Blog Post #49: Bringing the Beers of Ancient Mesopotamia Back to Life with Tate Paulette

In February we’re cooking up a food-and-drink-themed blog series for you, featuring scholars who study eating and drinking culture in the ancient world from a variety of avenues, from texts to pottery to experimental archaeology.

My name is Tate Paulette. I’m an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Southwest Asia, especially Mesopotamia and the island of Cyprus. My research investigates early political life and, in particular, the politics of food. From a methodological perspective, I tend to operate as a synthesizer – drawing together diverse lines of evidence, bringing them into conversation with one another, and working to open up new perspectives on otherwise well-worn topics. I particularly value public engagement and hands-on, experimental, and experiential modes of research and teaching. Here, I’d like to give you a quick glimpse into my recent work on Mesopotamian beer. 

Brewing beer in Mesopotamia 

In ancient Mesopotamia, food and politics were intimately intertwined. Whether we’re talking about the ability to store up stocks of grain and redistribute it to one’s followers or the ability to host elaborate and exclusive feasts, food could be a potent political tool. And this applies especially to beer, both a beloved beverage and a fundamental dietary staple. The earliest kingdoms in Mesopotamia (we typically refer to these as “states”) were heavily invested in the production and distribution of beer. I’ve recently published an article about the connection between beer, inebriation, and the early state. As many others have remarked, all foods can be considered a special kind of “embodied” material culture. We take them into our bodies, and they become a part of us. In the process, beer produces a distinctive suite of bodily effects that we call inebriation. Past people drank beer, at least in part, because of how it made them feel. My suggestion is that we need to take this inebriating element more seriously in our accounts of politics in the past.  

A person drinks beer from a ceramic vessel with a reed straw
A participant tasting the beer. Photo: Stephen Lyford, @FocusedOnBeer 
    www.facebook.com/StephenLyfordPhotography 
A large round ceramic vessel with a stirring stick inside sits atop a base containing burning wood. Steam is coming out of the top of the vessel.
Heating the combined ingredients before fermentation. Photo: Tate Paulette

But here I want to focus on the brewing of beer. In discussions of food and politics, there has been a tendency to fixate on contexts of consumption: for example, “commensal” occasions (like feasts) characterized by elaborate forms of etiquette and intense jockeying for social position. But, of course, the food for such events doesn’t just appear out of thin air. If we want to know who was pulling the strings and why, we need to know more about the backstory: how the food was produced, by whom, and with whose backing. 

The evidence for the brewing of beer in Mesopotamia is both incredibly detailed and frustratingly incomplete. Thanks to the existence of an extensive body of written documentation – hundreds of thousands of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script – we can say exactly how much malted barley and emmer wheat went into particular batches of beer. We can say exactly how much beer was distributed from a particular brewery on a particular day to particular individuals. And we can even glean some hints about the main steps in the brewing process. But the cuneiform evidence leaves much to be desired; so much is left unsaid, for example, about exactly what went on behind the scenes in the brewery. And it can be difficult to link the cuneiform evidence up with what we know from the archaeological record, whether brewing vessels or brewing ingredients or brewing spaces. Despite more than a century of excavation in the region, for example, we still can’t point to a single building and say with absolute certainty that this building was once a brewery. And we can’t say exactly how the brewers of ancient Mesopotamia brewed their beer.

Experimental brewing 

Of the many potential paths forward, I want to highlight the experimental path. When you run up against a dead end archaeologically, want to test out a particular hypothesis, or just want to get the ideas flowing, one option is the do-it-yourself route: knap your own flint, throw your own pots, brew your own beer. This is experimental archaeology. I found my way into experimental archaeology as a grad student at the University of Chicago. Fellow archaeologist Mike Fisher had heard about a new collaboration between the Oriental Institute (where we were studying) and Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland. The goal was to recreate the beers of ancient Mesopotamia using authentic ingredients, equipment, and techniques. How could we possibly pass up the chance to take part? We volunteered our services and quickly joined in on the effort. 

A blue bowl containing paste is being poured into a ceramic vessel atop hot coals. A large wooden stick for stirring sits inside.
Adding date paste to make the beer. Photo: Tate Paulette
In the brewery. Photo: Tate Paulette

The real strength of this collaboration was the multidisciplinary composition of the team: on one side, a group of professional brewers, intimately familiar with modern brewing ingredients and techniques; on the other, a group of archaeologists and cuneiform specialists immersed in the task of sifting through bits and pieces of the past and well aware that this whole effort was, in a sense, a fool’s errand. No perfect recreation would ever be possible. We also brought in a ceramicist to create replica brewing vessels and an artisanal baker to help with one of the most enigmatic brewing ingredients, a (possibly) bread-like product known as bappir in the Sumerian language. 

Over a period of about four years, we produced numerous batches of beer, each brewed using a set of ceramic vessels modeled on actual examples excavated in Iraq by the Oriental Institute. As clearly indicated in ancient documents, our beers were all built on a base of malted barley, often with emmer wheat and/or date syrup. We also experimented with other flavoring ingredients, all available at the time but, unfortunately, not explicitly mentioned in writing. Our experiments were not organized as a systematic program of hypothesis testing or a rigorously controlled analysis of specific variables. This was a looser undertaking, a creative collaboration designed to identify gaps in our knowledge, explore possibilities, and generate questions. 

