Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egyptian beverages: Beer, wine, milk, water.
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The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.
Inscription dating to 2200 BCE
    Beer, henqet (Hnq.t) [8], was the preferred drink of humans and gods, of rich and poor, of grown-ups and children. In the Instructions of Ani the mother
sent you to school when you were ready to be taught writing, and she waited for you daily at home with bread and beer.
Papyrus Chester Beatty IV
(A slightly different translation in M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. II, p. 141)
    Bread and beer were the basic foodstuffs, and while most people had some difficulty making ends meet, there was—among the better-off at least—the danger of overindulging, and educators were aware of it. In the Instructions of Kheti the student is warned:
When you have eaten three loaves of bread and swallowed two jugs of beer, and the body has not yet had enough, fight against it.

    Beer, together with bread, oil and vegetables, was an important part of the wages workers received from their employers. The standard daily ration during pharaonic times was two jars containing somewhat more than two litres each. It was a healthier drink than water drawn from the river or some canal, which was often polluted.
    The Egyptians liked their beer cool as can be learned from a complaint against some robbers who had stolen some food and drink:
They drew a bottle of beer which was [cooling] in water, while I was staying in my father's room.
New Kingdom
Egyptian publications of Mariette
G. Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d'archéologie égyptiennes vol. 3, 1898

Beer production

    According to Strabo, a geographer living in the first century CE, only the Egyptians brewed beer from barley. Unfortunately his remarks are very general and do not give us any pointers as to the methods used:
Barley beer is a preparation peculiar to the Egyptians. It is common among many tribes, but the mode of preparing it differs in each.
Strabo, Geography
Text scanned and modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton
    The ancient Egyptian method of producing it was probably similar to the one still in use in the Sudan today: Wheat, barley or millet [12] was coarsely ground. One quarter of the grain was soaked and left in the sun for a while, the rest was formed into loaves of bread and lightly baked in order Brewery, Source: Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad, Rowohlt not to destroy the enzymes. The loaves were crumbled and mixed with the soaked grain, which had fermented. Then water and some beer were added and the mixture was left to ferment. The fermentation complete, the liquid was strained. As a flavouring agent they may have used dates instead of the medieval gruit herbs or modern hops, but the Newcastle Brown Ale company, after running experiments, concluded that what is translated as "date" is really a word for any sweet and that there was no residue of what we call "date" in their samples. They also concluded there was no need to prepare bread before brewing because sprouted barley or wheat grains work just as well. Vessels, Source: The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
    This process has been depicted since 2500 BCE, when the loaves were baked in little moulds, as ovens came into use only after 2000 BCE. Eight brands of beer were known, but the use of barley became common in Hellenistic times.
    The bitter Nubian beer, brewed in similar fashion, couldn't be kept for very long. Egyptian beer, with pasteurizing unknown, often turned bad in the hot climate, and dead pharaohs were promised bread which doesn't crumble and beer which doesn't turn sour.

    Recently, some of these traditional views have been challenged by new microscopic evidence. In 1996 Delwen Samuel from the University of Cambridge found that the Egyptians seem to have used barley to make malt and a type of wheat, emmer, instead of hops. They heated the mixture then added yeast and uncooked malt to the cooked malt. After adding the second batch of malt the mixture was allowed to ferment. No traces of flavourings were found.
    The yeast used was a naturally occurring variety to begin with, replete with moulds, bacteria and other impurities, which can't have improved the desired results. By the New Kingdom yeast cells were much more uniform in size resembling modern strains, and with fewer impurities, which has led scientists to believe that the Egyptians had mastered the making of pure yeast cultures.

    Large scale beer production seems to have been a royal monopoly. Temples had their own breweries, while brewing in towns and villages was farmed out. One of the earliest breweries found operated at Hierakonpolis during the middle of the 4th millennium BCE and produced possibly more than 1000 litres of beer per day.


