Egyptian society and beer, a long story to tell

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 7 Aug 2018

Caricature by Tamer Youssef

It is late on a Friday afternoon and the Drinkies store in the Cairo suburb of Maadi is getting busy. There are mostly foreign shoppers, but there are also Egyptian customers waiting to get served.

“It is always busy on the afternoon of Fridays in summer. It is usually busy on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year, but summer is particularly busy,” said Ahmed, an engineer in his late 50s.

Joined by his wife Rasha, a banker, Ahmed is waiting to stock up. The couple are planning their annual summer vacation from the last days of July to the end of August. They are bridging this summer holiday with the Eid holidays.

“You know summer and beer go well together — the beach in the afternoon, lunches on balconies, and of course for barbeques. Stella is the queen of the summer,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Ahmed is laughing because he knows that his drinking style is not common among the vast majority of Egyptians today, included those from the upper and upper-middle classes who live in the upscale neighbourhood of Maadi.

“I know things are not as they were when we were growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, but still we like to have our cold Stella. For us, it is part of the pleasure of a nice meal or of enjoying a holiday,” he said.

“It is not unusual to find people who still drink alcohol, especially if it is just a bottle of Stella which is really not high in alcohol at all. You should see this place on the first day of Eid. It is really packed, and this year I had the longest wait in years,” he added.

 “We don’t drink except if we are in the company of friends who drink or who do not mind drinking. Otherwise we are of course careful not to offend. We know that the times when beer was a staple for families on summer evenings, Friday afternoons, and for the Sham Al-Nessim holiday are gone,” Rasha said.

Story of A Star

It was in 1897 that Stella was born to two breweries in Egypt, the Crown Brewery in Alexandria and the Pyramid Brewery in Cairo.

A few decades down the road, Heineken became a partner to both, and they were eventually merged into one when they were nationalised in the early 1960s and given the name that the company still carries today of the Al-Ahram Beverages Company (ABC).

In 1997, when Stella was turning a century old, the government sold ABC as part of its privatisation scheme. The new owner, an Egyptian entrepreneur named Ahmed Al-Zayat, was aware that he was putting his hands on a jewel.

It was not the peak of drinking style for Egyptian society, but still Stella was aging beautifully. Even those who had dropped their drinks due to the Islamist mood might have been yearning for the impact a cold beer could have on their senses.

It was then that the new owner decided to produce Birell, a non-alcoholic beer, and later Fayrouz which offered flavoured versions of the non-alcoholic beverage.

“Birell was an incredible success, and it really went to show that even those who had abandoned alcohol had not overcome their love of Stella. They just wanted it without the alcohol that they were having religious issues with,” said a source at the ABC group.

By 2002, Stella was inching closer towards its 110th anniversary, and it was still shining brightly enough to attract Heineken.

“With fewer people drinking beer, our sales were not where they could have been, but still we had a very good share of the market. I would say we had up to 70 per cent of market sales,” the same source said. She added that “beer represents over 60 per cent of the overall alcoholic consumption in Egypt, if we are talking about the consumption of locally brewed drinks.”

“This is partially due to the fact that beer is lighter in alcohol and cheaper in price, but having worked on the advertising of this brand for years I can say that one crucial factor is that Egyptians are used to having a cold beer, and they like it,” she said.

 “You know alcoholic beverages are a sort of open secret in our society. People still drink, but they do it more privately, with fewer people willing to share their drinking for fear of being looked down upon and with fewer restaurants and bistros willing to offer alcohol for fear of being abandoned by customers who do not want to be in a restaurant where alcohol is served,” the source said.

Over the centuries, Egyptians have always brewed and consumed beer, among other forms of alcohol. “Beer was always there, especially for the poorer sections of the population who could not opt for wine, not just because they could not afford it but also because they did not have a taste for it,” said food expert Hala Barakat.

“But even those who drink wine, champagne or whisky would still opt for a beer on a hot summer’s day. In Egypt beer is a lot more popular and maybe even more fashionable than many of the fancy cocktails with a vodka or champagne base.”

Roshdi, a retired lawyer in his early 80s sitting in his favourite spot in the garden of a Cairo five-star hotel, agrees. He is enjoying his super-cold beer from the point the waiter opens the icy green bottle, through the pouring of the golden bubbly drink into the equally iced glass, and up to each sip of the liquid.

“A beer in the summer is a must, but it really has to be this way — super cold,” he said.

