Stella Beer Caught in the Ebb and Flow of Egyptian History

By Omar Foda

From Founding to Nationalization (1897-1963)

An early advertisement aimed at promoting Crown and Pyramids beer to the Egyptian populous.

The history of Stella in Egypt has not been one of beer as a “poison” seeping into a “dry” country, yet another example of colonialism’s pernicious effects on the Global South. Rather, it is a story of a product that has been commercially marketed, and that has enjoyed a relatively wide popularity and robust growth in Egypt from 1897 to present. The beverage’s success is not only evident from the profitability of the companies that sold it, but also from the increasing frequency of its appearances in all popular forms of art and media. The history of Stella is the history of a largely mundane product, on par with bottled water and carbonated drinks that have tracked Egyptian social, economic, and technological development.

From its very beginnings, Stella was a mix of “foreign” ambitions and “native” moneymaking. The beer industry in Egypt combined something new—the large-scale sale of beverages—and something old, given that Egyptians have been producing and selling beverages, often of the alcoholic variety, since Pharaonic times. The capital that drove the industry, the businessmen who profited from it, and the workers who supported the whole enterprise, all existed in the spaces between the so-called “East” and “West.” Likewise, the cultural and social phenomena that drove or repelled the consumption of Stella cannot be easily grouped under headings like “Westernization,” “Modernization,” or even “Islamicization,” but rather represent the fascinating interplay of ideas and concepts from numerous traditions.

A view of Crown Brewery in the Ibrahimieh district of Alexandria at the beginning of the 1900s (L) and again from a similar angle in the 1920s. Norbert Schiller Collection. Phot. (L) Ahmed Abdel Aal, phot.(R) Dorés

Stella can trace its roots back to the establishment of Crown and Pyramid breweries by Belgian businessmen in 1897 and 1898. By the 1920s, these two companies were Africa’s and Egypt’s two largest brewers and fierce competitors. They decided in the 1920s that it was most profitable to split the markets, Crown taking Alexandria and Pyramid taking Cairo, and join forces to sell beer to the whole of Egypt. The child of this union was Stella.

By using the Italian word for star, Stella, they masterfully crafted their 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, and yet it was familiar. Due to the long and prominent presence of Italians in Egypt, the Italian language had seeped into Egyptian colloquialisms, especially vis-à-vis luxury products. For example, mūbīlīyya (Arabic colloquial, Furniture) from the Italian mobilia, lūkānda (Arabic colloquial, Hotel) from the Italian lokanda, or even the word for beer itself bīra, from the Italian birra, had entered from Italian,. In addition, the name fit nicely in an Arabic context. The word was easily transliterated into Arabic and contained no difficult sounds for the Arabophone. Even the word written in Arabic was flowing and continuous, containing none of the long vowels that usually break up foreign words written in Arabic. As for the actual star symbol, while not exactly clear in origin, it was most likely derived from the red star of Heineken, which bought into both companies in the 1930s.

The breweries positioned the new beer as an upscale cousin to the blond beers that both breweries were selling under their own names. Stella was also a blond beer, but it had slightly higher alcohol content, 13 percent instead of 12 percent ABV, and a higher price tag. Its target audience was not the elite, who preferred foreign beer brands, but the educated Egyptian middle class. Crown and Pyramid aimed to make Stella the beer of choice for those who saw it as a luxury product and special treat.

British soldiers hosting a christmas party with plenty of Stella beer. During WWII over a million thirsty Allied soldiers transited through Egypt en route to the various battle fronts. By the end of the war the name Stella was internationally known. Norbert Schiller Collection

Stella was part of a wildly changing Egypt. In the thirty years between 1922 and 1952, Egypt was granted nominal independence from the British, experienced the Great Depression, was a theatre for the Second World War, and saw the Free Officers overthrow its king. Nevertheless, Stella and the companies that sold it were profitable. Stella won over soldiers, foreigners, tourists, and locals with its high quality and reasonable price.

Bonds of Crown and Pyramids Company reissued in the 1950s

Crown and Pyramid’s mission to sell a quality and affordable beer was only aided in this period by the intervention of Heineken. The Dutch brewers saw Egypt as the entryway to the Middle East and Africa for their growing global empire. They were impressed by the work of the breweries and bought controlling shares in both at the end of the 1930s. Heineken’s services to its new partners came in five forms: advising, control, staff, yeast, and supplies. Under Heineken, Stella reached a technical peak in its production and distribution. It was undeniably a world-class beer.

The quality and success of Stella caught the eye of the Free Officers’ regime that took control of Egypt in 1952. Nasser in particular, who became president in 1956, was aware of the beer’s appeal, even stopping at Crown and Pyramid’s booth during the Agricultural and Industrial Production Fair on January 3, 1960 to discuss the companies’ success. While the conversation at the fair was a productive one, the attention of President Nasser and his regime was less welcome when it came to matters of nationalization. After the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, every joint-stock company with foreign investors or ties was on high alert for fear of a similar fate. Although they did everything they could to maintain their autonomy, Crown and Pyramid, with their ties to Heineken, were inevitably nationalized in 1963.

