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How (Not) to Make Babylonian Date Beer

The importance of beer in Mesopotamia can not be exaggerated. Beer was brewed in every home, drunken in taverns, and offered to the gods. It was even paid as a salary to workers. In literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild man Enkidu wasn’t tamed until he learned how to drink beer. And as if that wouldn’t be enough, the Babylonian king Hammurabi enacted a law that punished the tavern keeper with a death penalty – if she (the brewers were mostly women) would pour less beer than what was paid for.

You probably get it. Beer was a big deal in Mesopotamia. And since we’re creating a cookbook inspired by the world’s oldest recipes – and the Mesopotamian kitchen they came from – not having beer recipes would be a bummer. But the problem with beer – I soon realized – is that it’s a chemical process. And I’ve always hated chemistry. My sister, however, is a self-learned chemist who used to make her own slime as a child when Youtube how-to-videos weren't around.

Brewing at Home

The problem with brewing beer at home is that you need equipment and time – two things most people don’t have. So the first thing my sister and I decided, was that everyone should be able to brew our recipe. No special equipment would be needed – which per definition would save time.

We bought a tool to measure the alcohol content in our drink. And we used only two ingredients. Dates and tap water (our tap water is fresh in Sweden). We brewed in several glass jars – each with different amounts of water and dates – and left them in the kitchen to ferment.

The Explosion on Day Three

The problem with beer brewing being a chemical process is that things can blow up. It turns out that if there’s too much active yeast, the fermentation process causes pressure in the jar. Which can lead to a beer explosion. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.

Finally – Date Beer

We learned from the explosion and added fewer dates to decrease the amount of yeast. After a couple of days of fermentation, our organic date beer was brewed. And even the Mesopotamian beer goddess Ninkasi would’ve been proud of us.

So how did it taste? We brewed three different versions. The one with the most dates was so sweet it wasn’t drinkable. The one with the least amount of dates was still a bit too sweet so we need to refine it until next time. The Babylonians loved the sweet taste of date beer – which is the whole point – so we can’t eliminate the sweetness altogether.

A big mistake we made, however, was to not cool the beer before trying it. I think that lowered our overall impression, even subconsciously. I mean, have you ever had a warm beer? What came as a positive surprise, though, was that the liquid had sparkles. Isn’t that cool? The ancient people of Mesopotamia drank sparkling beer!

Here are some pictures of me, my sister, and our parents just before trying the Babylonian date beer.

And if you want to learn more about beer brewing in Mesopotamia, I’d strongly recommend this video by Tate Paulette, who has written a lot about the subject. Or read this article about others (more successful) date beer brewers. Until then, we’ll keep refining this recipe before we go to Assyria to brew Alappanu – pomegranate beer.

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