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Istanbul exhibition recalls beer's popularity in Ottoman times

Turkey's beer drinkers complain of high prices and legal limitations today, yet more than a century ago beer gardens were seen as ultimate modernity.

As the number of public spaces in Turkey allowed to sell alcohol continues to decline, an exhibition at the Naval Museum in Istanbul tells the story of the rise of beer production and consumption in the late 19th century.

The exhibition, titled “Kendine Has” ("Sui Generis"), which opened March 13 and runs until April 12, pays homage to the history of the Bomonti beer factory and the modernizing role of beer in the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire. Situated on the European side of Istanbul, the Bomonti factory is not only a major industrial heritage building but in the past had been a culturally significant entertainment complex with beer gardens. The area surrounding it is now known as Bomonti.

Although 63% of Turks who drink alcohol prefer beer, according to the World Health Organization, beer was a rarity for them until the late 1800s. The Ottomans were familiar with boza, a fermented drink of millet or wheat, which was widely consumed throughout the empire. The first beer probably arrived with the army of King Charles XII of Sweden, who took refuge in Ottoman territory from 1709-1713 after his defeat by the Russians. The Swedish royal guest received an allowance from the Ottoman sultan that included a monthly provision of 300 “kiyye” beer, noted down in the official records of the empire as “arpa suyu” (barley juice), which makes roughly 385 liters. Locals in Bender, a town now located in modern-day Moldova, produced the beer locally to cater to the small Swedish community.

Turks were introduced to beer in the 19th century when beerhouses, mostly selling their own in-house brew, began to appear in cities such as Istanbul, Izmir and Selanik (current-day Thessaloniki). However, it was the Swiss Bomonti brothers who brought modern beer production to Istanbul when opening the Bomonti factory in 1890, followed by several beer gardens around the cosmopolis to boost consumption. The city beer gardens were a marker of change, making an alcoholic drink popular for the masses and as a beverage consumed during family get-togethers.

The designer and curator of the exhibition, Burcak Madran, told Al-Monitor that she wanted to create a sense of space in the exhibition by placing a big illuminated model of the factory at the entrance and by replicating a corner reminiscent of an old beer garden portraying a family-friendly outdoor space. Visitors can dress up in period costumes and accessories and have their picture taken as if enjoying a drink in a beer garden a century ago. The Bomonti brand, now owned by Anadolu Efes, the biggest beer producer in Turkey, has recently launched a limited edition 1890s bottle — a dark-brown slender one with the embossed Bomonti logo — to celebrate the exhibition.

The collection includes not only artifacts such as old beer bottles, glasses and mugs but also old postcards, photographs, documents, newspaper clippings and other ephemera such as tickets, flyers and advertisements announcing concerts, dance shows, parties and other social events at the beer gardens. Until a decade ago, beer gardens were allowed to organize concerts and advertise freely.

Mert Sandalci has been passionately collecting everything related to beer since 1989, selling his entire collection to Anadolu Efes in 2009. Sandalci told Al-Monitor that his collection was worth every effort and expense as it forms the basis of the current exhibition and was the cornerstone for one organized in 2009.

Istanbul-based German historian Malte Fuhrmann, who specializes in 19th century political, cultural and social history of Ottoman port cities, told Al-Monitor that beer has been a symbol of foreignness that was celebrated as an element of modernity. He said that initially there had been protests denouncing the alcoholic beverage, but from the 1870s onward beer became more popular because of the growing tolerance of Western products and lifestyles; in the 1890s the mass production and consumption of beer grew significantly. Remains of Bomonti beer bottles have been found in the trenches of Gallipoli, probably brought by the German allies and reused to transfer water to the Turkish trenches.

In the early years of the republic, the brand's popularity continued. Bomonti was transferred to Tekel, the state monopoly, in the 1930s when the young republic nationalized many key products, such as alcohol, tobacco and salt. Beer production continued to thrive until private beer producers emerged in the late 1960s following regulations that allowed beer production outside the state monopoly. In 1991, the Bomonti factory closed and the building remained unused for about two decades. It has now been restored by IC Holding as part of a development project for a multi-use complex with an arts and performance center, restaurants and a craft beerhouse.

The Bomonti neighborhood in Istanbul is once again witnessing a change, attracting the younger generation just as it did a century ago. The Bomonti brand is also making a comeback with the launch of new varieties of beer, such as the unfiltered red ale and black varieties, which are served in the old-style bottles. The “Kendine Has” exhibition is an attempt to shed light on the social history of a neighborhood that is reborn once again.

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