After seizing control of Cairo in July 1798, Napoleon turned his attention to practical matters: how could his army be supplied in ‘the Orient’ as the campaign went on?
He had taken with him more than 150 scientists and academics, partly so that he could present his imperialist project as an attempt to bring the principles of the enlightenment to an ‘uncivilised’ continent. In August that year, they became the l’Institut d’Égypte, with headquarters on the outskirts of the city.
In the first meeting, Napoleon suggested some specific lines of enquiry for the Institute to consider, all very practical: How could they the marching army’s ovens be kept burning with less fuel? How could water from the Nile be purified? Could gunpowder be made in Egypt? Would it be better to build watermills or windmills? And what state would Turkey be in when they got there?
Most importantly, though, he asked this vital question: Are there any means of supplying a substitute for hops in the brewing of beer?
How much beer did his army drink? More than they did wine, perhaps, and as a source of relatively clean water rather than an intoxicant?
Whether they ever seriously applied themselves to developing a hop substitute we don’t know — the answer may lie in an archive somewhere in Paris or Cairo — but the consensus seems to be that, after that initial meeting, Napoleon withdrew from direct involvement and they found their own questions to answer.
This wasn’t our most rigorous bit of scholarship — we read a few reliable-looking articles including this one, from where we also borrowed the illustration; and found the same story repeated in numerous 19th century biographies.