A man holds ingredients for the beer, and is about to put some into a ceramic vessel
Adding bappir to the fermentation vessel. Photo: Tate Paulette
A vessel sits atop a wooden table along with some of the ingredients used such as dates, and a metal cup with reed straws in it
A vessel for beer, some of the ingredients used, and reed straws. Photo: Stephen Lyford, @FocusedOnBeer 
    www.facebook.com/StephenLyfordPhotography 

For me, these questions really stand out as the key take-aways. What exactly was that enigmatic bappir, and what role did it play in the brewing process? Was it really a kind of bread or something else entirely? Could it have functioned effectively as a fermentation starter, as often suggested? And when exactly would date syrup have been added to the beer? Was it functioning as a source of fermentable sugars or a source of flavor and sweetness? And what about the most iconic brewing vessel in Mesopotamia, distinguished by the presence of a hole in its base? Was this a fermentation vessel, as often assumed? And why the pierced base? It’s in the effort to put our theories to the test, to brew actual beer, that the implications of such questions really come into focus. That’s what experimental archaeology is all about. 

Public engagement 

Of course, in this case, there’s also an added benefit. Our experiments resulted in perfectly drinkable beer, begging to be served up to an interested public. We held a series of tasting events in different cities. Attendees were offered two different Mesopotamian beers to try: one brewed using the replica ceramic vessels (and a cocktail of “wild” yeast strains) and one using modern brewing equipment (and a more familiar yeast). In homage to the famous adventuring duo, Enkidu and Gilgamesh, we named these beers Enkibru and Gilgamash. The difference between the two – in appearance, texture, and taste – was striking. Not all reviews were positive (you can see some here, here, here, and here), but many tasters actually preferred the Enkibru, somewhere between mildly tart and distinctly sour and flavored with a rotating cast of relatively unfamiliar herbs and spices. One highlight of every event was the drinking of Enkibru through long, reed straws from a shared communal vessel, as shown in many artistic depictions from Mesopotamia.

A group of people stand around a vessel filled with beer, drinking from it with long reed straws
A group drinks the Enkibru through long straws. Photo: Tate Paulette
A server holds a black tray with seven glasses of homemade beer on it
A tray of homemade Enkibru. Photo: Tate Paulette

With these tasting events, we’ve moved from experimental into experiential archaeology, where what really matters is the experience. Our Enkibru was not a perfect recreation of any beers gone by, but the experience of drinking it did, I think, offer attendees a distinctive kind of embodied connection with the people of the past – a sort of communion between beer drinkers past and present. While they were sipping their beers and enjoying snacks inspired by Mesopotamian cuisine, we also took the audience through the story behind the beers: the ancient evidence, the experimental process, tasting notes for the finished product. So there was a strong educational component. I have also given many other public lectures (often at bars and breweries) about Mesopotamian beer. This is a topic that people really seem to connect with. I’m currently working on a book that offers an accessible and, I hope, entertaining introduction to beer and brewing in ancient Mesopotamia. It should be out within the next year or so, so keep your eyes peeled. 

Further Reading

Paulette, Tate. 2021. Inebriation and the early state: Beer and the politics of affect in Mesopotamia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 63.  

Paulette, Tate. 2020. Archaeological perspectives on beer in Mesopotamia: Brewing ingredients. In After the harvest: Storage practices and food processing in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, eds. Noemi Borrelli and Giulia Scazzosi, 65–89. Subartu 43. Turnhout: Brepols.  

Paulette, Tate. 2020. Brewing Mesopotamian beer brings a sip of this vibrant ancient drinking culture back to life. The Conversation. August 24, 2020.  

Paulette, T., and M. Fisher. 2017. Potent potables of the past: Beer and brewing in Mesopotamia. The Ancient Near East Today, April 2017, vol. 5, no. 4.  

Civil, Miguel. 1964. A hymn to the beer goddess and a drinking Song. In Studies presented to A. Leo Oppenheim, June 7, 1964, 67–89, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Chicago. 

Damerow, Peter. 2012. Sumerian beer: The origins of brewing technology in ancient Mesopotamia. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2012: 2.  

McGovern, Patrick. 2009. Uncorking the past: The quest for wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 

Online Resources

Paulette, Tate. 2021. Mesopotamia: Civilization begins (with beer). Bacchus Uncorked series. The Getty, Los Angeles, CA  

Paulette, Tate. 2020. Fermentation in ancient Mesopotamia. Fermentology. Online mini-seminar hosted by Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC  

Tate Paulette sits at a table with a glass of beer, smiling at the camera.
Tate Paulette

Tate Paulette is an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Southwest Asia, especially Mesopotamia and Cyprus. An Assistant Professor in the History department at North Carolina State University, he holds an MA and PhD in Near Eastern Archaeology from the University of Chicago and an MA in Archaeology from the University of Edinburgh. His research investigates the intersection between food and politics in the ancient world, with a particular focus on agricultural practices and alcoholic beverages. He has conducted archaeological fieldwork in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, Scotland, and the US and currently co-directs an archaeological field project and field school at the site of Makounta-Voules-Mersinoudia in western Cyprus. He is finishing up a book about beer and brewing in ancient Mesopotamia. 

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