Roshdi enjoys a considerable income, and he speaks of the cocktails he enjoys making and serving to his guests, especially in summer. “But I can tell you that no matter how good the champagne punch or the mojito might be, it could not take the place Stella has in our hearts. Tradition and an acquired taste is a great part of drinking — and Stella is essential to the Egyptian drinking style,” he stated.

Sameh Ali, manager of Alexandria’s legendary Sheikh Ali Bar, agrees with Roshdi about the central position Stella has in the “wide and diverse drinking platform that Egyptians opt for, as well as foreigners living in Egypt. Stella is an absolute essential ever since it used to be served in two bottles, dark green with less alcohol and dark brown with more alcohol, up until the late 1970s.”

It was not the colour of the bottles that changed at this date, not immediately anyway. Drinking norms and regulations changed first.

Sadat Era

In 1977, practically on the 80th anniversary of the golden beer of Egypt, former president Anwar Al-Sadat decided to put his weight behind religious policies, one of which led to limitations on the serving of alcohol in Egypt.

“It must have been in the late 1970s, maybe 1977 or 1978 and a couple of years before his assassination, that Sadat introduced regulations that made it impossible for us to have our evening beer at our club,” said Adel, a retired civil servant in his mid-70s.

“At the time we were really annoyed: it was a routine that we had to go in the evening to the club, have a beer and maybe eat something later. On Fridays we would go to have lunch at the club and have a beer. The social club was where people, young and old, would meet, and Stella was the drink that many would have,” Adel recalled.

The regulations of the time not only limited the places where beer was allowed to be served, but they also banned groceries from selling beer or any type of alcoholic drinks. Later, they banned the advertisement of alcohol in the newspapers or on TV, with only the two state-run channels being available at the time.

By the time Sadat was assassinated in the autumn of 1981, public appearances of alcohol in general, including Stella, were fast declining.

“He had political purposes, of course. Sadat was not taking issue with alcohol per se, but was trying to appease the Islamist movement at the time because he wanted to use the Islamists to reduce the presence of the left which had criticised his peace deal with Israel and his Open Door economic policy,” said Afaf Al-Sayed, an anti-Islamist commentator.

Al-Sayed argued that the declining interest in drinking at the time was not just a function of the regulations.“If it had just been the law, people would still have been drinking at restaurants that have a licence to serve alcohol or in their homes. It was more about society opting for an Islamist mood, largely because of the impact of the migration to the Arab Gulf countries where Islamism was strong. People came back with new norms, including anti-alcohol attitudes,” she said.

At the time, Al-Sayed added, there was also an emphasis on “‘clean cinema’ in which actresses would not wear swimming suits. The TV would not air films starring belly-dancers as much, and there was ‘clean literature’ where women’s sexuality was almost a taboo,” she said.

Sadat’s successor, former president Hosni Mubarak, himself brought up in a more liberal Egypt than the one he came to head in the wake of Sadat’s assassination, would not challenge these new norms or reverse the regulations imposed under his predecessor.

“Mubarak took a firmer stance against the Islamists for sure, but he could not have changed the societal norms. They were established because people wanted them, not just because the state imposed them. More and more women were covering up their hair, and more and more there was a stigmatisation of those who did not follow the norms, including those who sold or drank alcohol.”

“The Muslim men of religion were also banning men and women from working as vendors or waiters in groceries or restaurants that sold or served alcohol,” she noted.

The Story Continues

With the dramatic end of Mubarak’s rule in the 25 January Revolution, things were again changing.

“It was a moment when so many norms were being reconsidered, including ones related to how men and women dressed and how they dealt with each other and how they perceived the religious authorities that were not immediately on the side of the revolution,” Al-Sayed said.

“After all, it was a moment of liberation in many ways; people, especially the young, would meet up in cafés around the city to talk politics and drink beer,” she added.

Nabil, a waiter in one of the few Heliopolis restaurants that still serve beer, agrees that things changed after the 25 January Revolution.

“Some people like to think that it was more after the end of the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013, but in fact it was after January 2011 when people were in a sense looking for the kind of Egypt where it was alright to drink or not to drink, to be Muslim or to be Christian,” he said.

It was not just political either, Barakat argued. “That was an element of that, of course, but it was also a function of the new emphasis on healthy eating and drinking. Beer was not seen now just as a cool drink, but also as a drink that could be good for your body given its low alcohol content,” she argued.

However, Sandra, an accountant in her late 30s who decided recently to give up alcohol, argues that it is now more trendy to opt for an alcohol-free diet, especially for women like herself who come from families with a long history of cancer.

