Class transcendence in Turkey and beer

Besim F. Dellaloğlu writes: Beer as a product came to the Ottoman Empire via the 1839 Tanzimat political reforms. Within the Ottoman-Turkish experience, beer was an option equated with modernization. Today, the consumption of beer is not directly linked to social class. Beer has managed to transcend not only economic-political but also socio-political, even religio-political, class distinctions.

Besim F. Dellaloğlu

Beer was humankind’s first alcoholic beverage. It was discovered in Mesopotamia via the fermentation of wheat soup. According to Sumerian and Egyptian documents, beer was the alcoholic beverage of choice in the Middle East at the time. One of the reasons for its popularity was that it was believed to be healthier than water.

The first beer brewers in Europe were the Celts in the 1st century BC. Beer was regarded by the Romans as a barbarian drink, but in most of Europe, beer was widespread in the early 4th century. The first beer in Germany was produced in the 8th century. In Central Europe, beer was primarily produced in monasteries popped up in the 9th century, particularly in Bavaria and Bohemia. This was because these two regions had more suitable climates for producing beer. The monks were the primary producers and they were allowed to drink five liters of beer a day. The monasteries started to produce more beer than they could consume and they began to sell it. Today there are still monasteries producing beer in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

In Europe, beer became the drink of the lower class. It also became a means of survival, especially during times when it was difficult to access clean water. The gastronomic coupling of beer and potatoes was the product of historic circumstance; Potatoes were not highly sought after, but the food allowed for the survival of the lower class during periods of famine. Thus, beer and potatoes satiated the hunger and thirst of the lower class.

In 1516, Wilhelm IV, Duke of Bavaria, promulgated the Reinheitsgebot, also known as the “German beer purity law.” According to this law, the ingredients that could be used in beer were defined as hops, barley, and water. It was later amended to include yeast. The law was introduced in part to ensure consumer protection, as it prevented brewers from using cheap alternatives, such as using wheat for beer instead of bread, or using cheap additives. Although the law has not been enforced in its strictest form since 1987, many breweries in Germany and beyond still maintain the old standards and take pride in the purity and quality it guarantees.

Beer is one of those products and institutions that came to the Ottoman Empire via the Tanzimat political reforms that started in 1839. The first Turkish legislation on beer was introduced in 1847. Beer production in the Ottoman Empire was 1.2 million liters in 1896. This figure reached 9.9 million liters between 1913 and 1914.

In Turkey, the Bomonti brothers first produced beer using modern production techniques. In 1890, they began to produce beer using “top fermentation” at the facility they established in Feriköy, Istanbul. There are documents indicating that beer was produced in Turkey even before this date. An example of this is the Veuve Prokopp branded beer bottle from Punta Brewery in İzmir, which dates to 1846.

Historically, beerhouses were joyous places where beer was consumed. In 1888, there were 31 beerhouses in Istanbul, 15 in Beyoğlu, eight in Galata, and eight in other districts. In the years when the Bomonti Brewery started production, there were only breweries in four cities in the Ottoman lands, namely, Istanbul, İzmir, Thessaloniki, and Ankara. In 1921, the number of breweries in Istanbul rose to 52.

Within the Ottoman-Turkish experience, beer was an option included in the modernization package. It was well-established within the consumption patterns of different classes who were the conveyers of modernization. Today, the consumption of beer is not directly linked to social class. In fact, it makes much more sense to talk about beer in generational terms; Thus, beer is a younger drink than, say, raki or wine.

Children of the urbanized, educated, secularized Islamist families who have moved up the social ladder, encounter alcohol via beer. I met a former Islamist student in a pub who explained to me why he was drinking light beer, saying, “We used to have limited opportunities and had never encountered this drink. We didn’t have any money. But it’s not like that anymore. How is the beer in my hand any different from the boza (traditional Turkish fermented drink) we used to consume so often?”

This example offers an incredible perspective in terms of the way a secularized mind interprets its actions. In such examples, we can see that beer can transcend not only economic-political class but also socio-political, even religio-political, class distinctions.

In short, certain drinks no longer point directly to certain social classes as they used to. After all, a wide middle class has made everything accessible to everyone. All of this does not mean that social classes have been eliminated. Not all beer is created equal! After all, a bag of St Erik’s potato chips is 56 dollars and you’ll only find five chips inside.