Ancient Sumer, located south of the heart of mankind Mesopotamia, is the most ancient civilization currently known. Credited with not only the invention of farming as early as 5300BC, written language in 4000BC, and perhaps socialization of the human species, Sumer may be also be the first civilization to create and record the process of beer brewing.
One of the most commonly mentioned deities in early Sumerian manuscripts is a goddess named Ninkasi. Ninkasi may be mentioned as early as 2800BC here and there, but who was Ninkasi really? The daughter of the Sumerian god Enki or “lord of the earth”… the goddess credited to the the ability to “satisfy the desire” and “sate the heart”… a goddess to represent the role of the mother? Perhaps the first goddess of brewing?
While definitive Mesopotamian and Sumerian records are few and far between, the first discovered Sumerian full clay tablet (dated to around 1800BC) is titled “The Hymn to Ninkasi.” This tablet is a clear-cut recipe for ancient Sumerian beer, or “sikaru”. The recipe describes how the barley harvest from the season was converted to bappir and bread that could be stored for long periods of time. After months of sitting, the bread could be crumbled, added to water with honey, dates, and grapes, and allowed to ferment, resulting in a thick sludgy alcoholic beverage often consumed through a filtered straw.
The hymn also sings the praises of Ninkasi and may be the oldest record of a correlation between the importance of brewing and the role of the woman in the household. As a female, Ninkasi could possibly represent one of the mother’s first responsibilities to the family, the provider of bread and brewed beverages to their relatives. The repetitive nature of the text may also represent the mother’s duty to pass down information to younger women as a form of learning and carrying on tradition.
While very little is known about ancient beer brewing and the goddess Ninkasi, it can be agreed that Sumer blazed a path for modern brewers and the role of the mother in the family. Now go crack a beer and raise it to Ninkasi, without whom we may not have the beer we enjoy today. Cheers!
Pro Tip: Try out Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch next time you’re in the shop. This beer is brewed with barley, honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron, quite reminiscent of early sikarus.