“It is nice to have a beer for sure, and it is cool to go out with friends and drink a couple of beers. But after I spoke to my doctor about it, I decided to stop as he was really strict about the possible incremental impact of alcohol on women like myself with strong chances of developing cancer,” Sandra said.

According to the ABC source, food and health trends have not had a strong impact on the sales of the company. She agreed that in the wake of the 25 January Revolution local consumption increased “a bit”, but she insisted that this could not be divorced from the drop due to the reduction in the number of tourists visiting Egypt, “essential to our sales for decades”.

Today, there is still concern in some quarters that the state is acting to put a cap on the consumption of alcohol. “I have been trying to regain a license to serve alcohol for a long time, but I am being faced with an endless series of issues,” said Nadia, the owner of a downtown restaurant that opened a few years ago after a full overhaul of its former version.

Nadia had been offered endless excuses about the proximity of the restaurant to a mosque, a church and a synagogue. At the end of the day, she has still not managed to renew her licence even though another restaurant opposite hers has been serving alcohol since it opened in the late 1970s.

According to Mahmoud Khairallah, author of a 2016 title on the declining presence of bars in Egypt, the state is not helping business to flourish. He does not offer firm conclusions, but he does think that as society has become more Islamised this has inevitably included civil servants.

The state, he argues, is not just making it difficult for new restaurants to get the necessary paper work to serve alcohol, but it is also not helping the smaller and older bars in poorer neighbourhoods to survive.

The dwindling presence of these bars is the core of the story of his book that depicts the end of many small bars that used to serve the poor who could not afford more than one or two brown bottles of beer.

“There have been problems related to the renewals of licences, problems related to the work on some of the buildings, and problems related to the ability of customers to keep visiting their favourite bars given the harsh economic realities,” Khairallah said.

This is not just unfortunate because it ends a particular aspect of the city, but also because it is “adding another layer to the growing class divide in which only those with comfortable economic means can now have access to the beer that has traditionally been the drink for the poor,” he said.

The Star Still Shines

For the Stella company, state regulations are there to be observed. “We observe the law, and we work within the means available to us to promote our brand without violating the sentiments of the pious. For our team, those are the golden rules,” the ABC source said.

Yet, another ABC source said that the company had nevertheless managed to keep its drink as iconic as it has been for over 120 years.

Speaking through a PR company, the source said that Stella had survived throughout the decades “because of its heritage. Stella has been the most popular beer in Egypt for so many years, and it is synonymous with beer in Egypt. In Egypt, beer means Stella.”

 “After 1952 [the revolution], many of the international brands that were then available in Egypt started to disappear, so the makers of Stella built the brand even more and solidified Stella’s position as the Beer of Egypt,” the source said.

Despite the fact that Stella is not now material for advertisements that would refer to it as “a family’s favourite drink”, as would have been the case in the 1950s and 1960s, it is still opting for the skills of advertising designers to reach out to clients of legal age to drink.

The changing of the packaging that took place in 1997 to allow for a lighter and smaller bottle, as well as the introduction of canned beer, was a way Stella acted to stay young.

Then came the newer varieties and the softening of an older label. Social media has allowed Stella to have an official page that carries its ads only for those who chose to visit.

“Stella’s advertising targets young Egyptians who need to be recruited to the brand. To do so, Stella carries out campaigns and activities that are relevant to this target market. For example, Stella sponsors musicians who play the rising music genre of mahraganat through a yearly competition that choses the best talents,” the ABC source who spoke through the PR company said.

Last year, for its 120th birthday Stella had its most successful campaign in years. “It was even stronger than our campaign for the 115th anniversary that came right after the 25 January Revolution,” said a member of the design team. “I guess we were inspired by the fact that there was a growing interest in the drink again,” she added.

The 120th anniversary campaign was entitled “Farhah” (joy) and featured drawings of people celebrating a wedding or a party with a prominent place reserved for Stella.

“Stella has always had a strong presence at popular weddings and parties. In fact, it is typical for people to offer Stella boxes as part of the neout [traditional wedding donation/present]. This was our point of inspiration,” she said.

Stella has kept up with the theme of popular culture and posted on its Facebook page photographs that combine the colourful presence of its bottles with popular proverbs that celebrate timesharing and bonding, and with many variations related to summer holidays, weekends and the World Cup.

The Stella team is also working to promote its non-alcoholic siblings, as these can see advertisements on TV and in the papers.

“We are part of an international company, and in every country our advertising is inspired by the local culture and by the respect for the culture and society’s norms.

This is precisely what we do in Egypt, and I think this is part of the value of our brand that has been shining for 121 years,” the source who spoke through the PR company said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A shining star

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