Fetching water from a canal

Man fetching water from a canal. Below is his three room home. Two vessels are standing in the enclosed courtyard.
New Kingdom
After Pierre Anus, "Un domaine thébain d'époque 'amarnienne'. Sur quelques blocs de remploi trouvés à Karnak", BIFAO 69 (1971), pp.69-88

    Water along the Nile was rarely in short supply, though its quality was often poor. While the river was not used as a sewer, human excrement did enter it and with it pathogenic agents. This, of course, was unknown to the ancient Egyptians, who thought of disease as the result of daemonic activity; but people, seemingly aware of unseen dangers possibly lurking in water—in the hereafter at least—prayed to the gods
... who remove the pestilence of the streams so that you may drink water from them.
Coffin Texts Spell #12
Faulkner p.12
The scribe Ani and his wife drinking river water; from the Book of Ani

The scribe Ani and his wife drinking river water; vignette from the Book of Ani

    Drinking hallowed water was necessary for the continued existence of the deceased:
May they let me eat of the fields and drink from the pools within the Field of Offerings.
Pyramid Texts: Utterance 518
Faulkner p. 191, Line 1200-1201
Hormini, nomarch of Hierakonpolis, described the boons he expected to receive in the life to come:
... all the good and pure things on which a god lives, which the heavens provide, which the earth brings forth, which the Nile carries from his source, breathing the sweet air of the north wind, drinking water from the banks of the river...
Tombstone inscription of Hormini, 18th dynasty
After K. Sethe, Urkunden der 18. Dynastie, Band I, p.40
    Slow flowing canals and stagnant pools were even more likely than the Nile to harbour dangers: the snail which is host to the bilharzia blood fluke grows best in such an environment. Infested water can be rendered harmless by letting it stand in water jugs for two days, and, of course, boiling kills all pathogens. Just how widespread such practices were, is not known.
Well in the residential area of Akhetaten; Source: Borchardt, Ludwig; Ricke, Herbert : Die Wohnhaeuser In Tell El-Amarna     In many places, both in the floodplain and in mountain valleys, wells were dug, from which water could be drawn. At Pi Ramses water was raised from the public wells by means of shadoofs and collected in stone troughs, where the water-bearers could fill their containers. Even when and where water was abundant, it was used sparingly, because of the amount of work involved in raising and transporting it.
    In Wadi Hammamat the quality of the well water supplied to travellers and miners was often low, and distances between wells and villages considerable.
    In most mountainous regions where rain was extremely rare and ran off in flash floods without being absorbed into the ground, water had to be transported on donkey back from the river valley. At Deir el Medine it was then stored in large cisterns; and one may suppose that the water rations were minimal.
Milking a cow
Milking a cow, the calf is tethered to the cows front leg


    The Egyptians kept cattle, goats and sheep. Their milk was kept in egg-shaped earthen jars, plugged with grass as protection against insect and was drunk shortly after milking. It is often assumed that - because of the hot climate in which milk spoils in a few hours - milk not destined for immediate consumption was processed into something similar to quark or yoghurt-like labaneh.

... at the proper time he should bring them she-goats, and when he had satisfied them with milk he should do for them whatever else was needed.
Herodotus, Histories II
Gutenberg Project
    Milk was considered a delicacy by many. Senefer, a mayor of Thebes during the New Kingdom, wrote to the peasant Baki
... Order the herdsmen to get milk ready in jars before my arrival. ...
Papyrus Berlin 10463 [17]
ramesses ii offering milk to amen     The gods and the dead who joined them did not spurn milk either. According to Diodorus (1.22) there were 365 tables around the tomb of Osiris on the island of Bigge in Nubia, where daily libations of milk were placed.

Ramses II offering milk to Amen
Harold Hayden Nelson, The Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, vol. I, part I, Oriental Institute Chicago 1981, pl.59

... That they may give a mortuary offering, giving oil, incense, libation, wine, milk, oxen and geese to the spirit of Osiris Pediupwawt, deceased, son of Pekhi, deceased born of ... deceased.
From the stela of Pediupwawet. Akhmim? Ptolemaic Period?
(Thomas George Allen: Egyptian Stelae in Field Museum of Natural History, 1936)
    Thutmose III endowed the temple at Thebes with riches unheard of previously. Among them were
3 loan-cows of the cattle of Zahi [3]; 1 loan-cow of the cattle of Kush [4]; total 4 loan-cows; in order to draw milk thereof into jars of electrum each day, and to cause (it) to be offered [to] my father [Amun].
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two § 556
    The Egyptian names for milk products, such as cream and cheeses, have only been tentatively translated. Not much is known about the way they produced butter, but it seems it was clarified, resembling oil.


