one of the oldest of all the ancient Egyptian cities and so has been explored and excavated extensively by archaeologists. The predecessors of this Egyptian-American team have found plenty of temples and enormous cemeteries, but somehow this brewery had gone unnoticed until now. It’s certainly old, but can we be sure that it’s the oldest in the world? The answer is no. We can’t rule out the possibility that there even older breweries out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. Such is the extent of the archaeological work being performed in Egypt at the moment that we might even see an older one found on Egyptian territory. This was clearly a large-scale brewery, but the fact that it’s so large makes it doubtful that it was the first. When inventing something new, people tend to start with small-scale production and then progress to larger sizes when they’re confident in their methods. Based on that theory, there ought to be a smaller brewery somewhere else in Abydos.
This is definitely the oldest large brewery in the world, and as things stand, it’s the oldest of any kind. Does that prove that the Egyptians invented beer? Possibly not – but it means they have a better claim to that accolade than any other nation!