Did you know that Pharaoh drank beer?

Prof. Aren Maeir from Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology said, "these findings paint a portrait that supports the biblical image of drunken Philistines."

May 22, 2019 14:21
4 minute read.
Did you know that Pharaoh drank beer?

Beer cruse from Tel Tzafit/Gath archaeological digs, from which Philistine beer was produced. (photo credit: YANIV BERMAN/IAA)


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Beer is an ancient beverage that has been consumed for generations. It's a beloved, low-alcohol drink made from yeast that is enjoyed at celebrations, sports events, family functions or just socially with friends.

But did you know that beer is so popular that it was even consumed thousands of years ago by the pharaohs, ancient kings and perhaps some leaders of the Jewish people?

How different was this ancient beer to the frothy beverage we drink today? What did it taste like?
Israeli Scientists Resurrect Yeast from Ancient Beer Jugs to Recreate 5,000-Year-Old Brew (Credit Yaniv Berman/IAA)Researchers at some of Israel's top universities have now found a way to answer this question.

Led by Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, microbiologists from the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) have "examined the colonies of yeast that formed and settled in" the pottery that was used to produce ancient beer by studying pottery's nano-pores.  

"Ultimately, they were able to resurrect this yeast to create a high-quality beer... that’s approximately 5,000 years old," the Hebrew University explained in a press statement, adding that they had called in many brewers "to the beer kitchen to isolate the yeast specimens from the ancient debris and to create a beer with it."

The university said that the scientists had reached out to vintners (winemakers) at Kadma Winery, located just north of Beit Shemesh to help with this arduous task.

"This winery still produces wine in clay vessels, proving that yeast may be safely removed from pottery, even if it had lain dormant in the sun for years," Hebrew University said.

Dr. Tziona Ben-Gedalya at the Eastern R&D Center of Ariel University photographed the yeast in these clay vessels. Then, the team reached out to archaeologists Dr. Yitzhak Paz from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Prof. Aren Maeir at Bar-Ilan University and professors Yuval Gadot and Oded Lipschits from Tel Aviv University.

"These archaeologists gave them shards of pottery that had been used as beer and mead (honey wine) jugs back in ancient times — and miraculously, still had yeast specimens stuck inside," the release explained.

The pottery shards and jars from which the yeast was extricated date back to several ancient well-known figures including the ancient reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Narmer (roughly 3000 BCE), who was a pharaoh that ruled during the Early Dynastic Period of ancient Egypt and was known for his unification of the country. It even goes back as far as the Aramean King Hazael (800 BCE), who is mentioned in the book of Kings and was appointed by the prophet Elijah as king of Aram (Syria), and the prophet Nehemiah (400 BCE) who, according to the bible, governed Judea under Persian rule.  

Following the examinations of these shards and the yeast found inside, the researchers, with the help of HUJI student Tzemach Aouizerat, cleaned and sequenced the full genome of each yeast specimen and turned them over to Dr. Amir Szitenberg at the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center for analysis.  

According to the release, Szitenberg found that these 5,000-year yeast cultures are similar to those used in traditional African brews, such as the Ethiopian honey wine tej, and to modern beer yeast.

The group of researchers then enlisted the help of local Israeli beer expert Itai Gutman, who helped the scientists make the beer. The brew was then sampled by Ariel University’s Dr. Elyashiv Drori, as well as by certified tasters from the International Beer Judge Certification Program, under the direction of brewer and Biratenu owner Shmuel Nakai.

After testing it out, the group all agreed that this delicious brew was of a high quality and safe for consumption.  

"The greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years - just waiting to be excavated and grown," explained Dr. Ronen Hazan, Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine. "This ancient yeast allowed us to create beer that lets us know what ancient Philistine and Egyptian beer tasted like.

"By the way, the beer isn’t bad," he continued. "Aside from the gimmick of drinking beer from the time of King Pharaoh, this research is extremely important to the field of experimental archaeology - a field that seeks to reconstruct the past.  Our research offers new tools to examine ancient methods, and enables us to taste the flavors of the past."  

Testing a sample in the labs of the Hadassah Medical Center and Hebrew University of Jerusalem School of Dental Medicine. (Yaniv Berman/IAA)

According to Maeir from Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, "these findings paint a portrait that supports the biblical image of drunken Philistines."

Paz of the IAA declared that this revived brew of ancient beer "a real breakthrough."

"This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast," he said. "In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced. This has never been done before."

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