In praise of Ninkasi

Roughly 6,000 years ago, humans began to huddle together in ancient Mesopotamia in what would become one of the first urban civilizations in the world, the city-state of Sumer. Perhaps they joined each other for protection, or to grow crops together, or because humanity was getting tired of hunting and gathering.

Pat Conway thinks it was for the beer.

“The Sumerian culture just blew me away. That’s what I wanted to learn more about. I mean, these people were brewing thousands of years before they learned how to farm,” said Conway. Before more than 100 fascinated beer and archaeology enthusiasts on May 24 at his Great Lake Brewing Company tasting room, Conway gave his lecture, “Sip Like a Sumerian: Brewing Beer the Mesopotamian Way,” with GLBC Sumerian beer specialist Michael Williams.

Conway has long been fascinated with the origins of brewing, and in 2012, he and his team set out to make beer that didn’t just taste like ancient Sumerian beer, but which was made through a brewing process that was as historically accurate as possible.

This was easier said than done, because despite the wealth of ancient Sumerian documents detailing beer yields and allotments, there exists no record of a clear recipe or brewing process. Working with experts from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, they carefully studied Sumerian texts, particularly the Hymn to Ninkasi, a song in praise of the goddess of beer from 1800 B.C.

This academic analysis and textual inference produced a list of possible ingredients, including grains of paradise, dates, juniper, and pomegranate. It also suggested the brewing process used by the Sumerians that Conway could replicate.

 

Conway’s team brewed two versions of the Sumerian recipe: Gilgamash, brewed according to modern beer-making methods, and Enkibru, made according to the method in the Hymn of Ninkasi.

 

Following the ancient method meant malting the barley in the open air on the roof of Great Lakes Brewing Company, creating clay fermentation urns, and cooking the beer over dung fires. As in Sumer, the brew wasn’t filtered, so all of fermenting ingredients remained floating on the surface (hence the use of straws). Both versions of the Sumerian beer came out at 5% alcohol by volume, and both were notably lacking in any of the hoppy bitterness we’ve come to expect in today’s beer. This, and the undercurrent of fruit, though, are all that the two versions share.

Gilgamash, the modern beer, was very young at the lecture, only a few days old, and it tasted light, clean, simple, crisp, sweet, and refreshing. Despite its ancient and unusual origins, it tastes familiar.

Enkibru, however, is a very different experience, and utterly unlike any commercial beer you’re likely to try. To begin with, it is warm, and very cloudy. It is also sweet, but unlike the modern version, this sweetness is richer, almost chocolatey, and the dominant flavors are malt, sour, and yeast. As unexpected as the taste was, the Enkibru has a deep and complicated flavor that is more reminiscent of food than drink.

Conway and the GLBC team have been tackling this Sumerian Beer Project for four years and they continue to refine their process each time, making new batches a few times each year. While you’re won’t likely see Enkibru bottles in your local Heinen’s anytime soon, the next time you’re at Great Lakes Brewing Company, ask if they have any of their Sumerian beer on tap. If so, you’re in for a real treat.

— Story and Photos by Jon Benedict