... May he (Osiris) give water, a cool breeze and wine to the spirit of the inundation Thutmose...
From the stela of Thutmose the doorkeeper, 18th Dynasty
(Thomas George Allen: Egyptian Stelae in Field Museum of Natural History, 1936)
    Wine was known to the Egyptians before 3000 BCE, and the Egyptian word for it, jrp (irep) [8], predates any known word for vine, which suggests, that wine may have been imported before it was produced locally [1]. A third dynasty official received presents from Pharaoh which included plantations:
Very plentiful trees and vines were set out, a great quantity of wine was made therein. A vineyard was made for him: 2000 stat of land within the wall; trees were set out ......
Biography of Metjen
J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part I, § 173
    Both red and white wines were known by the 18th dynasty at least.[10] Wine became an important consumer good. In Ramesside times, the official responsible for furnishing commodities, came to Piramesse with three ships and carried back 1500 sealed [13] wine jars, 50 jars of a beverage called SdH (shedeh) [8], which is often mentioned in conjunction with wine [9], 50 jars of p'oor, baskets of grapes, pomegranates and more. It has been suggested that one of these beverages was a kind of liqueur made from pomegranate wine, but there is no evidence that the principle of distillation was known to the ancient Egyptians.
    A number of Delta vintages are mentioned in the records: the meh from north of Pakus, the wines of the nome of Pelusium and others. Some were shipped in special jars protected by woven cushioning.
    According to Pliny one Egyptian wine caused abortions. A number of Roman writers were familiar with these wines and their qualities and described them:
  • the white Mareotic from the Alexandrine region, pleasant, fragrant, diuretic
  • the pale and somewhat oily Taeniotic, aromatic, superior to the Mareotic, mildly astringent
  • the Thebaid, easily digested and suitable for fever patients
  • the Sebennys, blended from various kinds of grape, among them the sweet Thasian which was known as a laxative

Wine consumption

    On festive occasions, such as the yearly Hathor Celebrations at Bubastis, Hathor being the goddess of love, joy and drunkenness, wine was drunk by everyone:
... when they come to Bubastis they hold festival celebrating great sacrifices, and more wine of grapes is consumed upon that festival than during the whole of the rest of the year.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    Many temples had vineyards to supply the wine necessary for the rituals and for the every day use of the priesthood. Herodotus wrote about them:
They enjoy also good things not a few, for they do not consume or spend anything of their own substance, but there is sacred bread baked for them and they have each great quantity of flesh of oxen and geese coming in to them each day, and also wine of grapes is given to them; but it is not permitted to them to taste of fish
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

    For much of ancient Egypt's history wine was mostly consumed at the court of the pharaohs, where an official was appointed as winetaster, and by the rich and powerful. Their children learned from their elders, and scribes complained of their pupils' habit to get drunk on wine.
    It was drunk from shallow bowls or vessels with a short stem. Sometimes a small amount of sea water was added to enhance the flavour.
    In the first millennium BCE its use spread to the less affluent
These [Calasirians and Hermotybians] had besides their yokes of land an allowance given them for each day of five pounds weight of bread to each man, and two pounds of beef, and four half-pints of wine. This was the allowance given to those who were serving as the king's body-guard for the time being.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    By Roman times consumption of wine was such that Athenaeus in his Deipnosophitsts I, 34B, described the Egyptians, or at least the nobility, as winebibbers.
picking grapes
Picking grapes
Tomb of Nakht
British Museum
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

treading grapes
Treading grapes
Tomb of Nakht
British Museum
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

Wine production

    The main centres of wine production were in the Delta and the Fayum. During the Late Period at least, wine was also produced in the Western Desert oasis of Bahariya and exported to the main population centres along the Nile. Wine making. Source: Lepsius
    The grapes were handpicked and carried in baskets to a low and wide vat probably made of stone. Above the vat there there were either ropes or a bar which the vintners held on to while treading the grapes. The grape juice drained through a hole.

