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‘Bread & beer mate’


A greeting used by labourers building the pyramids

For Egyptian workers bread and beer were a form of currency, paid as wage rations because they were staples of the Egyptian diet. There were standard sizes for beer jars, and loaves were baked using a standard recipe.

Beer in Egypt

Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose, California
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
E. Michael Smith Chiefio – Acc. 7 July 2017


Malted barleyHordeum vulgare
wheatTriticum aestivum
Maize (corn) – Zea mays
RiceOryza sativa
HopsHumulus lupulus

Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world and the third most popular of all drinks after water and tea. Remains of the world’s oldest brewery date back over 5000 years to Egypt’s King Narmer.[6]

During the Neolithic Revolution, that momentous social transition from a nomadic tribal existence to settled cereal-farming river-valley communities that would give rise to the city-states of Egypt and Mesopotamia. At this dawn of civilization (Latin civilis-civil, civis-citizen, civitas-city) the grains barley and wheat, in their solid form as bread and liquid form as the staple beverage, beer.


Traces of beer have been found in (9,000–8,700 cal. BP)-year-old vessels at a burial site at Qiaotou in Southern China, making the site among the oldest in the world for early beer drinking. The pots contained beer made of rice (Oryza sp.), Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and USOs.[7]

However, we cannot be sure when beer was first brewed because it pre-dates the written record. By 4000 BCE it was well established in Egypt and Mesopotamia, beer drinking being depicted on the earliest cuneiform clay tablets. Toil in the fields or in building construction was relieved at the end of the day by imbibing a crude beer when beer and bread served as currency and wages.


Soaked in water cereal grains sprout producing diastase enzymes that convert starch into the sugar maltose (malt), sweetening the water. Barley is especially efficient at this and is often the preferred grain for malting. Left for a couple of days this gruel would absorb yeasts from the air and fermentation could be seen as bubbling of carbon dioxide at which point drinking the liquid would be mildly intoxicating, complete fermentation taking about a week. The more malted grain and longer the brew is left the more alcoholic the beer.

When the mixture is boiled different enzymes convert more of the starch to sugar concentrating the sugars further. Boiling had the additional advantage of sterilising the beer which became safer to drink than the frequently contaminated water used in densely populated areas. The beer could then be flavoured with herbs, spices and fruits. Similar fermentation occurred with seasonal fruits (wine) and honey (mead) but it was grains that were available and could be stored in large quantities. Beer brewing was not confined to the West as, in China, beer was brewed from millet and rice.

By manipulating the brewing process and grains used different kinds of beer were produced, the particular colour, flavour and alcohol content suited to the particular religious or social ceremony where it would be drunk. As a gift from the gods beer was closely associated with religious ritual – especially fertility rites and funerals. Beer was regarded as an ancient God-given drink that formed part of their identity.

Ancient Egypt

Analysis of beer remains in tomb vessels reveals malted emmer wheat and barley grains mixed with ground grains previously heated in hot water.

Records found in the workers township associated with the great pyramids of Giza around 2500 BCE provide an insight into the life of the workers. Daily payment consisted of several loaves of bread and about four litres of beer. Often depicted as downtrodden slaves, and certainly engaged in back-breaking physical toil, these men could also be regarded as state employed construction workers. Their daily greeting to one-another was ‘bread and beer’. We hear much of the sumptuous contents of the pyramid burial tombs, the various personal possessions that might be needed by pharaohs in the after-life. Lowly citizens were buried in shallow graves accompanied by a few small jars of beer.[1] Beer remains the symbolic drink of the humble and unpretentious worker.


From these early tablets and archaeological finds Mesopotamians drank beer through straws either sunk deep into large clay amphorae or from mugs with side ‘straws’ that taking the cloudy liquid from the bottom of the vessel. This beer was unfiltered so the straws were a way of avoiding the grainy detritus of the brewing process.

the Code of Hammurabi a Babylonian code of 282 laws, mostly to do with contracts, engraved on a stone stele in 1754 BCE – and one of the world’s first recorded legal codes – included not only laws regulating beer and beer parlours, but also the Hymn to Ninkasi, a celebration of the Babylonian goddess of beer.

Cuneiform writing began as an inventory of wages and taxes. The symbol for beer appears frequently alongside the symbols for livestock, grain, and textiles, the priests keeping records and noting surplus that thy could consume or trade for other goods and services. By handing out rations of bread and beer the priests could control the economy, paying for the construction of public buildings and irrigation systems. Citizens were subjugated to a life of toil but in return they had the security of numbers and a guaranteed supply of food. Rival city states with a priestly class controlling the economy, all under the will of a local God set the precedent for later Greek city-states.

