Omar Foda, Egypt’s Beer: Stella, Identity and the Modern State (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Omar Foda (OF): The project started as a personal one. I was considering quite a few topics for my MA thesis, but I could not settle on one. I decided to do something completely different and find out what I could about my grandfather’s time working for Egypt’s largest beer company, which my family just called “Stella.” What I thought would be a quick intellectual diversion before I found my “real” dissertation topic became something much more. The history of the company, which survives to this day under the moniker Al-Ahram Beverage Company, can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century. Before it was Al-Ahram, it was two corporations who were sometimes competitors and sometimes collaborators, Crown and Pyramid Breweries. From their bases in Alexandria (Crown) and Cairo (Pyramid) these companies incorporated people and ideas from Britain, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Sudan, Turkey, and further afield, defying my understanding of what “foreign” and “native” were when it came to Egypt and its economy. Beyond that, they were, for a time, financial powerhouses in the country. Even when they fell out of the ranks of the country’s most profitable companies, they had over a century of irrefutable success. Most significantly, these were companies built on selling alcohol in the Muslim-majority context of Egypt. For many, including those perplexed or offended by the idea of drinking cultures in Muslim-majority countries, they should not have existed. That they not only existed, but thrived, was simply too intriguing not to explore further.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
OF: Although this book is about Crown and Pyramid, its center is the product they sold jointly, Stella Beer. To tell the story of Stella’s rise as Egypt’s beer and its struggle for continued relevance in contemporary Egypt, I relied on a hybrid history. Instead of cordoning economic and cultural affairs apart from one another, I show that the two spheres make sense only when they are considered together. The need to connect the economic to the cultural is particularly pressing in the field of consumer goods, where a company’s success or failure hinges upon its ability to embrace, reject, or even change cultural norms and practices. As such, my book looks at both macroeconomic matters (e.g., global economic integration and economic imperialism) and microeconomic matters (e.g., prices, consumption, and distribution) together with social and cultural issues, including the development of a middle class, the emergence of youth culture, the politicization of religion, and changing notions of entertainment in daily life.
In addition, this book adds to the growing literature on the history of technology. Specifically, it examines how technological advances—such as new techniques for brewing, refrigeration, and transport—not only undergirded trends and developments in Stella sales, but also shaped consumption patterns and altered cultural conceptions of food, drink, and nourishment. This study also illustrates how Stella Beer, and the companies that sold it, succeeded because they used new technologies, like refrigeration, to exploit the inherent advantages of the Egyptian context, including an abundant water supply, a cheap labor force, and a large population. Thus, the history of technology serves as another medium through which the book integrates the economic and the cultural.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
OF: Egypt’s Beer is the capstone to the work I began with my MA, which focused on the history of beer in Egypt. It continued with my dissertation, which was an expansive look at the Egyptian beer industry.
It differs from those works, and others I have written, in that it narrows its focus to the product itself, Stella. Crown and Pyramid, Heineken, and the Egyptian government are still characters in this narrative, but it is Stella that is the star, if you will. Bad wordplay aside, focusing on the beer helped me hone in on the big questions I was seeking to answer.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
OF: Am I allowed to say everyone? Realistically, there are five audiences I had in mind writing this book.
Egyptianists: Following up on the first question, it was this group’s overwhelmingly positive reaction to my MA thesis that gave me the push to pursue this topic. Stella, for good and bad, is an institution in Egypt, but I do not think anyone, myself included, realized how deeply it is intertwined in the country’s history. Think of any major historical event in Egypt since 1898 and there is a connection to Stella. It even applies to Egypt-adjacent history. For example, American Pharaoh, the last horse to win racing’s Triple Crown, was owned by Ahmad Zayat. Guess how he made the money needed to buy a stable? Stella. He bought Al-Ahram in 1997 and sold it to Heineken in 2003.
Middle East specialists: This book adds to the growing trend of consumption studies of the Middle East. I think because the region is so politicized, both on the ground and in its academic study, that it can be easy to dismiss something like my book as a nice distraction from the “real” issues in the region. I will not deny that there are serious issues facing the Middle East, but I would say that good consumption studies can provide a wonderful and, most importantly, unguarded window into the historical development of many of these issues. For example, the historical study of alcohol consumption in the Middle East provides a unique view on the region’s religious history.
