This Man Brewed Beer Using 3,000-Year-Old Yeast and a Recipe From an Ancient Egyptian Papyrus

Utah homebrewer Dylan McDonnell created his ‘Sinai Sour’ in his backyard

Mug of beer sitting on a table outside
McDonnell's "Sinai Sour" (not pictured) is similar to a gose, a German beer style with a tart, slightly salty taste. Pexels

Craft brewers love to experiment. They’ve made beers using wastewater and food waste, as well as yeast extracted from belly button lint (yes, really). They’ve turned a 1,790-pound pumpkin into a keg. They’ve made a porter from yeast found on a 220-year-old shipwreck, brewed with hops flown in space, sought guidance from artificial intelligence and designed beer specifically for breast cancer patients.

The latest quirky project? A beer made from yeast that’s nearly 3,000 years old, with a recipe derived from a 3,500-year-old Egyptian papyrus.

The man behind the historic brew is Dylan McDonnell, a homebrewer and nonprofit operations manager with a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies, who lives in Millcreek, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City.

During the pandemic, McDonnell heard about a man baking sourdough using a 4,500-year-old yeast strain. He wondered: Would something similar work for beer?

The answer is yes, though it took McDonnell three years to reach that conclusion, reports the New York Times’ Alexander Nazaryan.

McDonnell started his research by reading the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian text from around 1550 B.C.E. that contains hundreds of medicinal recipes promising cures and treatments for everything from male baldness to crocodile bites. He narrowed his focus to the approximately 75 recipes that referenced beer and listed all the ingredients on a spreadsheet.

From there, he sorted the list by the most common ingredients, which turned out to be eight items: Egyptian balsam fruit (desert dates), Yemeni Sidr honey, sycamore figs, black cumin, juniper berries, Israeli golden raisins, carob fruit and frankincense, reports the Salt Lake Tribune’s Kolbie Peterson.

Meet the Utah man brewing a '3,000-year-old' beer, with yeast from ancient pottery

He sourced the rare sycamore figs from a 1,400-year-old grove with help from a friend conducting research in Egypt. And for the base grains, he landed on purple Egyptian barley and emmer wheat, an ancient grain known as farro in Europe.

For the yeast, he got in touch with a German company called Primer’s Yeast that brings together archaeologists, microbiologists and other experts to resurrect ancient yeast strains. From the company, he was able to snag a strain of yeast that had been taken from a piece of pottery in Israel. The strain dates to around 850 B.C.E. and was likely used by the Philistines for making beer.

Once McDonnell had everything he needed, he could finally begin brewing. He used a three-vessel system in his backyard, which produced about ten gallons of beer for roughly $1,000. That’s five times more expensive than a typical batch of home-brewed beer, he tells the Salt Lake Tribune. But the extra expense was worth it for a chance to reconnect with the past.

“It’s cool,” McDonnell tells KTVX’s Jonathan May. “Three thousand years ago, there was some guy in Egypt that was likely putting the same ingredients into a pot and boiling it with the hope of making the same thing.”

In the end, McDonnell produced a beer that’s similar to a gose (pronounced “goes-uh”), a German style with a tart, slightly salty taste. It’s 5 percent alcohol by volume and has notes of apricot, with a floral aftertaste. The flavor is closer to mead or cider than to beer, because it doesn’t contain any hops—the green, pinecone-shaped flowers that add bitterness to beer.

“It’s a little bit rustic, maybe a little bit farmhouse-y, but it’s still bright and citrusy,” says Chris Detrick, a brewer at Salt Lake City’s Level Crossing Brewing Company who was not involved with McDonnell’s project, to the Salt Lake Tribune. “But that sourness, it’s not too much of a sour lactic acidity that you take one sip and you’re done; it’s really refreshing, and I want another sip after that.”

McDonnell has no plans to sell his brew, but he has offered to host private tastings. A modified version of his recipe—with slightly easier-to-find ingredients—will eventually be published on the Primer’s Yeast website.

He never intended to name his concoction. But after being asked multiple times, he came up with “Sinai Sour,” a nod to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, per the New York Times.

And already, he’s dreaming up his next project: a beer with 25 percent alcohol by volume.

“I’m just some guy that’s following his passions,” he tells the Salt Lake Tribune.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.