Babylonian Talmud / Beer

“Being the principal alcoholic beverage of Mesopotamia, beer is discussed at length in the Babylonian Talmud and, naturally, the vocabulary is Mesopotamian”

Being the principal alcoholic beverage of Mesopotamia, it is discussed at length in the Babylonian Talmud and, naturally, the vocabulary is Mesopotamian. Its preparation is short, less than a week:

They may put in [ingredients] for brewing beer during the festival week for the needs of the festival. But what is not for the needs of the festival is forbidden, be it a brew of dates or a brew of barley (Bab. Talmud Moed Katan 12, b).

The Talmud, like the two classical authors cited above, is aware of the hangover caused by drinking such beer.

Levi sent to Rabbi beer strained (i.e. made by pouring water on dates) thirteen fold. On tasting it, he found it delicious. Said he: ‘Over such as this it is fitting to recite kiddush and to utter all the psalms and praises in the world.’ At night, it caused him pain. Said he: ‘It [both] causes pain and soothes’ (Bab. Talmud 107, 1).

Two other sages expressed even more negative appraisal of this drink.

Rabbi Joseph said : ‘I will vow in the presence of a multitude not to drink beer.’
Rabba said: ‘I will rather drink [retting] flaxwater (known for its bad odour), yet I would not drink beer.’ (ibid.)

From the story about the beer sent by Levi to Rabbi, we learn that the same dates could be used many times, though thirteen strains, i.e. rounds, seems to be an exaggeration. Each ‘round’ would end at a certain stage of the fermentation when the alcohol content raises to a level in which the yeast stops functioning. As dry dates contain up to 70% sugar, the fermentation processes can be repeated time and again. In twentieth-century Iraq, dates fermented in order to produce malt for distillation can give an idea about the process. Fermentation lasts two days and the malt contains 9% alcohol. Urea, to the amount of 0.025%, was added to help the fermentation.

Data from classical sources, from the Talmud and from modern production, sometimes overlapping, sometimes complementing, enable us to reconstruct the topic: The production takes short time, the raw material can be used several times and the drinking can cause a bad hangover. Date beer (which is rather wine) unlike grape wine does not improve with time and it should be consumed soon after its production.

Magen Broshi, “Date Beer and Date Wine in Antiquity”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, vol. 139, no. 1 (2007), 57.