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Ninkasi, the Sumerian Goddess of Brewing and Beer

by: BeerAdvocate on 12-20-2000
Ninkasi Stone The Sumerians were big-time beer drinkers. In fact, by accident, they discovered beer. Yes, not created, but rather discovered, or so it's been postulated. Sources indicate that the old school nomadic hunter-gatherers, of some 13,000 years ago, finally realized that they could settle - that it was more beneficial to life and yielded stability. One of their first harvested products was grain. To keep this grain, it was often baked and stored. Some 6,000 years ago, ancient text reveals that eventually it was formulated that the sweetest grain, if baked, left out, moistened, forgotten, then eaten, would produce an uplifting, cheerful feeling. Intoxication at the primal level! The first beer!

After this blissful discovery, baked grains were broken into pieces and stuffed into a pot. Water, and sometimes aromatics, fruit or honey, were added (creating a basic mash and wort) and left to ferment. Years later, the Babylonians fashioned what we now know as a straw, to extract the juice from the grain pulp in the pot. A not-so-distant Russian recipe is still produced today, called "kvass." The only real difference being that the fermented liquid is poured into a cask, bottle or jug.

The following text from 1800 BC is the Hymn to Ninkasi, translated by Miguel Civil. It was written by a Sumerian poet and found on clay tablet. It actually includes one of the most ancient recipes for brewing beer.

Hymn to Ninkasi

Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished it's walls for you,

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] - honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (...)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Ninkasi is the Sumerian goddess of brewing and beer and head brewer to the gods themselves. Her name means "the lady who fills the mouth" and her birth was formed of sparkling-fresh water. She who bakes with lofty shovel the sprouted barley, she who mixes the bappir-malt with sweet aromatics, she who pours the fragrant beer in the lahtan-vessel that is like the Tigris and Euphrates joined! Yes, she. Early brewers were primarily women, mostly because it was deemed a woman's job. Mesopotamian men, of some 3,800 years ago, were obviously complete assclowns and had yet to realize the pleasure of brewing beer.

Using the above text, one could literally recreate the ancient recipe embedded within the poem. In fact, back in the early 1990s, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing and Dr. Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania set out to reproduce this brew by deciphering the ancient clay tablet. Thick loaves of bread called bappir were baked from several grains. Mixed with honey, the loaves were then twice baked until a granolalike consistency was achieved, believing that the Sumerians stored this brew for later use. These loaves were added to a mash with a large addition of malt to ensure a proper conversion of starches. The mixture was then cooled naturally, not by modern techniques. The sweet liquid was strained away from the grains and transferred to the fermenter. Yeast was added and yielded a 3.5 percent alcohol by volume. After the fermentation, the beer was served in proper Sumerian style - sipped from bulky clay jugs using lengthy drinking straws, produced to bear a resemblance to the gold and lapis-lazuli straws unearthed in the mid-third millennium tomb of Lady Pu-abi at Ur.

Let's give thanks to our one true god - Beer and its messenger Ninkasi! Blessed be Beer!

Respect beer.
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