Neihart on Foda, 'Egypt's Beer: Stella, Identity, and the Modern State'
Omar D. Foda. Egypt's Beer: Stella, Identity, and the Modern State. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019. 264 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4773-1954-3; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4773-1955-0.
Reviewed by Braden Neihart (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Environment (August, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56342
Beer can connect people to their past in numerous and hidden ways. Omar D. Foda’s Egypt’s Beer explores the winding, complex, and fascinating routes through which beer history intersects with, interacts with, and illuminates modern Egyptian history. A major character in the later chapters, in fact, is the author's grandfather with whom he shares a name, attesting to the mundane and multiple ways beer refracts history. We all have a personal connection to beer history, and Foda brings this out with overlapping and intertwined characters—both literary and historical. The threefold power of this work is highlighting the centuries-old international aspect of beer, bringing beer history out of a purely Western realm, and complicating beer history.
Foda argues that the Egyptian beer Stella was wrapped in middle-class identity and that the beer's history intersects with crucial eras and moments in Egypt’s recent history. Important to note, this is not Stella Artois, something not mentioned until nearly one hundred pages into the book. This is the only major frustration with the book. Though, once the brand is introduced, Foda does a fantastic job explaining the advertising ideology behind the name. The book is well written and uses numerous advertisements, novels, and other media, which suggest how Stella informed identity.
For a certain generation of Egyptians, Stella was the go-to beer. Brewing began in 1920, and through his discussion of the history of Stella, Foda reflects on Egyptian geopolitical events. The beer remained a flexible and enjoyable beverage throughout its long life, allowing it to adjust. Through its various stages, Foda shows how this beer continually illustrates Egyptian history and repeatedly proves the usefullness of beer as a historical lens.
Stella was initially created by two separate breweries under the same Dutch umbrella—Crown and Pyramid. The local and global compete for power in the book. Brewmasters in Holland faced numerous international hurdles in reproducing their recipes in Egypt. Instructions were filtered through several intermediaries, and by the time instructions reached local laborers there were sufficient gaps for interference and influence by regional stakeholders. Over time, European brewers were sent to Egypt to produce the beers on site, but still even there they faced a host of problems. Local politics, unruly staff, and religious and ethnic differences beset the breweries' operations.
Stella was an Egyptian product, something that Crown and Pyramid during the latter half of the twentieth century were sure to emphasize. Yet it was produced with technology and brewmasters from Holland and at times with hops and grain from across Europe and the Middle East. Further, it was created by two separate breweries, who, although they fell under the same international corporate banner, often produced noticeably distinct versions of the same beer. The levels of international trade, politics, and economics are present in every chapter of this work.
Foda uses Stella as a lens to understand the different phases of Egyptian history. Chapters 2 and 3 cover the 1920s to the early 1950s when Egypt threw off much of its colonial yoke and used beer as a way to move into modernity and as a testament of its modernity. For the effendiyya, the modern, middle-class Egyptian during this period, beer drinking proved their class, status, and modernity.
Further, the brand continued to grow in economic and cultural value under Gamal Abdel Nassar and later Egyptian leaders. Covering the two decades from 1952 through 1972, chapters 4 through 6 explore the collaboration between Stella and the Egyptian government, with Stella serving in some ways as an export commodity, attesting to pan-Arab unity and modernity. Nationalism posed challenges; European actors contributed to and controlled a great deal of major decisions. And while nationalization job mandates and bureaucracy piled on excess payroll weight—Foda notes that only 10 percent of the brewery's workforce at one point was actually necessary—they also allowed a greater number of Egyptians to purchase the beer, and so sales marched upward and onward.
Chapters 7 and 8 explore how Stella navigated the growing Islamic presence and power in Egypt. From its nadir in the 1970s, Stella quickly moved to the background as two new generations of Egyptians—the infitahi (a class newly enriched through foreign investment and money) and the Islamicists—sought to reshape Stella to fit their image of Egypt. The former saw it as a common Egyptian beverage no longer fitting for an ascendant class of Egyptians. The latter viewed it as proof of Egypt deviating from its Islamic roots.
The narrative ends with an interesting story from Foda’s archival research. An archivist asked him if Stella was still around, to which Foda replied that he was unsure. The uncertainty of its existence and availability reveals a sad bookend to a once-dominant beer. In many ways, this story portrays a beer that slowly fizzled out as international corporations bought, packaged, and resold the company and brand.
In all, this work is a great study of the convoluted nature of beer, long before recent conceptions of international brewing companies. Beer winds its way as much from Holland to Egypt as from information and skilled labor, and onto Syria and Sudan as packaged beer as it does through the streets of Cairo and Alexandria via delivery workers. At once a national, political, and cultural history, the history of Stella beer encapsulates entire worlds within its glass confines.
Crucially, this work elides many self-imposed barriers in beer history. Not only does it take us outside of the West, although Foda illustrates the international aspects of the beer industry for over a century, but it also incorporates a great array of lenses. Typically, beer history tends to examine a particular brewery or a regionally defined brewing industry, such as a city or nation. Foda’s choice of Stella shows how expanding beyond these limitations offers a richer and fuller examination of how beer amplifies local, national, and international histories in concert with economic, social, and political history.
Citation: Braden Neihart. Review of Foda, Omar D., Egypt's Beer: Stella, Identity, and the Modern State. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56342This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.