Wine press
Source: C.R.Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien; 1897

The grape skins were filled into sacks and pressed in a winepress. After pressing out as much juice as possible, the mash was poured into a sack. Poles were tied to the sack's four corners and by turning them the rest of the grape juice was squeezed out.
    The fermentation [5] probably didn't occur in the vat but rather in open jars. The fermentation process over the jars were sealed with a plug made of vine leaves and a mixture of straw and clay. If the jars were plugged before the end of the fermentation, a small opening was made which was sealed later. The jars were marked with the date, the name of the vineyard and of the "Chief Gardener" responsible for the wine [15]. They monitored the maturing of the wine. One of their tools of the trade, the syphon for tasting the wine without completely removing the plug, came into use around 1500 BCE under the influence of the Syrian customs. The jars were not covered with an exterior coating, the sealing with resin was adopted under Greek influence.
    Wooden barrels (a Celtic invention) were unknown in ancient times in the Mediterranean region and earthen jars were used for ageing the wine. In order to prevent it from going bad, it was boiled or poured into new jars, as marks on broken jars seem to indicate: fine wine from the eighth time (of decanting, possibly), wine from the third time or light wine which hasn't fermented yet.
    They knew of course that wine, once opened, stops improving and turns into vinegar after a while, but the maxim in the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq: "Wine matures as long as one does not open it" can be interpreted in more than one way.

Other beverages

    In the Flower Song the lover describes the effect his love's voice has on him
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me: I draw life from hearing it.
pHarris 500, Translated by M.V. Fox
    Just as householders today brew alcoholic beverages from anything containing sugar or starch (to the distress of visiting friends who have to drink them), so did the ancient Egyptians. The fruit of the carob tree yielded nedjem. The pekha fruit, often used to fatten animals, was made into a drink of the same name [16]. Other beverages some of them made with unidentified ingredients were w'as, djeseret, and shepenet (Spn.t) which may have been brewed with poppy seeds (Spnn) [7].
    The fruit was left to ferment, the juice squeezed out and strained through a sieve. Dates were steeped in water and pressed. The earliest mention of such fermented date wine was written down during the second dynasty.
    One doesn't know how palm wine was produced in ancient times. It is thought that it was obtained by making incisions in the stems of date palms, collecting the sap and letting it ferment, similarly to how it is still being done today. Apart from being drunk, palm wine was also used during mummification:
... take out the whole contents of the belly, and when they have cleared out the cavity and cleansed it with palm-wine they cleanse it again with spices pounded up.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
Picture sources:
[  ] Brewery: Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad, Rowohlt Verlag
[  ] Vessels: M.Audrain, The Glory of Egypt
[  ] Well: Borchardt, Ludwig; Ricke, Herbert Die Wohnhäuser in Tell El-Amarna
Duccio Cavalieri, Patrick E. McGovern, Daniel L. Hartl, Robert Mortimer and Mario Polsinelli: "Evidence for S. cervisiae Fermentation in Ancient Wine" in Journal of Molecular Evolution, Volume 57, Supplement 1 / August, 2003, Springer New York
Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané, Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, Olga Jáuregui, Rosa M. Lamuela-Raventés,: "The origin of the ancient Egyptian drink Shedeh revealed using LC/MS/MS" in Journal of Archaeological Science 33 (2006) pp.98-101
Ian Spencer Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing, Royal Society of Chemistry 2003, ISBN 0854046305
G. Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d'archéologie égyptiennes, vol. 3, 1898
K. Sethe, Urkunden der 18. Dynastie, Band I
R. O. Faulkner, Pyramid Texts
Thomas George Allen, Egyptian Stelae in Field Museum of Natural History, 1936
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906
Herodotus, Histories II
C.R.Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien; 1897
Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané et al.: "The origin of the ancient Egyptian drink Shedeh revealed using LC/MS/MS", in Journal of Archaeological Science 33 (2006)
J. Cerny, Hieratic Inscriptions from the Tomb of Tutankhamun, University Press, Oxford 1965
Duccio Cavalieri, Patrick E. McGovern, Daniel L. Hartl, Robert Mortimer, Mario Polsinelli; "Evidence for S. cerevisiae Fermentation in Ancient Wine" in Journal of Molecular Evolution, Springer 2003
Strabo, Geography
Adolf Erman, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians; poems, narratives, and manuals of instruction, from the third and second millennia B. C., London, Methuen & Co. ltd., 1927

