In 1921, the two oldest commercial breweries in Egypt joined forces to produce Stella, a lager branded in Italian, brewed with European techniques, and sold at a price fit for the Egyptian market. Through two world wars, decolonization and multiple regime changes, Stella has endured and remains the most dominant beer in the Egyptian market today.
“Stella beer [is] an inseparable part of Egyptian culture,” writes Dr. Omar Foda in Egypt’s Beer: Stella, Identity, and the Modern State. Unlike neighboring countries where microbreweries compete with big names and foster local craft beer scenes, the Al Ahram Beverages Company, which produces Stella, maintains a “de facto monopoly” in Egypt, says Foda.
Stella’s rise can be traced back more than a century to when separate Belgian businessmen founded Crown Brewery in Alexandria in 1897, and Pyramid Brewery in Cairo in 1898. The two breweries quickly became the largest in Africa.
When the two beermakers decided it was no longer sustainable to vie for dominance as direct competitors, they negotiated a lucrative partnership. Stella was the fruit of that union. The new product hit the market just in time for the 1920s, when nightlife in Cairo rivaled that of cosmopolitan metropolises like Berlin and New York.
“It would be fair to say there was a robust drinking culture in the 1920s and 1930s in Egypt, and beer had a particular place in it,” says Dr. Raphael Cormack, author of the forthcoming book Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s.
“The really seedy dive bars of Cairo were known for serving hard liquor, especially Cognac, often of quite dubious quality,” he says. “Cabarets and music halls were keen to provide their customers with Champagne. I get the sense that beer had a more genteel reputation and was served in the nicer kinds of cafés.”
Demand for Stella boomed among tourists, locals, foreign residents and the British soldiers who occupied Egypt until 1956. Recognizing its success, Heineken invested in Crown and Pyramid Breweries in 1937. The goal for Heineken was twofold: to grow the local market, and use its new foothold in Egypt as a jumping-off point for further expansion into the Middle East and Africa.
Their investment paid off in the short-term. Within two decades, Heineken had bought or invested in breweries in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Sudan and Congo. Profits in Egypt were up, and no one had managed to seriously challenge Crown and Pyramid.
One would-be competitor in the 1950s, an upstart called Nile Brewery, alleged that Crown and Pyramid “were using illegal practices to keep competitors out,” says Foda, though he remains unable to verify the claims.
Whether it was business savvy or sabotage, “these two breweries slowly but surely pushed out other brands,” he says. Nile Brewery eventually went bankrupt.
Heineken’s luck in Egypt turned to disaster in 1963 when the country’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized Crown and Pyramid Breweries. Heineken was forced to forfeit its shares while the breweries were consolidated. The company became Al Ahram, meaning “the pyramids.”
“Nationalization accelerated a trend that was already taking place: the increasing dominance of Pyramid and Crown Breweries’ joint venture, Stella,” says Foda. Brewers managed to maintain the quality of the beer despite restrictions on imports and wild swings in the Egyptian economy over the next few decades, which ensured Stella’s continued popularity.
Other breweries that tried to break into the market never fared much better than Nile Brewery had in the 1950s. Al Ahram Beverages Company was privatized again in 1997, under Egyptian-American businessman Ahmed Zayat. When a pair of men who had failed in their own bid to privatize the company founded a rival brewery, the brewing giant bought them out before their products even made it to market.
When a member of the multi-billionaire Sawiris family bankrolled a brewery in El Gouna in 1999, they managed to hang on for just two years before being acquired by Al Ahram.
“More than a century of history and strong leadership…has meant almost complete market dominance,” says Foda. While the situation may be grim for startups, Stella is still cherished in Egypt. It’s as a rare constant in a tumultuous modern history.