Common beer and several special beers in the Old Kingdom Egypt.




The oldest hieroglyphic inscriptions refer to beer with a generic term. The word hnq.t derives from the rare word hnq which means both « flowing » and « fluid, liquid »[1]. The generic name heneqet for the main fermented beverage of the Egyptian country refers to its general use. This undifferentiated term does not imply that Egypt of the Old Kingdom knew only one kind of ordinary beer for all the inhabitants of the country.

Beside the generic hnq.t, the number and variety of beverages named on the gravestones of the Old Kingdom are astonishing. These stelae belong to the leading families. Most of inhabitants have neither stelae nor special graves. If there was only one type of beer in the protodynastic period - it is not certain - different sorts of beer are attested around 2700 BC.

With the social hierarchy, the first characterizations appear: heneqet nedjem (a sweet  beer or a beer sweetened with carob seeds) appears at the end of the 3rd dynasty (2700-2620 BC), the beer-ph3 (beer made from an unidentified cereal ph3 contained in the same jars as the beer-nedjem) [2], the beer-šhp.t[3], a fermented beverage designated with the wheat hieroglyph hd.t [4], and finally the beer-dsr.t  (like the beer šhp.t, it is pressed through a sieve).

Some of these beverages are only mentioned from the 4th and 5th dynasties (2620-2350 BC), the period when the offering lists were opened to the most popular foods and beverages . At the end of the 4th dynasty, all beverages on the offering lists end with sšr ("petit-lait") or by hnm. s which perhaps takes its name from the bread hnm.t  based on barley; therefore dairy products and fermented beverages based on cereals.

The couple hnq.t-ndm is soon explained in medical texts as a sweet beer. Most of the designations of other beers, this time explicitly attached to the word hnq.t, appear in offering lists: hnq.t-dsr.t, hnq.t-hnms, hnq.t-šhp.t, hnq.t-ssr. From the 5th dynasty (2508-2350 BC), the standardised offering lists systematically use hnq.t as a beverage determinant to mean "beer", in the general sense we give it today. Egyptian beer is based on cereals, raw or malted (as we shall see below), fermented and alcoholic. The beverage henequet therefore belongs to the great family of beer, like our modern beer.

Bière se dit et se lit heneqet et s’écrit hieroglyphe heneqet pour la bière.

The scribe adds a type of vase or another sign to specify a type of beer, for example  hieroglyphe heneqet-nedjme pour la bière for heneqet.nedjem.


The increasing range of beers follows the social stratification. It is also related to the use of various cereals. Brewing workshops use barley (jt ), and several kinds of wheat (bdt, bti, swt ).

Beer-making scenes mention the bcha (bš3) hieroglyph for malt to be identified with barley or wheat malt. This identification has been the subject of much controversy at a time when Egyptologists imagined the brewing of beer in Egypt as a kind of rudimentary cuisine and Egyptian beer as a kind of fermented porridge that they would not have dared to taste. Since then, archaeological discoveries have shown that the brewing facilities were much more elaborate. D. Samuel's analyses have shown that the Egyptians mastered the technique of malting perfectly, admitedly at the time of the New Empire.

A harvest scene from the Old Empire is captioned « Beer for the one who cuts the bcha ! ». The trio "malt + wheat + dates", omnipresent in the offering lists of the 2nd dynasty (2700-2620 BC), would in fact designate "beer + bread + fruit". In this case, bcha names both the raw grain to be malted (raw barley in this case) and its sprouted-dried state, in other words the barley malt. The tomb of Ti, shows that wheat can also be malted swt, a topic which does not raise any technical problems.


The presence of malt on funeral offering lists may be surprising. The Egyptians, at least the aristocracy and the clergy, speculated a lot about life after death. This was seen as a continuation of earthly life, with its need for food and beverages. Funerary stelae were not commemorative like that of the modern times humans, who believe in life after death, but by the effect of a redemption. In ancient Egypt, scenes of banqueting and material life were painted, engraved or modelled on the walls of tombs to be effectively and periodically activated by the living for the benefit of the dead who "lived" a real albeit dissimilar life in the other world.

Each time an inscription was read aloud, the deceased received the goods depicted on the stele in the afterlife. In particular, beer, bread, fruit and meat. Why malt bcha ? Because the richest people were buried with a few servants who had to do in the other world for their master and mistress what they did in their lifetime. The malt was used to brew fresh beer. On Ti's grave, the bcha came out of a storeroom, cleaned and crushed [5]. Differences in social status thus extend into the other life and other world.

The highly hierarchical Egyptian society of the Ancient Empire projected its own social cleavages through its fermented beverages, their use and even their method of brewing (with or without malt?). This logic can be found in all contexts where beer is brewed and drunk, for humans as well as for deities. In the Old Kingdom, one of the ways to differentiate beer is to vary its density (ratio vol. of grains : vol. of beer) and quality (addition of dates, fruits, herbs, aromatic plants more or less rare and costly).


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[1] Helck Wolfgang 1971, Das Bier im alten Ägypten, Gesellschaft für die Geschichte und Bibliographie des Brauwesens (GGBB), Berlin, p. 15. This authentic Egyptian term should not be confused with a late appellation of Egyptian beer, zuthos. The latter, of Greek origin, became common after the conquest of Egypt by the Macedonians and the establishment of the dynasty of the Ptolemies (323 to 30 BC).

[2] ph3 is named with the wheat in the accounts of the funerary temple of Neferirkare, king of the 5th dynasty. ph3 is written as a cereal by attaching to its hieroglyph the "ear of grain". It is counted among the other grains. A bread of the same name exists. Bread and beer ph3 are cited in inscriptions and closely correlated.

[3] The mash (maische) for « making the šhp.t » is pressed through a sieve into a large jar (drawing of a tomb of a high-ranking official of the 5th dynasty), a process attested by other descriptions of brewing workshops in the Old Kingdom.

[4] Named in the accounting-papyri for the king's mortuary temple Neferirkare.

[5] Much later, in the New Empire, barley was germinated in the tomb in small containers called "Osiris", to invoke the powers of rebirth (for the benefit of the dead) by activating the germinative awakening of the grains. The same principle of magical transfer operates. From the germinating hence living grain to the reborn deceased.

14/11/2020  Christian Berger