For decades, it was thought that the ancient Sumerians were one of the earliest people groups who brewed their own alcoholic beer—ancient writings and traces on ancient vessels revealed that these Mesopotamian people loved their fermented cereal juice… but no one has been quite sure how they actually made it.
But, historian of science and cuneiform scholar Peter Damerow wanted to better understand how the Sumerians brewed their beer, so he decided to review all the relevant finds about ancient beer production (and consumption!), including cuneiform tablets from 4,000 years ago, to see what he could learn.
Unfortunately, he didn’t learn a whole lot. The legacy of Mesopotamia’s administrative texts didn’t include the kinds of clues needed to be able to understand Sumerian brewing techniques… and left Damerow with the conclusion that the Sumerian brew might not actually have been beer at all.
In his study published in November, in the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, Damerow wrote: “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.”
The texts Damerow studied definitely showed the right products for the job, though—deliveries of emmer wheat, barley, and malt, but almost nothing on the actual brewing process itself. But why would the Sumerians have written the recipe down, other historians protest, because the audience the texts were made for would have already been familiar with the brewing process. Writing it down would have taken up valuable shelf space, so to speak.
It also doesn’t help that the Sumerian bureaucrats that created the administrative texts used different systems of measuring, recording, and calculating, depending on the objects they were counting or measuring. And where the recording was being done. And in what time period!
And even an analysis of the “Hymn of Ninkasi”—a hymn that glorifies beer brewing—didn’t reveal anything new, or talk about how the brewing was done.
Back in 2006, there was research done that attempted to reconstruct the ancient beer brewing process, but Damerow’s review of that study led him to conclude that it only showed how modern brewing methods can create beer under similar conditions in a 13th-century settlement called Tall Bazi in Syria, and may not be representative of other locations in Mesopotamia (it was a big place!).
So, the old theory about Sumerian brewers crumbling flat bread into their mash to create “bappir” (“beer bread” in Sumerian) may not be true after all.
The good news is, it means we now know the Sumerians probably didn’t have to appoint a Designated Cart Driver after every social event…