Painted wooden model group: four figures preparing food and beer. 6th Dynasty, Sidmant, Egypt. / © Trustees of the British Museum, London
The ancient Egyptians were known to be avid practitioners of fermentation. They purposefully created alcohol for the purpose of consumption. Fermentation occurs when unicellular organisms known as yeast consume sugars and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide over the course of several weeks. For example, beer is formed when sugars extracted from grains are consumed by yeast. Ancient Egyptian beer (not like the beer of today) was known to be produced on a large scale for sale and consumption. Evidence of industrial beer brewing facilities have been discovered at urban sites across the land including Hierakonpolis. Beer, however, was not the only fermented beverage to be had in ancient Egypt. Also, I do not believe it is the oldest fermented beverage to be created in the region. The Egyptians were avid mead drinkers as well.
What is mead? Mead is essentially fermented honey. Honey is a naturally occurring and highly caloric food, which would prove to be of immense value in any ancient society. This was no different in Egypt where honey became of great importance. It was even mentioned as a fermentable in the Hymn to Ninkasi, a poem for the goddess of fermentation. As further evidence for the significance of honey is the existence of an Egyptian god of fertility, Min, who was referred to as the “master of wild bees”. Also, manuscript evidence seems to point to royally commissioned honey hunting parties protected by guards of archers. Honey was domesticated in the form of beekeeping to increase access to the supply.
So how was mead discovered in ancient times? I’m going to suggest a hypothesis put forth by Ken Schramm about the origin of mead/fermentation as a happenstance discovery in Egypt based on the following premises: 1) Yeast cells are found everywhere in the wild, floating around in the air and in/on things and 2) Honey hunters went on expeditions to retrieve honey and required vessels for storage.
Imagine you are a honey hunter and you have an animal-skin for carrying your water for the long journey and you come across a nice fat beehive. Not wanting the honey to go to waste and realizing your water skin is not full, you decide to be as efficient as possible and fill your skin with honey to take back home. After you arrive home, you put the water skin in storage until the honey is required. However, after a few days you notice the skin started to swell up and you open it to find the honey has mixed with the leftover water in your animal skin and it is a little bubbly and churning You decide to take a drink of the sweet liquid and to your surprise it tastes wonderful and a little hot. After a few more gulps you start to feel a little funny and happy.
What magic happened that turned the contents of your water skin into this elixir of the gods? We know now that a yeast culture must have been present in the animal skin that was then introduced to the buffet of sugar that honey provided. Fermentation occurred and mead was introduced to the population of Egypt. It would have been relatively simple to recreate the process and through time, perfect the art of fermentation of not only honey but other sugars as well.
Fermentation became ingrained in Egyptian society and later expanded to fermenting beer as a source of both income and calories. Many of these ancient practices are still happening today, although it looks much different now.
Side note: Mead would later be thought to be an aphrodisiac, probably because of the effects of alcohol and lowering the inhibition of selecting mates, which would improve chances of reproduction. It is rumored that the term “honeymoon” comes from the gift of mead at weddings to help the newlywed couple be more fertile for the month following the marriage.