Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi
and Sapporo Space Biru
by Ştefan Tiron
Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of brewing and beer, and her hymn is probably the most ancient written record of a beer recipe, nearly 4000 years old. Her name meant “you who fill my mouth so full”.
After thousands of years this hymnal literature still resonates with us because it carefully enumerates many elements associated with today’s brewing: hulled grains, sweet aromatics, dough/yeast, malt, collector vats, big ovens and most importantly clean sparkling water and sacred lakes. Even in early role as a social lubricant at feasts and gatherings, beer or its ancient equivalent was much closer to the homebrewed varieties of today than to its brand-conscious descendents.
The fabled clean sparkling water of Sumerian verse or its lack imparts a new urgency concerning water privatization around the world today and the ongoing water wars where entire communities get cut off the water grid or are pushed to pay for its distribution. Before becoming an industrial brand, let’s not forget that beer was an important way to utilize and recycle even the last leftovers grains, and also to sustain communities that most of the time had limited access to drinkable water. Both bread and beer had such an important symbolic value for humans because they were connected to the alchemically active powers of fermentation. Bread was added to aid beer fermentation and they were both shapeshifting right in front of human eyes. First and foremost they should be considered living proof of our continuous partnership with an invisible and omnipresent microbiological world that helps us enzymatically transform, diversify and elaborate on naturally growing seeds and sprouts.
Breweries are also intimately linked with the discovery of carbon dioxide and the idea that the colorless air that surrounds us is actually a composite made up of different exhaust gases. English dissenter, supporter of American and French Revolution and early chemist Joseph Priestly started speculating that “dephlogisticated air” (what later Antoine Lavoisier called oxygen) and “fixed air” (carbon dioxide) where part of the mix, after moving in 1767 near a brewery in Leeds. He noticed that a special kind of air was flowing out of the brewing vats like an invisible stream made visible only by its capacity to extinguish burning fire. This discovery inspired him to devise an artificial method for making fizzy beverages2 or soda water and every other carbonated water since. Apart from its bubbly appearance, carbon dioxide is an important and infamous greenhouse gas and a significant component of the anthropogenic climate changes we are living through just now.
Not long ago, I was wandering among the buildings of the Timişoreana brewery in Romania, and I had this very physical contact with the space inhabited by processes that make beer possible. The whole air was impregnated by the heavy odorous effluvia of fermentation hovering over an entire area. It felt like huge quantities of evaporated beer in the air, like beer poured over hot stones in a sauna that was slowly condensing over the surrounding territory.
It is as if beer was suddenly brought back to its point of origin. Far from its bottled up cold six pack existence, it was flowing out a well-kept and overspilling man-made and yeasty marshland. In the wake of drying marshlands and changing river courses, we have extended another kind of comestible marsh.
Sapporo gives us the last piece of the puzzle with its Sapporo Space Biru, the beer brewed from barley kept in outer space on the ISS station for several months. In a very down to earth way, this beer is itself (because of its alcohol content) unavailable to the space crew that cared for its return to earth. Sapporo Space beer tastes like any other beer because it is not about otherworldly flavors, but about confirming earthly living under extraterrestrial conditions. The fact that the barley was not affected by orbital space conditions was taken as another sign of homely orbital living. This is why space beer should be un-spacy, otherwise it stops being part of the terraforming and beerforming vision where the future is brewing.
1. The Hymn to Ninkasi, inscribed on a nineteenth-century B.C. tablet, contains a recipe for Sumerian beer, translation by Miguel Civil after J.A. Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson, and G. Zlyomi 1998, 1999, 2000, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University.