What did Pharaoh’s Beer Taste Like?

Researchers produce beer using yeast found within vessels from thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists and researchers are bringing the past to life like never before, recreating the very tastes of the ancient world. Through a study conducted by the Hebrew University, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and Bar-Ilan University, researchers discovered a method of isolating yeast cultures from ancient beer vessels, and have used them to recreate the beverages of ancient Egypt and Philistia.

...this research is extremely important to the field of experimental archaeology, a field that seeks to reconstruct the past. Our research offers new tools to examine methods and quality, and enables us to taste the flavors of ancient foods.
— Dr. Ronen Hazan

The project’s lead researchers, Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, are microbiologists from the Hebrew University's Faculty of Dental Medicine. Their research examined colonies of yeast found in the nano-pores of ancient vessels, to determine how the yeast had been preserved for so many years. The first stage of their study was to isolate the yeast cultures from the porous ceramic of the ancient vessels. This was accomplished with the help of the Kadma winery in Kfar Uriyah which specializes in using clay vessels to make wine. They proved that yeast can be isolated from pottery, even from vessels which had been exposed to full sun for two years.

Sampling in the laboratories of the School of Dental Medicine of the Hadassah Medical Center and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

Sampling in the laboratories of the School of Dental Medicine of the Hadassah Medical Center and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

A beer from the excavations of Tel Tzafit / Gat, from which a Philistine beer was produced.  Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

A beer from the excavations of Tel Tzafit / Gat, from which a Philistine beer was produced. Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

The cultures were then photographed by Dr. Tziona Ben-Gedalya of the Judea Region Research & Development Center, using a scanning electronic microscope. After an initial investigation, researchers decided to dig deeper, and contacted Dr. Yitzhak Paz of the IAA, Prof. Aharon Meir of Bar-Ilan University and Prof. Yuval Gadot and Prof. Oded Lipschitz of Tel Aviv University, requesting more potsherds to draw samples from. 

The sherds they were supplied with came from ancient beer and mead vessels, taken from a number of sites including Ein HaBesor in the Negev, salvage excavations at HaMasger Street in Tel Aviv, and Tel Aviv University’s excavations at Tel Tzafit and Ramat Rachel. The collection of pottery was selected from different historical periods, between 3,000 BCE through the 4th century BCE, from the founding of the first united Egyptian kingdom in the days of king Narmer to the days of Hazael, king of Aram, and the days of Nehemiah, who governed Judaea under Persian rule. In those days, beer was an important element of the daily diet and was also used in religious worship and healing rituals.

The excavation on Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv, from here the Egyptian capital Narmer was produced.  Photo: Yoli Schwartz, courtesy of the IAA.

The excavation on Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv, from here the Egyptian capital Narmer was produced. Photo: Yoli Schwartz, courtesy of the IAA.

Tzemach Aouizerat, a student participating in the research, succeeded in isolating yeast samples from six different potsherds. The researchers purified and sequenced the full genome of each yeast and then turned to Dr. Amir Szitenberg from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center who helped analyzing it. They found that the yeast from the ancient beer jugs is similar to yeast isolated from traditional beers produced in Africa such as the Ethiopian Tej, as well as modern beer yeast. 

Finally, and with the help of beer expert Itai Guttman, researchers were ready to make their own brew using the isolated yeast. As it turns out, Pharoh’s beer was quite good! The beverage was examined in a chemical analysis of flavors by Dr. Eliyashiv Drori  of Areil University and by a team of certified tasters led by Shmuel Nakai from the International Brewers' Tasting Association. These experts fund the beer to be drinking worthy, and said said had good qualities.

The team of researchers with old-new beer bottles manufactured in laboratories.  Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

The team of researchers with old-new beer bottles manufactured in laboratories. Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

Paz describes the project as “a real breakthrough.” He says, "This is the first time we succeeded in producing alcohol from ancient preserves, that is, from the original materials from which the alcohol was produced.”

Aside from successfully producing alcohol using the very preserves from ancient brews for the first time, researchers also isolated a significant number of yeast samples from the interior of ceramic oil lamps. Presumably, these were from the olive oil used to fuel the lamps’ wicks. This discovery further strengthens the conclusion that yeast colonies can remain established in ancient ceramic for many years.

The greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years, just waiting to be excavated and grown. The yeast enabled us to produce beer and now we know what Philistine and Egyptian beers tasted like. By the way, they aren’t bad.
— Dr. Ronen Hazan
The experimental instruments in the laboratories from which the beer was produced.  Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

The experimental instruments in the laboratories from which the beer was produced. Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the IAA.

Abby VanderHart, FIAA Contributor

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