Sumerian Beer

Our first real recipe from history. . . why not for a beverage?

The discovery of beer goes far back into Neolithic times. It’s reasonable to assume that the first beers were made by accident, when porridge or mash from grain malted for other purposes was left too long for whatever reason, and fermented.

Thus by the 2000sBC and the rise of  Mesopotamian civilization, people were already proficient brewers.  Sumerian texts mention eight barley beers, eight emmer beers and three mixed beers (one of which we’ll be making today) This special beverage was made from the same grains which the Sumerians were well aware how important it was to their civilization. As such, brewing was sacred, serious business.

The Hymn to the goddess of brewing Ninkasi, from around 1800BC at the peak of Sumerian culture, not only shows the peoples’ reverence and awe at this fermented beverage, but also contains a recipe for how to make the stuff! Modern brewers have taken the instructions and recreated this ancient recipe for barley and wheat beer, which Cathy K. Kaufman handily publishes in her great book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.

The basic method is to malt some wheat berries, then soak them with water, yeast, date-syrup, and a par cooked, fermented loaf of barley dough.  The whole process takes about a week and yields a mild, pale brew that’s only 2% alcohol and doesn’t quite taste like what you’re used to in modern beers.

But it’s not unpleasant!  And it does the job. I would compare the flavor more to cider than to beer. Barley cider if you will, but this is a close approximation of the kind of draught which helped build a civilization.

There’s a more itemized recipe down at the bottom, but for now let’s follow along with the hymn, singing along just like the Sumerians would have while they brewed some beer.

Born of the flowing water,

Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished it’s walls for you,

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

Ugh, Introductions… Every Sumerian document’s got to have tablets and tablets of this stuff before it can get down to business.  To make beer, gods and goddesses are invoked like in any holy ritual.
Also, that repetition isn’t 3 typos in a row.  Every line of the hymn is repeated in that style, but from now on, I’m gonna just pick one of them to spare you a bit.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics…

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains…

Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates…

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall….

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes…

Okay, these verses cover the first 4 days of this recipe.  DAY 1 is easy. Simply soak your wheat berries in a jar overnight. See? This is easy.

On DAY 2, drain the wheat berries. Set up a cheesecloth so that it is suspended tightly over a bowl and won’t touch the bottom.  Put your soaked wheat berries on the cheese cloth and cover with a bowl or other container, tucking underneath to secure the cheesecloth above the bottom of the bowl and keep humid inside.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  Mist a couple times a day to keep the wheat berries moist until they sprout little tails, after 2-3 days.

On the same day, make the bappir dough.  A bappir, or beer bread, is the barley part of this recipe.  Mix yeast, barley flour and water and knead for 3-5 minutes until smooth.  Cover and set aside for 2 days.


By DAY 4, the wheat berries should be sprouted and the bappir smelling nice and fermented.  Preheat the oven to 300F, and bake the bappir for just 10 minutes. You want to cook only the outside, and leave the inside raw.

Meanwhile, with your noble dog by your side, put the sprouted wheat berries on a baking sheet. The Sumerians in their hot and dry climate could malt them in the sun, but we’re going to use the oven.  Bake them at the same temperature as bappir but for 30 minutes, until dry and just slightly toasty. You’ve now made malted grain!

Set aside as long as you want to use any time.  Back to the hymn.

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

On DAY 5, you have to crush 1/2 a cup of malted wheat into powder in your food processor or mortar and pestle.  Then, make some date syrup, exactly as we did for Ancient Honey Mustard, combine it with 2 quarts water and a tablespoon of yeast in a large jar or pot.  Then tear up the bappir into bite sized pieces and stir it all together.  Cover with a cheesecloth and set aside to ferment for 2 days.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.


On DAY 7, strain out the solids.

The beer will be really cloudy at first, but let rest for a couple hours and all those solids will settle to the bottom, upon which you can drain off the beer on top and discard with the rest of the mushy leftover parts.

Now here’s a real recipe:

(yields 2 qts beer, recipe is easily doubled)

1/2 cup whole wheat berries

1.5 Cups Barley Flour
1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon dry yeast.

1/2 cup chopped dates
4 cups water

2 cups filtered water
Cooked Bappir, torn in pieces
1/4 cup date syrup (or honey)
1 tablespoon dry yeast.

DAY 1: Soak wheat berries in water overnight.

DAY 2: Drain wheat berries and set on cheesecloth suspended over a bowl, covered with another bowl to also tuck the cheesecloth under and keep the wheat berries from sitting in water.
Combine barley flour, water, and yeast to make the bappir. Knead for 3-5 minutes and set aside, covered, for 2 days.

DAY 3: Relax

DAY 4: Preheat oven to 300F. Place sprouted wheat berries on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes until dry and just slightly toasty.
Bake the bappir, for just 10 minutes, cooking the outside but leaving the inside raw.

DAY 5: Crush malted grain into powder.
Combine chopped dates and water and boil until reducedto make date syrup. Do not strain solids.  Tear the par-cooked bappir into bite sized pieces, combining with date syrup, 1 tbsp yeast, malt powder, and 2 quarts of water. Cover with a cheesecloth and set aside for 2 days.

DAY 6: Relax

Day 7: Strain out the big solids, and then give the beer 2 hours for remaining solids to settle. Drink, and relax.

4 thoughts on “Sumerian Beer”

  1. Awesome! Is there a modern day beverage that tastes similar? You mentioned cider. Any brand you might recommend to get a close proximate?


    1. The closest I could recommend, if you can find it, is a brand made by Dogfish Head Brewing called “Midas Touch”, made using ancient techniques and with ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels. Its flavor is a similar vibe to what ancient beer tasted like. But why not make your own?


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