Israeli Scientists Brew Beer with 5,000-Year-Old Egyptian Yeast

Photo by Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority on 25 July, 2017

By Aryeh Savir/TPS • 22 May, 2019

What kind of beer did Pharaoh drink? An innovative experiment conducted by a team of Israeli scientists from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel’s Antiquities Authority (IAA), Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University may have provided an answer.

In ancient times, beer was an important ingredient in people’s daily diet. Great powers were attributed to beer in the ancient world, particularly for religious worship and healing properties.

Beer was the “national drink of Egypt” in ancient times, and it was a basic commodity like bread. Beer was consumed by the entire population, regardless of age, gender or status. It was made from a mixture of barley and water that was partially baked and then left to ferment in the sun. Various fruit concentrates were added to this mixture in order to flavor the beer, which was filtered in special vessels prior to use.

The pottery used to produce beer in antiquity served as the basis for the new research on the ancient alcoholic beverage.

The research was led by Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, microbiologists from the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI).  They examined the colonies of yeast that formed and settled in the 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 yeast was collected from shards of pottery that had been used to store beer and mead (honey wine) and still had yeast specimens stuck inside.

The researchers 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.  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.

When it was time to recreate the ancient brew, local Israeli beer expert Itai Gutman helped the scientists make the beer and the brew was sampled by Ariel University’s Dr. Elyashiv Drori, as well as by certified tasters from the International Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), under the direction of brewer and Biratenu owner Shmuel Nakai.

The testers gave the beer a thumbs up, deeming it high-quality and safe for consumption.

Hazan noted that “the greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years—just waiting to be excavated and grown.”

“By the way, the beer isn’t bad,” he added. “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.”

Dr. Yitzchak Paz of the IAA crowned the experiment as “a real breakthrough.”

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

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