Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power 15 years ago, it has pursued a policy of high taxes and high prices on alcohol to keep Turks away from the booze. Its efforts, however, seem to have backfired, as the home brewing of spirits, especially wine and beer, has become a fast-growing trend in Turkey.
Ironically, it was under the AKP that the home production of certain spirits became legal. Nazime Gurkan, a former member of the Tobacco, Tobacco Products and Alcoholic Beverages Regulation Board, told Al-Monitor that a legal amendment in 2008 allowed for the individual production of 350 liters of fermented spirits per year, including wine and beer. This was conditioned on it being for personal consumption only. Selling the spirits was prohibited, Gurkan said, as was the production of harder tipples, in the “distilled” category.
As Mustafa Sonmez reported in Al-Monitor in January, overall consumer prices increased 181% from 2003 to 2016, while the prices of raki, beer and wine rose by 500%, 423% and 235%, respectively, over the same period, primarily courtesy an exorbitant special consumption tax, which, for instance, stood at 54% for raki. As a result, raki sales fell to 39 million liters in 2015 compared with 44 million liters in 2004. Meanwhile, the consumption of wine and beer, favorites among young people and foreign tourists, increased.
The spread of home brewing shows that high-price policies have failed to dissuade Turks from boozing, and instead have forced them to look for alternative supplies. Myriad platforms have mushroomed on the internet, where people exchange expertise on how to make wine, beer and raki at home. In addition, various groups offer hands-on training in return for a fee, a clear sign the trend is on the rise. The online group Vine and Wine, for instance, describes itself as a “community of grape growers, wine makers and wine lovers” and offers expertise on wine making in addition to organizing wine-tasting days.
Home brewing has become a hobby for some Turks. Retired people, in particular, have taken up the challenge of producing quality wine. Huseyin Arik is one of them.
Using Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot grapes from vineyards in the Aegean province of Izmir, Arik says he is able to produce good wine at a cost of 10 Turkish liras ($2.60) per bottle, whereas the market price for wines of similar quality ranges from 50 liras to 100 liras ($13-$26).
“I buy the best-quality grapes and make boutique wine,” Atik told Al-Monitor. “I not only meet my own needs, but also save money when entertaining guests. I no longer buy wine.”
To get what he calls the “perfect taste,” Atik lets the wine mature from September through April. He explained, “I take pleasure from treating guests to wine and seeing that they like it.” Atik also said, “Besides wine and beer, the home production of raki has also become very widespread.”
Former parliamentarian Birkan Erdal, who owns a vineyard near Ankara, said demand for his Kalecik Karasi, a Turkish grape variety used primarily for red wine, has shot up in recent years. “Previously, I used to sell only to factories,” Erdal told Al-Monitor. “In the past several years, there has been demand also from private individuals and groups. Members of various wine clubs have begun to buy our grapes.”
“We can clearly see that wine and raki production has been shifting to homes,” he said. “There are people who buy grapes to make raki since good raki is made of grapes as well. They obtain high-quality alcohol from grapes and add aniseed to make raki."
Wine clubs and platforms have sprung up across Turkey, Birdal said, adding that consumers had begun to produce low-cost, high-quality wines through sharing knowledge and expertise.
Not only specialized clubs, but other associations as well have joined the trend. The Ankara-based Middle East Technical University Alumni Association, for instance, organizes annual wine-making workshops. The fee for this year’s course, a six-week program that kicked off in September, ranged from 200 to 240 Turkish liras. The course starts with “Why Do We Make Our Own Wine? What Does the Law Say on This Issue?” and proceeds with classes on the various stages of winemaking, ending with such topics as “Harmony between Wine and Food” and “Wine and Health.”
Myriad internet sites and blogs are now devoted to raki making. The alcohol for raki can be derived from grapes, sugar or ethyl alcohol. Because of its cheap price, ethyl alcohol seems to be the most widely used option. Sold in supermarkets for hygienic purposes, it is also easily available. Yet bootleg raki makers, who produce large quantities for sale, sometimes try to reduce their costs by replacing ethyl alcohol with methyl alcohol, which causes poisoning and has led to deadly disasters in the past.
Home brewing seems to be widespread not only in the big urban centers of western Turkey, but also in conservative backwaters. A teacher who worked in the southeast and wished to be identified only as E.S. told Al-Monitor, “Because of neighborhood pressure, people could not openly buy and drink alcohol. Plus, there were very few alcohol-selling shops. They would fill pumpkins with homemade spirits and go to visit friends and drink together.”
In July, Finance Minister Naci Agbal said that taxes on several items, including alcoholic beverages, had reached a “really high” level, and that the government should focus more on pursuing tax evaders than raising taxes. While indirectly encouraging the home production of spirits, the tax and price hikes have caused the government to lose substantial tax revenues.
Yet things can hardly be walked back, now that Turks have mastered the art of producing cheap, homemade booze through their own networks. Moreover, the self-learners have outstripped companies in product variety, coming up with such creative items as raki-injected melons, when discretion is required in conservative communities.