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Planet Earth

King Tut's Tipple

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According to ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs, statuettes, and other artifacts, everyone from pharaoh to farmer drank an alcoholic beverage made of fermented grain--that is, beer. But what exactly was the stuff like? Most archeologists figured it was rather crude, made by crumbling bread into water. But this past year Delwen Samuel of the University of Cambridge reported evidence for a subtler recipe.

Samuel examined beer residue on dozens of pottery fragments found in workers’ settlements, dating from 1500 to 1300 b.c. A scanning electron microscope showed that some of the starch grains in the residue were pitted and hollowed, which happens when a grain sprouts and releases enzymes that break down starch into sugar. And some of the pitted grains were swollen and fused together as well, a sign that they had been heated in water.

Those two things told Samuel that ancient Egyptian brewers used sprouted grain, or malt, to produce sugars for fermentation, and that they heated the malt to accelerate the conversion of starch to sugar--as many brewers do today. And like modern brewers, the Egyptians made their malt from barley. In other respects, however, the ancient process was different. The Egyptians added a rare wheat called emmer to the barley--not hops. Also, before adding yeast to the heated malt and allowing it to ferment, they mixed in a second, starchier batch of uncooked malt.

When Samuel and her colleagues tested the recipe at a modern brewery, they found the resulting brew golden colored and a bit cloudy. Without the bitterness of hops, it had a fruity, sweet taste. It’s very palatable, says Samuel. It’s different from any beer I’ve ever tried. Although the modern version of Tutankhamen Ale contained 6 percent alcohol, Samuel thinks the real thing was much weaker. After all, she says, the Egyptians seem to have drunk it with every meal.

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