Ruins of the Central City of Amarna. Image courtesy isawnyu

It was amid the ruined Workmen’s Village of Amarna, built by Pharaoh Akhenaten in 1350BC and destroyed by Tutankhamun 17 years later, that Barry Kemp of Cambridge University discovered clues revealing how beer was brewed in ancient Egypt.

This discovery ultimately gave modern brewers the means to replicate recipes of old – the most famous being Tutankhamun Ale, a beer made by Scottish & Newcastle Brewery, which was sold at London department store Harrods for about £50 a bottle in 1996. The first bottle sold for an astounding $7 686!

Kemp and his team had stumbled upon the remains of several breweries, including the pharaoh’s royal brewery, complete with grain, bread and beer residues – an extremely rare find in archaeological digs, as rot and decay often destroy such residual traces.

It was Dr Delwen Samuel, also of Cambridge University, along with another archaeobotanist, who attempted to identify these residues and decode the ingredients used to make ancient beer. They made some interesting discoveries.

“First, [they found that] the grain could be either barley, or emmer, an early form of wheat; these grains were used separately and not as a mixture,” writes Terry Foster, of Brew Your Own magazine.

“Second, there was evidence that the grain in both bread and beer residues had been malted, and may have been heated while still wet, bringing about some gelatinisation of the starch.”

The world-famous Tutankhamun Ale

Additionally, they discovered that dates (a popular ingredient for brewing beer in ancient times) were not used at Amarna. Dr Samuel found no evidence that other flavouring methods were used in the brewing process.

“Dr Samuel proposed a brewing scheme where one part of grain was malted and ground then mixed with cold water. A further part of grain, which could be either malted or unmalted, was ground and mixed with hot water, and well heated,” says Foster.

“The hot and cold mashes were then mixed and let stand for an unspecified time, after which the mixture was sieved, and fermentation was carried out.”

This is where Scottish & Newcastle Brewery stepped in to actually create Tutankhamun Ale. It assembled a team that visited the dig site, and soon began work to recreate a drink fit for pharaohs. The team analysed water from wells across Amarna and agreed that only a small amount of gypsum (a brewing agent which can lower the pH of the mixture) would be needed in the brewing process.

Emmer was used instead of barley, but since it is so rare, seed stock was imported from Turkey for the National Institute of Agriculture and Botany in Cambridge, where it was grown. This was malted at Moray Firth Maltings in Scotland, and everything was ready for brewing.

“It was decided that they would shoot for a 6% ABV beer, which would be flavoured with coriander and juniper,” explains Foster. “Coriander grew widely in ancient Egypt and was known to have been used there in baking; the reasoning behind adding juniper appears less sound.”

The batch of ale was successfully brewed, and 1 000 bottles were filled. Foster says it was described as having a hazy, gold colour, and tasted fruity and grainy, with caramel/toffee notes, sweet and spicy/astringent in the mouth with a dry finish. Sounds delicious – a pity there are no more left!

“Scottish & Newcastle never made another batch of this beer, and closed their Edinburgh brewery in 2002. And then they themselves disappeared and their brewing empire was carved up by Heineken and Carlsberg between them.”

For any professional and aspiring home brewers, a variety of recipes are available here if you want to try your hand at making this ancient Egyptian ale.