Ninkasi Prayer Beer

So shortly before I started this blog, I was involved in the East Kingdom Brewer’s Guilde Collegium. One of the events we do there is a Panelling which helps rank you to the next level within the guild. I wanted to do something that was new and historically based but didn’t want to get in over my head. At the time many folks were doing the traditional recipes we see regularly; sake, cock ale, meads, etc. I wanted my project to stand out.
The one thing I hadn’t seen was anyone do the original beer recipe purported to be on the Sumerian clay tablet which is known as the oldest recipe still in existence. So I obtained a picture of the tablet and a translation:

Ninkasi_Tablet

The translated poem is as follows:

The Hymn to Ninkasi *1

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 its great 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 [top of]
a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat,
which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
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

You can imagine this makes a very hard translation since there’s no measurements and details of the beer are vague beyond some basic instructions.
I didn’t want to assume anything beyond the scope of the prayer concerning ingredients or measurements. Based on what I could glean from the prayer, I came up with the following:

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.

The dough is explained to be barley twice baked bread which is a form of hard tack.  It’s baked twice much like biscotti so that it dries out the bread completely and keeps forever.  Now imagine you had to eat this while out doing military or field duties.  Every day you have this dry biscuit which is neither completely nutritious nor have much taste.  On top of this, it’s dry while your in the hot African Sun all day.  You could probably eat this for about 2 weeks before you’d be trying to change the flavor any way you could.  Thus, beer was invented.  Nutrition (b vitamins, protiens, small traces of other vitamins) and it tasted different, it was wet and slightly alcoholic to make you forget the woes of your days.

The Bappir bread recipe:

Bappir Bread Recipe

  • 2 Cup of Honey
  • 1 Cup of Butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 2/3 Cups Mashed Bananas1
  • 7 cups of barley flour
  • 4 teaspoons Baking Soda2
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup Chopped Figs/Dates

So we know that Barley is the main ingredient.  Honey and Dates are both mentioned directly in the text itself. This only leaves us trying to create the very basics of the recipe.  You need a binding agent, some moisture, a leavening agent and “aromatics” which are not specified.  Various other resources about how the bappir was made ranged from a sour beer to a beer using radishes as the bittering agent.  The Egyptians have documentation of cultivating chickens and direct mention of bananas in both Palestinian and Egyptian texts as far back as the 10th Century.  I felt it was safe to include water, eggs and bananas as common ingredients and in the case of the bananas, the “aromatic” aspect of the bananas flavor would add potasium and sulphur to help balance the beers flavor.  Rome has documentation of “Baking Salts” or baking soda as far back as the 7th Century used as a leavening agent also seemed plasible. Figs, mentioned in the prayer.  Butter would be a commont fat as they raised cattle as well.

0413131422-00 0413131423-00 0413131437-00 0413131437-01 0413131506-000414131035-00

The dough was padded together into small loaves (pic 1) and then placed on pizza stones and baked the first time (pic 2 & 3) until golden brown (pic 4).  They were then allowed to cool completely and when they were rested, put back into the oven and baked for another 20 min (pic 5&6).  when they came out they were both cracked and harder, dried all the way through.  We now have the Bappir.

Whole Grain brewing with Bappir

Next the next part of the prayer states:

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.

Several discussions over this talk about the previously mentioned grains in combination with the crumbled Bappir bread:

0414131034-01 0414131049-00 0414131133-00

6 lbs of pale malt was placed in the bottom of the container and then the Bappir was crumbled and added.  At this point another 6 lb of crushed pale malt was put over the top and I followed the basic whole grain brewing procedure.  Water was struck at 180F to get the grain up to 155F for a 1 hr conversion time which would allow the starches in both the Bappir and the grain to convert into sugars.  The pale malt on it’s own would not give it a lot of color but the Bappir seemed to contribute quite a bit of color to the sweet wort:

0414131131-00 0414131219-00

Whether the Sumerians (and later Egyptians) used hops to preserve the beer is unknown.  Many hieroglyphs in tombs of the Egyptians show hops growing on sticks but there are no documents directly stating they were used in the brewing process.

After 1 hr the dark brown wort was put into a carboy and simple yeast (S. cervisae/ KIV-1116) was used to ferment.  It was allowed to go for 1 week and then brought to this East Kingdom Brewers Guilde Collegium for sampling.

Personal Observations-

Although we will never know the process of the original recipe in it’s true form.  It has to be believed that the end product was both pleasing to the pallette and had some degree of nutrition, otherwise they would not have gone to such great lengths to praise the creation of beer.  Comparing it to our modern day beer with the use of carbonation and hops is not possible and the drinker should understand this before tasting the beverage.  further modifications would only be to suit personal and modern tastes.

Addendum- as mentioned before, the other groups such as the Maltose Falcons have attempted various recipes similair in design.  Each has spoken of the end result being a “Sour Beer” which I believe is the result of waiting too long before consuming it.  This five gallon batch only had a lifespan of about 1 week before I too sensed sour tastes developing.  It’s been atleast a month now and the batch is pretty unpalletable.  One recipe conceived used radishes because of the assumption that radishes were both available in the African climate and may have been used.  I surmise it was a poor attempt to counteract the sourness of the beer with something bitter like radish so that the beverage could be consumed longer.  This recipe clearly is a “Make and Drink” kind of beverage which can be enjoyed after 7 days of processsing and then only for another week after.

mesopotamian-cylinder-seal-flickr-user-lucas-livingston-ancientartpostcast-org

Footnotes:

  1.  Translation by Miguel Civil, Oriental Instiute of the University of Chicago 1964
  2. Bananas are found in Egypt as far back as 10th century the banana appears in texts from Palestine and Egypt.
  3. Sodium bicarb, bicarb soda, or simply bicarb. The word saleratus, from Latin sal æratus meaning aerated salt a simple form of Baking Soda.

Bibliography-

  • Hymn of Ninkasi, Ninkasi Prayer Stone, Currently housed at the Oriental Institute – University of Chicago
  • New Complete Book of Breads; Revised Edition, by Bernard Clayton, Simon & Schuster, Copyright 1973 & 1987 (renewed); Pg 175-176
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3 thoughts on “Ninkasi Prayer Beer

  1. Awesome write-up! Yeah, it’s aggravating that we’ll never be able to fully replicate the recipe – and of course, the vagaries of translation mean that there’s a ton of room for interpretation. Then again, that’s half the fun!

    I remember you had this in a stoneware bottle. Where’d you get them, and what were your sources for figuring out appropriate bottle types? I’ve got a few ceramic bottles from some Dansk Mjod products – they look pretty passable to me, but I’d like some input on that.

  2. The bottle was actually some earthenware wine bottles that I inherited. There was a German Wine years ago called “Black Forest” of all things. The older style (pre 90’s) were still corked and made of stoneware. Now they have screw on tops and it’s ceramic.

  3. Pingback: Rhubarb Wine | Inn of Bards Rest

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