Brewing with Egil, Part II: “Ethiopian” Beer and Dead Bees


A while ago, I stumbled across a book called A Description of the Northern Peoples, written by the Swedish Catholic archbishop Olaus Magnus in 1555. The original Latin text is freely available online; I have an English translation published later.

In the book, Magnus documents “a method of brewing beer among the Ethiopians or Indians.” It’s worth noting that, in the 16th century, “Ethiopia” was a word used to refer to all of Africa and a chunk of the Middle East; this recipe is not strictly limited to the modern borders of Ethiopia.

You can get the original text (in Latin) for free here:

The recipe is found in Book 13, chapters 30 (in part, to make the bread) and 31. Following are excerpts that convey the recipe. I’ve made the recipe twice so far.

30. On a method of brewing beer among the Ethiopians, or Indians, from a recipe furninshed by my lord Johannes Baptista Habascianus, an Indian priest

“Take flour of ordinary wheat or barley which has not been shaken through a sieve, for better beer comes from this. Make a dough and put in yeast according to the way in which ordinary bread is made. The dough should remain for 10 days before it is baked, but let it be well kneaded daily and sprinkle into it a small amount of flour every day until the tenth day, so that the dough becomes sour. After the 10th day, bake it in the oven until it turns into biscuit. When it is brittle, break it into pieces, put it in a jar, and lay on top a very small amount of sprouted barley. Fill this jar with water and stop it up well for three days…”

31. Making the same beer in a different way

“Take biscuit bread and sprouting barley and put these into a large jar just as I described above, until the third day. Then take a big pot full of honey together with the combs and wax. Afterwards take a large vessel which will hold five times as much liquid as the pot held honey, and wash it thoroughly. While it is still damp turn it with the mouth downwards, to be smoked over dried olive leaves. Next pour in all the honey from the pot, fill the same pot twice with sprouting barley and softened biscuit bread, and put as much water and sprouting barley as you need into the vessel you poured the honey into.
When all these ingredients, including the honey and water, have been mixed together in the vessel that has been smoked, the resulting beer is firmly stopped up with clay for three days. After that open it and, when you have skimmed off all the scum found in the mouth, force it to flow out, as I told you to do with the drink above. Distribute it through a shining white cloth among various clean, handsome jugs, which should then be well stopped…”


He wrote a lot more than that about the beer, but those two excerpts are the bulk of the actual technique. He describes the process for sprouting the barley, extracting wax from the “scum” skimmed off, and talks about the importance of keeping beer away from menstruating women and people “polluted from recent coition.

I decided to take a crack at replicating this recipe, because the technique is unlike anything else I’ve seen. It somewhat resembles the process documented in the Hymn to Ninkasi – but that’s a topic for another time.

I should have used stone-ground flour for this one, with a varied consistency – but I didn’t have access to it. I used whole-wheat flour the first time, and used my barley crusher to make a coarse barley meal the second time.

The “bread” that results from the wheat is pretty interesting. I’ve never let a sourdough go for 10 days; by the end, the dough was the consistency of wet clay, and baked into something not unlike pottery shards. It was also extremely lactic – it tasted quite a bit like a sharp Italian cheese, similar to aged provolone.

The barley bread wasn’t much better – still very hard and dry, but it crumbled more easily than the wheat bread.


The process past the baking is pretty straightforward – soften the bread, mix the bread glop with raw honey (with combs and wax), and drink a few days later. The smoking step is curious at first glance, but olive leaves contain bacteriocidal compounds, so the smoking likely served as some form of sanitation.

The stuff is quite sweet after 3 days, with a strong honey flavor, a nutty breadlike flavor, a touch of lactic sour/tartness, and a very yeasty profile. It’s not unpalatable – it’s just bizarre. Very mildly alcoholic, though it gets stronger as it ferments longer.

When I finished the first iteration, I found a dead bee in the solids – that’s what I get for using raw honey with comb. My friend Fridrikr Tommasson (mka Tom Delfs) helped me name the drink, in honor of the bee’s noble sacrifice: “Drykkjabýdrapa,” or “The Song of the Drunken Bee.” Godspeed, little friend.

I can’t really map it to any modern beverage, and I’m not even sure it was really intended as a “beer” in the way we think of beer. It doesn’t seem like the fermentation is really intended to produce alcohol; rather, it seems to me that the fermentation makes the stuff easier to drink. It’s very thick and rich, rather like a liquid bread. I suspect it may have been intended primarily as a nutrient beverage – a way to make use of the grain that was processed for long-term storage. It’s even conceivable that the yeast content may provide B-vitamins, enhancing the possible nutritive qualities.

This is the recipe that made me start thinking about the potential use of sourdough bread in brewing. Could something like this be reflected earlier in history? What does the sourdough process actually contribute to the beer – since it’s such an obvious specialized processing technique, it stands to reason that the brewers were attempting to manipulate the grains to a particular end.

That is a topic for a different post.


3 comments on “Brewing with Egil, Part II: “Ethiopian” Beer and Dead Bees

  1. It is interesting that this recipe from Ethiopia is in a book on “the Northern Peoples”. By the way, in looking at my dictionary, ølfluga or ølbý (ale-fly or ale-bee) is equally fitting. Could you try this experiment at Pennsic and let folks try the product over the period of several days?

  2. Needs Mead says:

    This was a fascinating drink, and I’m glad I got to try it at Yule! Even better to get a chance to read up on your process, especially when my attention isn’t compromised by paneling. 🙂 Looking forward to future posts!

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