‘Industrial-Scale’ Brewery Found in Ancient Egypt

By John Roach

When it comes to brewing beer, scale matters.

The world’s largest brewers, for example, have long used the efficiency of scale to steer global supply chains, secure distribution channels and slay the competition. The biggest brand of all is known as the King of Beers. This symbolism of scale was on display around 3000 BC in the ancient Egyptian town of Abydos where beer was brewed for kings in 5,000-gallon batches, according to a discovery of what archaeologists are calling the world’s first industrial-scale brewery.

The Abydos brewery dates to when the Egyptian Nile Valley was first politically unified, said Matthew Adams, a senior research scholar at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and the co-leader of the Abydos Archaeology project. The unification was done by force, under the centralized control of King Narmer, who was from Abydos. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the so-called Narmer Palette, a shield-shaped ancient Egyptian artifact, is thought to depict this unification, Adams said.

“This is a completely transformative moment in ancient Egyptian history when we move from what was still kind of Neolithic society to a powerful nation state where the king was able to draw on almost unlimited agricultural resources and mobilized manpower on a scale that had never been seen prior in the history of the world,” Adams told me. “And the brewery is really illustrative of that because they are producing beer at a scale that in the preceding centuries would have been utterly unimaginable.”

Industrial scale brewery

The brewery was discovered on the northern end of ancient Abydos. Project archaeologists have identified what appear to be at least eight separate parallel production lines in the brewery. Each line contained about 40 ceramic vats arranged in two rows, the vats supported by rings of sun-dried mud struts, or legs, under which a fire was built. Each production line was separated by about 26 feet. The space likely served as staging areas for filling, firing and emptying the vats, according to the project team.

A mixture of grain and water was cooked in the vats, strained and fermented to produce beer. A dark, glassy material in the bottom of many of the vats is a hardened residue of mash, Adams said. Each batch of beer brewed at the Abydos brewery was big enough to give a pint to 40,000 baseball fans at T-Mobile Park, the Seattle Mariners’ home field, and roughly equivalent to the batches of beer brewed at a modern mid-sized craft brewery such as Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colorado.

Image of parallel rows of large ceramic vats in excavated section of the brewery.
Each brewery structure contained two parallel rows of large ceramic vats. Photo by Ayman Damarany for Abydos Archaeology.

“In order to produce that kind of volume, the amounts of resources that are needed are exponential,” Travis Rupp, a lecturer in classics, art history, anthropology and mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told me. Rupp spent five years at Avery Brewing leading the Ales of Antiquity series and recently launched his own business, Beer Archaeologist LLC, to collaborate with scientists and brewers around the world to recreate ancient ales.

The Abydos brewery, Rupp said, must have had links to swaths of agricultural land or a state-funded granary system as well as access to sources of water and fuel to malt the grain and brew the beer. “It goes well beyond the actual finished product,” he said. “And the manpower to do this too must have been quite exceptional for a brewery of that scale, which is very hands-on labor as opposed to automation like we have today.”

Ritual feasting

Prior to the industrial brewery at Abydos, archaeological excavations throughout Egypt had revealed facilities capable of brewing 50-to-250-gallon batches of beer, which is more than the needs of an individual household, Adams noted. He suggested that these facilities were likely associated with elites who could support a full-time brewer. The beer, he added, would have been used for ritual feasting that reinforced the elites’ status.

This elite symbolism reached new heights at Abydos. The industrial-scale brewery is located about 200 yards away from a series of monumental funerary temples, a sort of royal cemetery. This was Egypt’s first great necropolis, according to Adams. Though called funerary temples, he added, they were used throughout a king’s reign as well after his death.

“In and around these temples, we have found gigantic deposits of used and discarded beer jars,” he said, explaining that beer from the brewery would have been poured into these jars for storage, transportation and use. “We find thousands upon thousands of them in and around the funerary temples. So, I think the brewery was probably a dedicated facility that supported royal ritual activity.”

Beer jars deposited in front of a funerary temple. Photo by Robert J. Fletcher for Abydos Archaeology.

Adams’ team plans to perform chemical analyses of the residues in these jars and residue in the vats at the brewery to confirm the link between the brewery and the funerary temples. If proven, the link would round out the evidence for ritual ceremonial feasts during and after the reign of King Narmer. In addition to beer jars, the team has found containers for commodities, cow heads, wine jars and incense – all part and parcel of standard offering rituals, Adams said.

The scale of these offerings would have further cemented the power of King Narmer. To run the brewery, for example, hundreds upon hundreds of people were required to harvest grain and bring it to the brewery along with water and wood fuel. More people were needed to make the ceramic vats and jars, to brew the beer and transport it to the funerary temples.

“The ability to mobilize labor and to compensate the labor, to feed them and clothe them and sustain them while they are working on your project, this was the genius of the ancient Egyptians,” Adams said. “It was this logistical capability that just a few centuries later empower them to build the great pyramids at Giza, which is the culmination of this process. Now, with the Abydos brewery, we see that already established at the very beginning of Egyptian history.”

Egyptian brew

For Rupp, who is not a member of the Abydos Archaeology project, the discovery supports his theory that the Egyptians were every bit as masterful brewers as the Sumerians, who are known for praising their goddess of beer, Ninkasi. The Hymn to Ninkasi, a clay tablet that dates to 1800 BC, for example, is the oldest known written recipe for beer. Chemical evidence for beer found at the ancient Sumerian site of Godin Tepe, dating to 3500 BC, was, until recently, considered the earliest direct evidence for beer.

“One thing I think the Egyptians did differently is that they industrialize beer in ways that no one had before,” Rupp said. “I’ve received a little push back on that at conferences and things because of the scale of the breweries prior to this that have been found.”

While the other breweries found to date could produce batches upwards of 200 gallons, large enough for distribution, perhaps even out of Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula to the Levant or into Nubia, the 5,000-gallon batches brewed in Abydos lend more credence to the industrialization theory, Rupp said. “When you’re producing it on that scale,” he noted, “you’re clearly concerned about quality and even consistency in batch production.”

The glassy mash residue in the ceramic vats excavated at the Abydos brewery may yield chemical evidence for the type of grains, yeast and other ingredients used to brew these kingly batches of beer, Adams noted, which would allow beer archaeologists such as Rupp an opportunity to recreate it.

“To take a sip of the beer that King Narmer drank at the very moment of the creation of Egyptian civilization, that’s a very compelling idea,” Adams said.

Top image: Detail of vat installations in brewery structure no. 5 (2020). The tops of the “fire legs” were affixed to the vats with a thick layer of mud, which also probably helped control the cooking temperature inside. In the bottom of each vat a smaller ceramic bowl was set that probably also helped with temperature control. Photo by Ayman Damarany for Abydos Archaeology.