Nationalization to the Present

This commemorative Stella decoration reads: “We congratulate President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of the revolution.” Norbert Schiller Collection

Although Crown, Pyramid, and Heineken were deeply dismayed by the nationalization—the Dutch were hit particularly hard; they lost all their shares and would not be fully compensated until the 1970s— the takeover launched a new prosperous era for Stella. When the government nationalized Crown and Pyramid brewery, consolidated them into Al-Ahram Beverage Company, and incorporated them into the General Confederation of Food Industries (GCFI), Stella became the de facto beer of Egypt. Government ownership solidified what the companies had worked to achieve prior to nationalization, total market dominance. As part of Nasser’s economic program, all domestic and foreign competitors were either absorbed or excluded from the Egyptian market.

Fortunately for Egyptians, enough experience and manpower remained from the Dutch-owned days that even though Stella became a government-backed monopoly, it produced a beer truly fit for the land of the pharaohs. Much of Stella’s continued quality was attributable to its director from 1963 to 1985, Ismail Omar Foda, a Berkeley trained microbiologist who is also my grandfather. He was a true beer lover and used every resource available to him to make sure Stella lived up to its proud history. That is not to say that this was not without difficulties. For example, import restrictions proved particularly difficult, as they prevented Al-Ahram from importing bottle caps that fit their bottles. Instead the company had to make its own caps, but did not have the proper machinery to get a perfect fit. This would lead to an occasional loose cap and flat beer. It was this issue that led to the creation of the Stella Export brand. Since the brand was aimed only for foreign markets, and could only be bought with foreign currency, it was possible for Al-Ahram to import the caps that best fit those bottles. As a result, Stella’s quality was more assured. The company would work around this and many other problems to provide beer to thirsty Egyptians in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. They were so successful in this period that they had to build a third brewery in Sharkia province to meet growing demand.

Ismail Omar Foda, director of Al Ahram Beverage Company from 1963 to 1985. Antiquated machinery, as seen here inside the brewery in Alexandria, plagued the Company from the time it was nationalized in 1963 until Zayat and his team bought ABC in 1997. Phot. (L) Omar Foda Collection. Phot. (R) Norbert Schiller

The end of Foda’s reign in 1985 marked a significant change in the trajectory of Stella. Without his dogged pursuit of high-quality beer, the monopolistic control of the beer market allowed Stella to sink into complacency. From 1985 until 1997, the common trend for Stella was decay. Machinery was not updated, procedures were ignored, and the employment rolls became bloated with people who saw quick profit rather than a high-quality product as the main point of working for the company. Stella would soon become a butt of jokes rather than Egypt’s choice beer.

Wooden shutters placed in cafes and bars serving alcohol so that passersby could not look inside became the norm in the 1970s and 80s as the country became religiously more conservative. Phot. Norbert Schiller

This decline in quality was coupled with a changing Egypt. From the late 1970s onward, Egypt underwent a fundamental cultural change. Spurred by begrudging government support, the growing cultural contact with conservative regimes like the Saudi government, and the power of political Islam’s message, Egypt experienced an Islamic revival. This trend made displays of religiosity more important to Egyptian public life, and in turn made Stella a less welcome part of Egyptian society. By 1997, Stella was facing an uncertain future.

Stella found new life in 1997 when the enterprising Egyptian American Ahmed Zayat privatized the company. Zayat and his team were transnational, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious, and he used his foreign business connections to bring in new technology, new distribution methods, and new marketing campaigns. Two of his most significant contributions were the establishment of Drinkies and the priortization of their non-alcoholic offerings, like Birell and Fayrouz. Both initiatives had their roots in the history of the company. Al-Ahram had always had depots where customers could buy beer directly, and had toyed with non-alcoholic products since Dutch ownership. Nevertheless, Zayat’s efforts took each of these initiatives to another level. In sum, privatization was such a success that Heineken, seeing Zayat’s good work, bought back into Al-Ahram Beverage Company in 2002.

Patrons enjoying Stella beer at a local Cairo watering hole in the mid 1990s. A young crowd enjoying Stella at an upscale bar in Cairo after privatization. Pho. Norbert Schiller


However, the success of Al-Ahram could not address the trends that had led to Stella’s marginalization in the first place. Egypt is even more divided today than it has ever been. The momentous events of the Tahrir Uprising and all that have followed have only shown that Egypt is still struggling to define itself. When people cannot agree on the very foundations of their country, a beer has very slim chances for survival.

Stella now sits at the periphery of Egyptian culture and society, a fading memory of Egypt’s proud past. As this exhibit shows, there are still those who speak fondly and highly of Stella. Yet, they are a dying breed and without them the history of Egypt’s beer may also vanish.

Note
All research from “Grand Plans in Glass Bottles: A Social, Economic and Technological History of Beer in Egypt 1880-1970”

 

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