Business historians: This subspecialty has been pretty West-focused, and this book is a bit of a corrective to that. In particular, Stella Beer is a fascinating case study to understand business success through the frameworks of colonialism and non-capitalistic economic systems. Egypt’s integration into the Western-dominated world market was integral to the British colonial project. Nevertheless, Stella Beer’s business model is more nuanced than Western exploitation of the native populace. Similarly, my in-depth look at the activities of the corporations (Crown and Pyramid) that sold Stella in the period 1950-1980 can help us understand how companies successfully navigated the transitions between capitalistic and non-capitalistic systems.
General interest history readers: Since Stella Beer was an institution with deep historical and cultural roots in Egypt, I think this book provides an interesting entry point for the country’s history. The century-long transformation of the product provides a wonderful mirror for Egyptian history in a tumultuous time period.
Beer lovers: Finally, at a time when the craft of beer making in the United States and abroad is in a state of popular revival, this book provides an engaging account of brewers fighting to make high-quality beer in a Muslim-majority country. It will appeal to any home brewer or beer enthusiast.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
OF: My next project is called “Just for the Taste of It?: Soda and the Struggle over the Americanization of Egypt.” In it, I use soda (sugared carbonated beverages) to track Egypt’s relationship with America in the twentieth century. Although the big two (Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola) entered Egypt in the 1930s they only became profitable ventures in the 1980s. This delayed take-off (and explosive growth since the 1980s) is particularly odd considering Egypt’s historical love of sugar and sweetened drinks. But these two cola behemoths were not able to capitalize on the inherent advantages of the market for a variety of cultural, political, religious, and technological reasons. Explaining what stifled these two cola empires for many years and what eventually paved the way for their unbridled success shines light on the historically fraught relationship between Egypt and America.
J: Does Egypt’s Stella have anything to do with Belgium’s Stella Artois?
OF: This is probably one of the most common questions I am asked. The short answer is probably not. The long answer is that I have not been able to find any source to either confirm or deny the connection. Egypt’s Stella has Belgian roots. Crown and Pyramid were founded by Belgians in Egypt, but it was after the Belgians had been bought out that Crown and Pyramid came up with their premium offering called Stella. Were they inspired by Stella Artois? It would not surprise me especially since they are both premium lagers. But I cannot really say. The main problem is I do not have a firm date on when the Artois Brewery started using the name Stella. More personally, perhaps I am not looking for an answer because I have spent my whole life saying, “no… not that Stella.”
Excerpt from the book
The success of the two companies [Crown and Pyramid] despite the volatility of this period can be attributed to the fact that Stella had become the beer of Egypt. One of the most significant spurs for the realization of this market control came in 1952 with an important technical innovation, a strain of barley specifically designed to grow in Egypt. Malted barley, which was soaked in water to begin germination and then roasted to arrest this germination, was one of the essential ingredients of modern beer, along with hops and water. Before the innovation of “Egyptian” barley, the Egyptian breweries had to import the malted barley from the Netherlands, where Heineken carefully chose and roasted it. The import of malt from the Netherlands was problematic, as it was inefficient and costly and exposed the malt to the possibility of spoilage or contamination.
These problems with barley supply were resolved when a Dutch brewmaster who had trained at the Heineken Brewing Company, Gerardus Hubertus Ulenberg, became the chief of beer making at the Pyramid Brewery and created a strain of barley in 1952. This new strain of barley was two rowed; barley generally comes in two forms, two and six rowed, depending on how many rows of seeds it has along its flowering head. Although more expensive that six-rowed barley, this two-rowed barley was better suited to growing conditions in Egypt. Ultimately, the breweries came to maximize both quality and price by using a two-rowed/six-rowed mix for making their malt. With this new strain, Pyramid could produce malt that was up to Heineken’s standards and differentiated their beer from foreign competitors in Egypt. This innovation not only freed Pyramid from the major manufacturing bottleneck of importing large amounts of barley, but also meant that Pyramid could become a hub of malt production in Egypt and the Middle East.
