Lebanon and Egypt are the only two Muslim-majority countries to boast of significant alcoholic beverage industries. For the Lebanese this means Arak, the anise-flavored grape-wine whose production (and consumption) is nothing less than a matter of national pride. Egyptians, for their part, have a similar reputation with regard to beer-making, though this has not been quite as visible since the 1970s, when Sadat began appeasing the Islamists.
While Egypt's beer industry began in the 1800s, some sources date the consumption of the beverage to the predynastic period and even to ancient Egypt. “Several history books notably allude to its value as a local currency back in the days when the pyramids in Giza were being built. At the time, pyramid builders would receive daily rations of beer as a form of payment and nutritious refreshment,” according to “Tracing the Evolution of Beer in Egypt on International Beer Day” in the online Egyptian Streets website. Throughout much of the 20th century, beer enjoyed a ubiquitous presence in many Egyptian cultural forms like art, novel, music, cinema and journalism, a phenomenon which students of Egypt associate with “modernity.”
Stella Beer, the subject of Omar Foda’s “Egypt’s Beer: Stella, Identity, and the Modern State” (University of Texas Press) offers a unique vantage point onto the cultural, political, and economic history of Egypt through the lens of its beer production. Particularly, Foda follows the origins of the Stella-brand beer that for decades had dominated the market for domestically-produced beer. Using archival records found in Egypt, Europe, and the United States, he demonstrates how interwoven the brand’s history is with the history of Egypt itself, from its beginnings in the 1920s in the two European companies, Crown and Pyramid, to its eventual nationalization in the 1960s as the Al-Ahram Brewing Company, a result of the rise to power of Gamal Abd-al Nasser, whose push to nationalize Egypt’s economy solidified Stella’s place as a consumer product and national symbol. According to the reviewer, ‘“Egypt’s Beer” will be of interest to a wide cross-section of students and researchers of history, economics, politics, and culture, particularly in its understanding of how these elements intersect one another.”
“Egypt’s Beer: Stella, Identity, and the Modern State,” reviewed by Michael Teague, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 78, 2020.
Copyright © 2020 by Al Jadid