Brewmaster’s Tomb

Elaborate tomb in Thebes reveals brewer’s high status

This photo from the tomb of Egyptian brewer Khonso-Im-Heb shows scenes of beer production. AP Photo/Supreme Council of Antiquities

Like any capital city, Washington D.C. is adorned with impressive monuments showcasing the nation’s rich cultural and political history. One of the District’s lesser-known treasures is the Heurich House Museum, popularly known as the “Brewmaster’s Castle.” The Victorian-style mansion reflects the prosperity of its owner, Christian Heurich, whose popular brewery propelled him to become the city’s largest non-governmental employer in the early 20th century. Visitors to the mansion get a sudsier perspective on the development of wealth and industry in the nation’s capital.

Did Heurich have any peers in history? Recent archaeological investigations at Thebes—Egypt’s capital during its wealthiest period in the 18th dynasty (ca. 1550–1292 B.C.E.)—uncovered evidence of the ancient metropolis’ own brewmaster. Thebes may well be history’s most resplendent capital: The archaeological landscape around modern Luxor includes the Karnak temple complex, the ancient world’s largest religious site, and the Valleys of the Queens and Kings, the latter of which includes the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Japanese archaeologists investigating the 14th-century B.C.E. tomb of a statesman from the court of Amenhotep III—one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs and the father of Akhenaten—uncovered the tomb of Khonso-Im-Heb, the court’s head of beer production and storage. Decorations at Khonso-Im-Heb’s elaborate T-shaped tomb suggest that this brewer, like Heurich, occupied an important role in the capital city. The tomb is decorated with well-preserved agricultural, religious and geometric-style paintings. Khonso-Im-Heb brewed in service of the deity Mut, and the colorful artworks at his tomb depict everything from cultic rituals to family members to scenes of grain fermentation. Khonso-Im-Heb’s tomb, which is still under investigation, is connected to an unfinished tomb belonging to an Egyptian named Houn.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.


In addition to daily scenes relating to beer production, the tomb features religious iconography including this depiction of the so-called Open Mouth ritual. Photo: Al-Ahram.

Beer was a staple in Egyptian diets, and was listed in the rations for pyramid builders some 1,000 years before the life of Khonso-Im-Heb. Some archaeologists suggest that we owe the development of agriculture to the desire to brew beer. Despite the availability of other food resources, barley may have been domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago even though it requires a lot of work to cultivate.

Why beer? In “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?” in the September/October 2010 issue of BAR, Michael M. Homan writes:

In ancient Near Eastern cultures, beer was in many ways a super-food. By producing and drinking beer, one could dramatically multiply the calories in harvested grains while consuming needed vitamins; the alcohol was also effective at killing bacteria found in tainted water supplies. Given the difficulty of producing food in the ancient world, beer gave you a lot of nutritional bang for your buck…

Nobody disputes the importance of beer in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where it was the national drink. Beer was used to pay laborers and the fathers of brides. It was used medicinally for stomach ailments, coughs, constipation; one ancient Egyptian prescription calls for a beer enema.

Thebes’ chief brewer was a prestigious position in Egypt’s New Kingdom, and Khonso-Im-Heb’s tomb stands as a reflection of the wealth associated with the job. While it seems unlikely that Luxor’s tourists will skip a visit to Karnak Temple or Hatshepsut’s mortuary complex to see the tomb of Khonso-Im-Heb—as most visitors to D.C. won’t pass on a White House tour in favor of Brewmaster’s Castle—both serve as reminders that behind the monumentality of a capital city, there is another more bubbly story to be told.

Read more in Ahram Online or The Atlantic.


BAS Library Members: Read more about beer in the ancient world.

Michael M. Homan, “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep/Oct 2010.

Michael T. Shoemaker, “Beer—Civilization’s Greatest Boon?Bible Review, Aug 1993, 28-29.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.


Drink Like the Ancients

Sidebar from “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?”, BAR, Sept/Oct 2010.

Credit: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz.

If you are interested in brewing a beer similar to those that were consumed in the ancient Near East, the process is relatively simple. You’ll need a one-gallon milk container (thoroughly cleaned), and from a homebrew supplier you’ll need one package of dry yeast, one pound of malted barley, and a fermentation stopper, which will allow the carbon dioxide to escape but prevent bacteria from entering the beer.

Mix 4/5 of a gallon of water with the malt, and bring it to a boil. This is called wort. If you would like to flavor the beer with dates, raisins or other ingredients, add these to the wort while it is boiling. After boiling for 30 minutes, remove the wort from the heat, and when the liquid has cooled down to room temperature, pour it into the gallon container, add the yeast, and secure it with the fermentation stopper. The next day you’ll notice the wort bubbling, and in 3–5 days the beer is ready for consumption. The mixture is sweet, and you’ll notice immediately the absence of hops and carbonation.

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  • Jeff says

    Speaking of accurate translations of the Talmud, is there more than one Talmud and have they all been translated into English?

  • RAY says

    FOR THOSE INTERESTED in an analysis which challenges the credibility of Michael Homan’s article, they can refer to:

    The following is a quote from the Reply to Homan:

    “In contrast, Broshi translates the term “Beer” from the Talmud, as a “wine” made from dates;

    “…indeed it is wine.”

    As my final comment on Michael Homan’s misleading reference to Magen Broshi, the following

    statement by Broshi is noteworthy.

    Broshi states in his footnote three, at page 59, the following,

    “3 It is interesting to note that the word cider is derived, through Latin and Greek, from the
    Semitic shechar.”

    Therefore, the philology of the word “shechar” is cider.
    This derivative tracing of the Semitic “Shechar” is hardly an adoption of Homan’s translation of Shekhar as meaning beer in the Hebrew Bible.

    Clearly, author Michael Homan misleads us.

    Furthermore, in footnote 11 above, Homan also tells us that he reached “…the best translation, based on linguistic and archaeological sources.” What are those “linguistic and archaeological sources” that he cited as footnote 11?

    Here is Homan’s footnoted support for “the best translation…” and the “linguistic and archaeological sources.”

    “11. “Ale” is actually more accurate, as “beer” typically refers to a beverage made from malted grains flavored with hops and carbonated. Like ale, ancient beer had no carbonation, though ancient beer was not flavored with hops as beer and ale are. Due to the malt, ancient beer was sweet and flavored with a variety of fruits and spices.”

    Obviously, Homan’s footnote 11 is also a misleading citation. Homan does not provide any support for his unsubstantiated assertion of being the best translation based on linguistic sources.

    Homan provides an entirely irrelevant paragraph on the flavoring and distinction between ale and beer. Homan does not give any support to his statement that his interpretation is “the best translation” or on the “linguistic and archaeological sources” on which he bases his translations.”

    quoted from: “DID ANCIENT ISRAELITES DRINK BEER: Reply to Michael Homan”

  • jhon says

    In the story of Joseph in Genesis we are introduced to a Minister of Drinks, Can we identify Khonso-Im-Heb as such a Minister.

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