One of the first results of this innovation was that Pyramid could now send malt to Crown Brewery to produce a similar product. These malt deliveries even went beyond the borders of Egypt. One of the main recipients of this new Egyptian malt was a brewery in the Sudan that had also come under the control of Cobra in the 1950s, Blue Nile Brewery. For example, in 1958, Pyramid sent around 570 metric tons of malted barley to this brewery. The creation of this Egyptian variety of barley was another example of the benefits of Heineken’s ownership of Crown and Pyramid. Counter to Nasser’s narrative of foreign influences suffocating local industry, the inventiveness of a Dutch brewmaster had created a beer, and thus a beer industry, that was more Egyptian than not.
Even as the barley was being standardized, so too was the bottle that contained the beer. The breweries started using standard-size bottles in 1952. These bottles were imported in two standard sizes, small (330 ml) and large (660 ml). The companies had imported bottles since their founding because it was cheaper to import repurposed bottles from Europe than to purchase new bottles in Egypt. However, the breweries started using standardized bottles only in the 1950s, when it became cheaper than using nonstandard bottles. The government-levied duty on the bottles was based on the metric of “bottles per hectoliter.” Thus, for a certain duty paid, a company was able to bring a certain number of bottles. In 1952 the government made the number of bottles per hectoliter greater for standard bottles than nonstandard. The shift was not without difficulty, as the breweries had built up a tertiary market of selling the bottles. They thus had to either exchange the nonstandard bottles at cost to the breweries (the standard bottles cost 5 milliemes more [20 milliemes] than the nonstandard bottles [15 milliemes]), which they did in Cairo and Suez, or they had to deliver the bottles on consignment, which they did in Cairo and Assiout.
In a trend that occurred in food industries around the world, as both the product within the packages as well as the packages themselves became more standardized and homogenous, companies like Pyramid and Crown had to find ways to differentiate themselves from competitors. In the Egyptian case, there were three distinct reasons that after 1952 the breweries were looking for ways to stand out. Prior to 1952, the beers that the Crown and Pyramid breweries sold, including Stella, were marked with a label that merely stated the brewery’s name. This was not an unusual branding practice for beer companies; Heineken still uses it to this day. Nevertheless, this reliance on the name of the breweries was not the most effective way to sell beers in the dual-brewery model. Selling similar beers under different names in Egypt’s two biggest markets created the very real possibility that Heineken would be cannibalizing its market share in both cities. Another motive for creating a brand was that after changing their name from Pyramid to al-Ahram brewery as part of the Egyptianization process, Pyramid had made their own name less distinctive. One of Egypt’s main daily newspapers even shared the name of al-Ahram. The third reason for creating a recognizable brand is that in the 1950s Crown and Pyramid’s first real challenger, Nile Brewery, appeared on the market selling similar beers.
For these breweries to differentiate themselves, they turned to a nascent field in the business world, marketing. The breweries contracted an advertising agency, al-Shark, to produce their advertising materials. The owner, a Mr. Maggyar, was excellent, as he had trained at J. Walter Thompson, one of the world’s leading advertisers. Al-Shark handled the advertising for almost all major international groups in Egypt, and it even had a department for market research. However, this marketing firm could only do so much without a clear brand message from the company.
Therefore, in the 1950s, these two beer companies, with the help of Heineken, developed the Stella brand. They took the industrially produced lager beer they had been selling under the name Stella since the 1920s and built a brand around a beer that was golden in color and had a light, crisp taste; that had an alcohol by volume between 4 and 5 percent; and that was brewed from Egyptian-made malt (a proprietary mix of two-rowed, six-rowed barley, and rice), imported hops, and Egyptian water.
The brand that was featured on bottles and company letterhead was truly a marketing masterpiece. It was simple–a black and white star with the name “Stella beer” circling around it in both Arabic and French–but packed with numerous layers of meaning that resonated with the Egyptian market. The bilingual nature of the brand clearly evoked the imagined consumer of the beer as the middle- to upper-class Egyptian, but the power of this brand went beyond the use of French and Arabic, which was a very common advertising ploy at the time. As I discussed in chapter 2, using the Italian word for star, Stella, was a masterful way to craft the product for the Egyptian market. The Italian language, like the culture itself, was perceived as exclusive, as only the truly “educated” Egyptians would know Italian, yet familiar.