Time to Get Happy

Grapes rotting — er, I mean turning into wine — in a pot.

OK, it’s time for me to get happy. And to do so, I’m going to brew another version of one of my favorite beers — Ancient Sumerian Happy Juice. Several years ago, I read the English translation of the poem Hymn to Ninkasi. This poem praises the goddess Ninkasi, who the ancient Sumerians believed watched over beer production. From the poem, I came up with a “beer” recipe. The beverage contains honey and fruits, as well as grains, so it’s really a hybrid beer, wine, and mead. The basic idea was that dates were crushed and made into wine. Barley was milled and mixed with honey and baked into bread, which the poem called bappir. Malted grains were then mashed along with the bread. The wort from this was boiled and then cooled and the fermenting date wine was added to it. I used some smoked malt in the recipe as I figured that ancient malting techniques may have yielded malt tainted with smoke. 

I’ve brewed this beverage a couple times, including once with my friends Joe Walton and Jim Michalk. The interesting things about this beer — in addition to the odd way it is brewed — is that it is fantastic. The beer we made was lightly smoky, lightly sour, and seriously delicious. We submitted it to the Austin ZEALOTS Homebrew Inquisition that year and it won second runner up to best of show. Not too shabby.
This time around, I’m taking the previous recipe as a starting point and just sort of winging things. (This is causing the “calculate everything twice to be sure and try to anticipate every possible problem” part of my brain some stress, but that’s life.) I started with the wine. Dates are great, but they are also expensive. Grapes — a fruit with a similar sugar level — were on sale at my local supermarket, so I started the process by lightly crushing the grapes in a big soup pot and letting them turn into wine. I poured a little sugar water between the grapes at first because crushing the with a potato masher really only split them in half. After a day of letting the microorganisms from the grape skins start to work, I pitched some dried beer yeast (Safbrew T-58, a peppery, spicy, “Belgian” yeast strain). Now, several days later, it smells like wine.
Tomorrow, I’m going to bake the bread (bappir) and I’ll post an update. I have some honey sitting around, so I’ll use that. Likewise, for the grist, I have the ingredients for my Copper Ale and I’ll use that. (In the previous batches, I used all pale and smoked malts.) This “what do I have on hand?” approach will (almost) clean out my brewing pantry, but it will mean this batch doesn’t contain any smoked malt. I could smoke some malt myself, but it would need to sit for a couple weeks before use, so I just decided to go ahead and use what I have on hand.
I’ll probably brew the beer either on Friday or over the weekend. At that point, I’ll post the recipe. At this point, it’s up in the air.

If you enjoy Beer & Wine Journal, please consider supporting us by purchasing my book — “Home Brew Recipe Bible,” by Chris Colby (2016, Page Street Publishing). It is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can also find the nearest independent bookstore that sells it on Indiebound. My new book, “Methods of Modern Homebrewing,” by Chris Colby (2017, Page Street Publishing) will be published on December 12th. 


  1. […] The first step in making Ancient Sumerian Happy Juice is making the wine. I’ve done that, it’s bubbling away, and it smells like wine. I also added some beer yeast to the mix, just to cover all the bases. The second step in brewing “the juice” is baking the beer bread, called bappir.  […]

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