Beer and bread were the foundation of the Mesopotamian economy. Uruk was the largest city in Mesopotamia in 3000 BCE with a population of about 50,000 and by 2000 BCE almost all the citizens of Mesopotamia were living in city states. But after this Egyptian cities like Memphis and Thebes would support larger populations. Grain was the single major source of sustenance consumed both as solid and liquid, beer and bread. Rich in vitamin B drinking beer would have compensated for the probable reduction in meat consumption in cities.

The world’s first writing was Sumerian cuneiform[2] pictograms as wage and tax ledgers as lists of names associated with the daily temple ration of ‘beer and bread for one day’ although this was often supplemented with chickpeas, lentils and beans, onions and turnips, with occasional meats and fish.

Standage[2] gives us a revealing translation of a section of the world’s first literary masterpiece and epic tale, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh written in about 2700 BCE as a legend that would be absorbed by the later Akkadians and Babylonians, at the dawn of a tradition leading to Greek Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Roman Virgil’s Aeneid, Celtic Beowulf, English Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Wagner’s Ring Cycle up to today’s Lord of the Rings and The Matrix.

This extract, told from the perspective of the city-dwellers, describes the civilizing of an outsider. A wild naked man from the wilderness, Enkidu, is introduced to the sophisticated and civilized manners of a shepherd’s village by a young woman:


They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young women spoke to Enkidu, saying:
‘Eat the food Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land’
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer – seven jugs! – and became expansive and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
And rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human.


Clearly, to be civilized it is necessary to be familiar with the manners and rituals associated with the consumption of bread and beer. Table manners have a long history.

Various present-day drinking rituals have probably come down to us from these times including the clinking of glasses, symbolically uniting them into a single shared liquid and container; the raising of glasses of magical intoxicating liquid, a gift from the Gods, when making a toast.


Surplus grain powered a bread and beer economy that, by enabling the rapid growth of population, paved the way to modern civilization. Taxes as grain and other goods were brought to the temple as tribute. These could then be processed and used as wages to workers engaged in various public works – the construction of buildings and infrastructure like irrigation channels. Beer and bread served as currency, the lowly worker being paid one sila (about 1 litre) of beer per day. High officials were paid up to five sila but some of this would be used to pay their own workers, scribes, and so on. Some records indicate monthly payments that included other products notably wool and various fabrics.

There are many many medicinal uses.


The hops we associate with beer today are a relatively recent addition, the cone-like female flowers (there are separate male and female plants) with resins giving the drink a bitterness that counteracts the malty sweetness and the essential oils provide pleasing aromas. The acidity was also useful as an antimicrobial preservative. The word ‘ale’ was once used to distinguish the unhopped beer but this is no longer true. Hops are grown in quantity in the western United States, the south-east and Midlands of Britain, and also in Germany and the Czech Republic.[4]

Archaeological evidence indicates that wild hops, mostly the northern-temperate Common or European Hop Humulus lupulus were used in brewing from about 700 CE while European records begin around the mid nineth century, only becoming a standard ingredient between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Bitterness of beers is measured on the International Bitterness Units scale. Hops to beer. Hops have an antibiotic effect that favours the activity of brewer’s yeast over less desirable microorganisms and help retain the foamy ‘head’ of a freshly poured glass of carbonated beer. Various attempts have been made to recreate Neolithic Egyptian and Mesopotamian beers based on residues from ancient pottery vessels and storage flasks and would be similar in taste to traditional folk beer produced in sub-Saharan Africa: all are sweet in the absence of hops.

Middle Ages

By the 7th century CE, beer was also being produced and sold by European monasteries. The first historical mention of the use of hops in beer was from 822 AD in monastery rules written by Adalhard the Elder, also known as Adalard of Corbie, though the date normally given for widespread cultivation of hops for use in beer is the thirteenth century.

During the Industrial Revolution, the production of beer moved from artisanal manufacture to industrial manufacture, and domestic manufacture ceased to be significant by the end of the 19th century

At first priest accountants in Uruk recorded transactions on clay tokens of different shapes, later reverting to tablets read left to right, top to bottom. Beer (depicted as a jar on its side with diagonal markings) features prominently on these tablets along with livestock, grain and textiles.(pp. 31-32)

Recent history

Beer was first successfully bottled in 1736.[3] World production has increased from 1.3 billion hectolitres in 1998 to 1.96 hl in 2014.[5] The world’s leading beer producers today are China, the United States and Brazil.

Key points

  • Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the worldand the third most popular of all drinks after water and tea
    • Beer has been associated with the development of civilised society through its association with ceremony and ritual especially feasting, spiritual observance, and tradition
      • The world’s leading beer producers are China, the United States and Brazil

      First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
      . . . added China 2021 reference 23 September 2021


      Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt
      Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose, California
      Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
      E. Michael Smith Chiefio – Acc. 7 July 2017

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