Reaching the past other lagers can't reach

A 3,500-year-old Egyptian beer has gone on sale at Harrods. Paul Vallely imbibes and reports
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The Independent Online
Two bottles, and you would not be fit to drive a chariot. Tutankhamun Ale, made to a 3,250-year-old Egyptian recipe, went on sale at Harrods yesterday. Mind you, if you could afford two bottles you would probably have had your chariot chauffeur-driven, with slaves to run alongside for good measure. The first bottle cost pounds 5,000 and the other 999 in the numbered, limited-edition brew went for pounds 50 apiece.

With some trepidation, therefore, I opened a bottle in the company of Jim Merrington, the brewer who has spent six years in a painstaking reconstruction of the antique beverage, first made in Amarna, in the desert wastes 200 miles south of the modern city of Cairo for the Pharoah Akhenaten and his Queen Nefertiti. But before the glass could be raised there was a story to tell.

It is a tale of some precision. Amarna was built by Akhen-aten in honour of the sun god Aten, whom he decided was the only god. But when his son Tutankhamun succeeded to the throne he restored a plurality of deities and destroyed the city dedicated to this early monotheism. Amarna flourished for only 17 years, so everything there can be dated exactly. "It's a time warp. Everything you kick in the sand is 3,000 years old," said Mr Merrington.

He began the project in 1990 when Barry Kemp of Cambridge University, who is field director of the site for the Egypt Exploration Society, came across several streets of breweries including the royal brewery. Dr Kemp decided he needed a brewer. He contacted Jim Merrington of Scottish and Newcastle Breweries who, had recently visited Egypt after his son won a travel scholarship to study ancient graffiti.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to explore the origins of our industry," said Mr Merrington. "Brewing as we know it was developed in Egypt; 4,000 years ago when the pyramids were being built they were said to have lived off bread and an alcoholic porridge ... by the time of Herodotus and Pliny the Egyptians were exporting beer to India and Greece.

"They had beers of different colours and strengths for different occasions: beers for high days, feast days, medicinal beers - one for toothache, made with rhubarb, and one injected as an enema if you had piles."

Amarna's Sun Temple had a "window of appearance" - the equivalent of the Buckingham Palace balcony - from which the royals waved to the adoring multitude. Tomb paintings of the scene show that they were aided by long lines of servants, who streamed from the temple carrying beer jars at their shoulders to distribute to the waving plebs.

Working out exactly what was in those pots constituted quite a detective story.Thanks to the pharaonic practice of burying a king with everything he needed in the afterlife, archaeologists were able to refer to dolls'- house-sized models of breweries at work. Dr Delwen Samuel, an archaeobotanist, painstakingly swept the floor of the breweries and found grains of emmer wheat, "very rare today, but the only wheat grown in ancient Egypt. Some of it was sprouted and used to make malt," she said yesterday, as she waited to taste the beer.

The tarry residues left in excavated pots were examined at the Edinburgh Brewing School using an electron microscope to work out the recipe. . Jim Merrington visited the dig with four brewers, all of whom came up with hypotheses for the scientists to test. "They're malting up there," said one, scrutinising a tomb painting. "It's drum malting; they still do it that way in parts of Europe." It was, said Dr Delwen Samuel, a model of inter-disciplinary collaboration

The team also analysed water from desert wells and built replica kilns to make beer pots.

Ancient writings had talked of beer made from equal quantities of grain and dates. But when the archaeologists found no date stones and the scientists no date fibres, the Egyptologists concluded they had to reinterpret the hieroglyphic for "dates:" to mean "sweet substance" - starch converted to sugar in malt. What earlier archaeologists had taken to be bread buns in pharaonic tombs are now thought to be cakes from which to make instant beer while an army is on the march.

There was nothing instant about the beer before us. When the brewers began work at S&N's test factory in Edinburgh, the emmer wheat was so hard that the brewery's barley mill had to be run at one tenth of normal speed. The beer could never be made in commercial quantities.

We lifted it to our noses. It smelt sweet and fruity, with a touch of caramel and raw grain. The label said 6 per cent alcohol and you could smell the strength. It tasted sweet, heavy, mouth-coating but with some astringency. Jim Merrington soon abandoned taster-speak and pronounced, "It's not a connoisseur brew, it's for quaffing." So I lifted the bottle to my lips and knocked it back, then had another bottle - it was cheaper, after all, than Dom Perignon - and left Harrods walking like an Egyptian.