The facility is around 5,000 years old and could produce 60,000 beers per batch.

By Mike Pomranz
February 17, 2021
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The ancient Egyptians are best known for their pyramids—remarkable feats of engineering for the time, though also not particularly practical. But before the Pyramid of Djoser was built in 2670 BCE, at least one Egyptian king had undertaken a construction project that would be good for something other than burying his mummified corpse: an industrial-scale brewery.

This week, an archeological team from NYU's Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) and Princeton University announced the discovery of what they believe to be the oldest industrial-scale brewery ever uncovered, found at the Abydos archeological site in southern Egypt. Despite dating all the way back to 3000 BCE (around the same time the first pharaoh ruled over a unified Egypt), the facility still was believed to be able to brew up over 5,800 gallons of beer per batch—a size similar to what you might find at some of America's largest craft breweries. In total, this ancient brewery could whip up over 60,000 12-ounce beers at a time.

Detail of vat installations in brewery structure no. 5 (2020). The tops of the “fire legs” were affixed to the vats with a thick layer of mud, which also probably helped control the cooking temperature inside. In the bottom of each vat a smaller ceramic bowl was set that probably also helped with temperature control.
| Credit: Ayman Damarany for the North Abydos Project

"The capacity of the facility was industrial in its scale and unprecedented for its time, able to produce many thousands of liters, and probably built to supply the funerary cults of Egypt's first kings, in which rituals were conducted both to worship them as divine figures and to sustain them in the land of the dead," Matthew D. Adams, a senior research scholar at IFA, said in the announcement.

Left: 2018 excavations in “Cemetery D,” with mudbrick tomb superstructures of the early Old Kingdom (ca. 2650 BCE) overlying five earlier brewery structures (nos. 1–5), highlighted. | Credit: Ayman Damarany for the North Abydos Project
Right: 2020 excavations in “Cemetery D,” showing the remains of two early brewery structures (nos. 5 & 6), as well as structures belonging to three later phases of funerary architecture, the Old, Middle (ca. 2000–1700 BCE), and New (ca. 1550–1100 BCE) Kingdoms, which were built over and sometimes through the brewery structures. | Credit: Ayman Damarany for the North Abydos Project

Reached via email, Adams told me that though beer making was commonplace in the ancient world, brewing of such mass qualities was not. "In many ancient societies beer was made, like bread, at the household level. Production on a scale larger than that is often tied to the emergence of an elite stratum in society, where control of ritual feasting is used to reinforce social hierarchies," he explained. "We often can infer large-scale production from evidence for the use of beer on a large-scale, but that's different from having the production facilities themselves, which are rather rarer in the excavated record."

This isn't to say "breweries" didn't yet exist. "Much smaller breweries at earlier sites in Egypt, such as Hierakonpolis to the south and Tell el-Farkha in the Nile Delta, which could produce a few hundred to perhaps a thousand liters per batch can rightly be described as 'industrial' for their time," he continued. "They were definitely beyond household-level production. However, at the Abydos brewery, we have production capacity that even in modern terms could be seen as 'industrial' in scale."

And as to what was the previous "oldest industrial-scale brewery," that too, is up for some debate. "Large-scale beer production has been inferred a few centuries later at the 'Lost City of the Pyramid Builders' near the Giza pyramids, based on the presence of industrial-scale bread making, which was a closely related activity, and the very large number of beer jars found at the site," Adams said. "Beyond that, remains from what appears to be a large Roman brewery has been found at modern Regensburg in Germany, where emperor Marcus Aurelius built a large military encampment. An entire Roman legion was based there, and Roman legionaries, like soldiers everywhere in every time, certainly enjoyed their beverages."

Back in Egypt, researchers explain that the Abydos brewery had at least eight "installations," each about 65 feet long which would contain two rows for a total of 40 large ceramic vats that could be heated to mash the grain so the liquid could be fermented into beer. This repeating series of rows likely made mass production easier by providing room between vats for filling, firing, and emptying.

And yet, despite this amazing step towards modern mass production, researchers don't necessarily believe all of that beer was literally being drunk. Though Egyptian workers did apparently receive a daily allotment of beer as part of their wages, NYU explains that "abundant evidence" also suggests that "huge deposits of pottery beer jars" were given as ritual offerings.

Detail of the deposit of beer jars in front of the east corner gateway of the enclosure of King Peribsen (ca. 2800 BCE).
| Credit: Robert J. Fletcher for the North Abydos Project

"It's difficult to say how much may have been consumed and by whom," Adams told me. "The distance between [the temples] and the brewery is only around 300 meters, and they are roughly contemporary. The formality of the layout and organization of the brewery suggests it was an official state project, with the beer produced for official state, i.e., royal, purposes, not just for consumption in the local community. In later times, we know that temple offerings were distributed to temple staff after they had been presented to the god, and at least some of the beer may have been consumed in a similar way at Abydos, but as of now, it appears that the majority was probably used ritually in the royal funerary temples."

Still, even the ability to not drink beer at such a massive scale says a lot about Egypt at the time. "The Abydos brewery is quite revealing about the level of resources available to Egypt's kings right from the start: the agricultural production they could draw on and the labor they could mobilize," Deborah Vischak, an assistant professor of art and archeology at Princeton who co-leads the North Abydos Archaeology with Adams, stated. "It's these things precisely that allowed them to begin to build gigantic pyramids just a few generations later."