[1] In a pre-dynastic royal tomb at Abydos wine jars were found which had been made in Canaan [2].
[3] Zahi: Djahi, region in today's Israel. During the New Kingdom Zebu cattle were imported into Egypt from Syria.
[4] Kush: Today's Sudan
[5] D. Cavalieri et al. 2003 have found evidence that the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae still used today for making bread, beer, and wine and which occurs naturally on grapes, has been responsible for wine fermentation since the late 4th millennium. They also suggest it may have been used as an inoculum in beer brewing and to get the bread dough to rise.
[7] The identification of Spn with poppy (e.g. Beinlich) is disputed by some scholars.
[8] On the transliteration and pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian
[9] According to Guasch-Jané et al., 2006, who analyzed the residue from a New Kingdom amphora which had contained Shedeh of very good quality of the House-of-Aton, this beverage was made from red grapes. The pSalt 825 describes its preparation as follows:
It is [/////] repeat the filtration; heating again. This is the way to prepare the Shedeh
and according to an inscription at Denderah it is
the beautiful work of Horus in the lab through the cooked extracts of Shesmou, the god of the press
[10] A study of Rosa Lamuela-Raventos and Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané of the university of Barcelona who analyzed residue in six wine jars found in the tomb of Tutankhamen found that five of them did not contain syringic acid which is found in red wines only.[11]
[12] Cf. this footnote on millet
[13] These seals are often important historical records, at times even unique ones, for establishing the length of royal reigns and the like [14].
[15] For example, a jar from the tomb of Tutankhamen bears the inscription:
Year 5, sweet wine of the House-of-Aten [from] Tharu. Chief vintner Penamun.
J. Cerny, Hieratic Inscriptions from the Tomb of Tutankhamun, University Press, Oxford 1965
[16] The pekha (pxA) drink features in many offering lists in Old Kingdom mastabas, among many other beverages, variety being the spice of both life and death:
2 portions of djesert-jar beverage, 2 portions of djeseret-yatet beverage, 2 portions of henqet beer, 2 portions of sekhepet (sxp.t) beverage, 2 portions of pekha (pxA) juice, 2 (portions) of sesher (sSr) beverage in djuyu (Dwj.w) jars, 2 portions of figs, 2 portions of wine, 2 (portions) of abes (abs) jar wine, 2 portions of Buto wine, 2 portions of Pelusium wine, 2 portions of Hamu (HAm.w) wine
Mastaba of Kaiemankh (G 4561), Gizeh
The sSr beverage may have been a dairy product, sSr having the meaning of stroking, milking.
[17] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches und der Dritten Zwischenzeit => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => pBerlin 10463 => Brief des Bürgermeisters von Theben Sennefer an Baki

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Links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these sites
Wine for eternity[2] Patrick A. Mcgovern : Wine for eternity
Tutankhamen liked his wine white[11] Tutankhamen liked his wine white (New Scientist, 16 February 2006 )
Dynasty I Jar Sealings[14] Elaine A. Evans: Dynasty I Jar Sealings
Two Different Brewing Processes Revealed from Two Ancient Egyptian Mural PaintingsHideto Ishida: Two Different Brewing Processes Revealed from Two Ancient Egyptian Mural Paintings - Subscribers only
The origins and ancient history of wineThe origins and ancient history of wine
Pressing the grapes, scene from the tomb of PetosirisPressing the grapes, scene from the tomb of Petosiris

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