Historical Brew

Doctoral candidate Omar Foda examines the history of the beer industry in Egypt.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Blake Cole

For Omar Foda, beer is in the blood. From the 1960s to the 1980s, his grandfather worked for the brewery that produced the storied Egyptian beer Stella. “It always seemed odd when I told people I was Egyptian and that I was Muslim, and then was like, oh, yeah, and my grandfather owned a beer company in Egypt,” says Foda, a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations with a focus on the Middle East. “It always seemed to be shocking.” 

When it came time for him to choose a dissertation topic, an investigation into the history of Stella and the cultural impact of the beer industry in Egypt seemed an obvious choice. Now the research for Grand Plans in Glass Bottles: The Economic, Social, and Technological History of Beer in Egypt, 1880—1970 has been published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

The companies that would come to produce Stella—Crown Brewery in Alexandria and Pyramid Brewery in Cairo—were founded in 1897 and 1898 respectively. In the late 1930s, beer giant Heineken bought into both companies. “There were two Stellas in the market at this point, both under the same brand, but slightly different,” says Foda, who scoured the National Archives in Egypt and Heineken’s digitized records, contained within the Amsterdam City Archives. “Of course, the people in Alexandria believed their Stella was better, while the people in Cairo, where Stella was controlled more strongly by Heineken, were very intent that their Stella was better.” 

The struggle back and forth between the two breweries would continue until the 1960s when the government nationalized them both and paid Heineken a below-market rate as a token of their forced confiscation of the company’s assets. “This was during a period when Egyptianized foreigners, businesses included, were told to either became full Egyptian citizens, or leave the country.”

In addition to chronicling the history of the industry, Foda also wanted to examine the cultural influence of alcohol in the region. For this research he relied on secondary sources like literature and movies. “I was looking at how people in different media talked about beer or where it might have appeared, because it gives us a greater sense of the cultural footprint,” he says. Thanks to advertising, by the mid-20th century beer had penetrated Egyptian culture and become a beverage people understood. “There’s this imagined ideal of sitting on the beach eating some fried fish and having a cold Stella beer. It’s refreshing, it has effervescence— that’s the way it was sold. “

But by the time the ‘70s and ‘80s rolled around, Foda says, many in the Middle East had begun to treat alcohol with suspicion, some even regarding it as a sin. “With the rise of Islamic modernism and movements that prioritize Islam as the way forward, beer, just like every other alcohol, becomes problematic,” says Foda. “In those areas it becomes strange that you would even have a beer industry when Islam is the defining characteristic of your society.” 

The industry has become proficient at adapting to changing cultural tides, though, Foda says. When it became more difficult to sell alcohol, companies expanded into soft drinks. “In the ‘20s and ‘30s you would have large advertisements for beer on billboards. Now that doesn’t really exist. Companies have to be clever in how they choose to sell their product.”

As for future research, Foda hopes to adapt his dissertation into a book-length work that will better address the public health implications of the growth of the beer industry in Egypt. “I want to look at the epidemiology of alcohol dependency in the country,” says Foda. “And also look outside of Egypt to other countries in the Middle East like Turkey, Morocco, and Sudan to add nuance to my discussion of the arrival of brewing techniques and technologies in the region.”