Real saviors of the human race are rare. Although everyone remembers Noah and his ark, hardly anyone recalls that a humble beverage once saved the human race from eradication. Maybe that’s because the beer episode happened so long ago.

According to ancient Egyptian myth, the goddess Hathor decided to finish off the human race. she would have been successful, too, if not for the intervention of the god Ra, who ordered Sektet to mix beer with the mysterious dada fruit and some human blood. When Hathor arrived the next morning to wreak destruction, she found the land flooded with this tempting concoction. Unable to resist, she took one sip, and then another, eventually becoming so drunk that she no longer recognized human beings.

This myth shows how important beer was to the ancient Egyptians. Henket — as beer was called in pharaonic times — was an important part of the Egyptian diet. Bas relief depictions from the period show how partially baked cakes of barley bread were used to make beer. Dates and honey were then added to give the brew its special flavor. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Bast, the cat-goddess, was known to “tie a few on.”

Six thousand years later, alas, beer does not enjoy the same revered status in the land of the pharaohs. “God cursed alcoholic beverages and all those who transport, sell, buy and serve them, as well as those to whom it is served!” declares one of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Despite the taboo against alcohol in a Muslim society, Egypt’s biggest brewery, the Al-Ahram Beverage Company (ABC) remains optimistic about its business prospects.

ABC’s “Stella” beer is an Egyptian institution, having quenched the thirsts of generations during the last 101 years. “We make an enormous profit from all our products,” declared Steven Keever, a company spokesman.

“Sure, this is a Muslim country, but the 500,000 hecto-liters of beer we produce here annually must be consumed somewhere,” Imam Muharram observes dryly while overseeing the brewing process. Other staff members have an equally relaxed attitude. Sami ‘Asim, who studied agronomy, never dreamed of working at the brewing kettles. Now he says that he is simply earning his living, stressing that, as a Muslim, he never partakes of the fruit of his labor.

ABC’s management does not draw incorrect conclusions about its employees’ pragmatic approach to beer brewing in Cairo. To guard against Egypt’s growing religious-conservative trend, the brewery has diversified its range of products. Lemonade and cola, as well as non-alcoholic beer produced under a Swiss license, feature prominently in ABC’s new product line.

ABC recently cut a deal with Guinness for the production and export of alcohol-free beer throughout the Middle East. About 40 percent of ABC’s beer production is already alcohol-free, according to Keever, who forecasts a 120 percent growth rate over the next three years.

There might be another reason for the unexpectedly high demand for alcohol-free beer throughout the “dry” Islamic countries: Rumors abound that desperate people are transforming alcohol-free beer into the real thing. Egyptian workers in Libya are alleged to have fermented alcohol-free beer simply by adding Italian pasta noodles.

Despite the success of its alcohol-free beer, ABC still faces controversy over its marketing of the real thing. Although any Egyptian product can be sold anywhere in Egypt, according to the letter of Egyptian law, ABC’s biggest challenge is marketing its beer in Upper Egypt, where alcohol has traditionally been popular with the region’s large community of Coptic Christians. Here, beer drinking figures prominently in wedding celebrations. This would not be a problem if Upper Egypt were not also a stronghold of militant Islamists.

To avoid any conflicts, several provinces have banned the sale of alcohol altogether — to the chagrin of the brewers. “Upper Egypt could be a gold mine,” sighs Fatin Mustafa, who heads ABC’s marketing department. “We are smuggling the stuff to Upper Egypt as if it were hashish,” adds another ABC employee.

The average Egyptian drinks 0.6 liter of alcoholic beer annually. (In Tunisia, the yearly average is eight liters, while in Turkey it is twelve and in Germany 140 liters.) These figures, of course, are purely theoretical, since most Egyptians never imbibe a single drop of alcohol their entire lives. Yet the irrefutable fact remains: Ten years ago, Egypt’s average per capita beer consumption was nearly three times as high as today’s average.

ABC’s Steven Keever blames the former state-run Stella brewery, not religious conservatives, for ruining Egyptian beer’s reputation. The bad quality of the state-produced beer provided considerable grist for Egypt’s joke mill. The beer-drinking expatriate community also generated countless Stella jokes, such as the following: “An American brought a bottle of Stella beer back home to test its composition in a US laboratory. ‘I have bad news’, the lab technician reported with a long face, ‘your camel suffers from diabetes.’”

Thankfully, those days are now over. Egyptians no longer have to choose between drinking bad locally produced beer or paying a 300 percent duty payment for imported beer. In addition to the products of a now-privatized ABC, a new brewery, which opened in May of this year in the Red Sea coastal town of Hurghada, produces beer brewed in cooperation with the famous Munich Lowenbrau. Some claim that each brew sample is flown to Germany for quality control testing.

The previously unthinkable has now become possible: public advertising of beer in an Islamic country. “We are penetrating the market with caution,” explains ABC’s marketing director Mustafa. Initially, “trial balloon” ads were placed in the local English press. Upon encountering no resistance, the marketing department turned to the Arabic press, first placing ads for non-alcoholic beer. Now, promoting alcoholic beer is no longer a problem. “Papers call us to ask when we want to place our next ad,” Mustafa exclaims proudly.

For convenience, beer can even be delivered direct to your home — in a plain, brown wrapper, of course! As another saying of the Prophet counsels: “If you do something wrong — at least be discreet about it.”

Far away from ABC’s air-conditioned marketing department lies Hadayat al-Qubba, an economically depressed quarter of Cairo’s struggling middle class. This is the front line for beer sales in Islamic “enemy territory.” Towers of crates containing soft drinks and beer give ABC’s local distribution branch the appearance of a Crusader castle under siege.

Here, alcohol is sold by official license. Most customers are small traders who pass the beer on to their customers — illegally. But this shop has seen better times. Whereas 600 traders bought from this branch 16 years ago, today only 57 traders frequent it. Some traders leaving the shop with huge quantities run into trouble with the police. The authorities might turn a blind eye to a few bottles — but several crates? For the police, this automatically signals illegal trading.

Conservative worshipers from a neighboring mosque, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, once came into the shop to ask politely if it would be possible to close during the holy day of Friday. “Of course we adopted this idea,” said the director of the shop, without revealing what would have happened if he had not cooperated.

Everyone working in the shop is a Muslim, so how do they reconcile their work with their religion? The answer of one salesman is both pragmatic and fatalistic: “What can I do? Everything is written in advance and God assigned me to work here.”

How to cite this article:

Karim El-Gawhary "Religious Ferment(ation)," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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