The Ottoman-Era Beer That Shapes Modern Turkey

Cafes and bars in the Istanbul's Bomonti district, which takes its name from the former brewery / Alamy

Beer is the undisputed favorite alcoholic beverage of residents of Istanbul, Turkey’s most populated city. Despite Turkish government efforts to stifle alcohol production and consumption in the country, the former Ottoman capital still maintains a burgeoning craft beer scene.

For evidence of the drink’s deep-seated roots, look no further than the small neighborhood of Bomonti in central Istanbul, where remnants of an Ottoman-era commercial brewery still stand.

The neighborhood is named after the old Bomonti Brewery, opened by Swiss brothers in 1893. Beer had been available in the empire at the time, but its quality and price varied widely, says Malte Fuhrmann, author of Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean: Urban Culture in the Late Ottoman Empire.

“It could be imported beer, especially from Munich, [which] was very prestigious, consumed in some very downtown places,” said Fuhrmann on the Ottoman History Podcast. “It could also be something some railway worker, at the end of his shift, would consume in a bar somewhere in the more shady parts of town.”

The Bomonti brothers weren’t the first to market beer in then-Constantinople, but they were first to rival the quality of imported brands from Western Europe at an affordable price. After Bomonti and its contemporaries, Olympos Brewery in Salonica and Prokop Brewery in Smyrna, opened during the latter half of the 19th century, demand for imported brews took a nosedive, and consumption rose.

Postcard for Brasserie Bomonti circa 1911 / Photo courtesy SALT Research archive
Postcard for Brasserie Bomonti circa 1911 / Photo courtesy SALT Research archive

Widespread availability and lower beer prices contributed to an “evolving new leisure culture,” in Ottoman cities, writes Fuhrmann, and the drink became “an essential part of the urban public sphere.”

In Constantinople, revelers indulged in a beer garden adjacent to Bomonti Brewery or the public park on Çamlica Hill, which offered sweeping views of the Bosphorus Strait and the Marmara Sea. The narrow alleyways and streets around the brewery came to bear names like “Barley Juice,” “Beerhouse” and “Behind Bomonti,” which endure today.

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Olympos and Prokop didn’t enjoy the same success as Bomonti, which commanded the largest market share and even gained favor with Sultan Abdülhamid II, who made the brewery an official supplier of the imperial court.

With Bomonti as its chief producer, Constantinople was responsible for 76% of beer production in the empire at its Ottoman-era peak on the eve of World War I.

Modern-day interpretation of Bomonti Beer, brewed in homage by Anadolu Efes Brewery / Alamy
Modern-day interpretation of Bomonti Beer, brewed in homage by Efes Beverage Group / Alamy

After the war and the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Bomonti Brewery pressed on in various forms. After a 1928 law decreed that alcohol producers had to be registered as joint-stock companies, the Swiss Bomonti company was forced to sell to a Turkish company formed for the occasion.

Its new owners were granted a license for beer production for the next 10 years. When that expired in 1938, the Turkish state took control of the brewery. Production continued under a series of new names until 1991, just two years short of its centennial.

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The brewery’s recent history is bittersweet. When production ceased, its machinery was sold for scrap. A local university built a satellite campus on the grounds of the former beer garden, and the old production facilities were leveled to make way for a high-rise hotel.

The factory’s old malt and barley cleaning buildings, vat and silo were marked for conservation as industrial heritage in 1998, but they, too, were recently demolished after being transferred to Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs.

Parts of the historic Bomonti beer factory complex, and its yellow- and red-brick facade, seen in Istanbul, Turkey / Alamy / Reuters / Murad Sezer
Parts of the historic Bomonti beer factory complex, and its yellow- and red-brick facade, seen in Istanbul, Turkey / Alamy / Reuters / Murad Sezer

Some of the brewery’s central buildings, their yellow and red-bricked facades reminiscent of Central European castles, still stand. The space has been repurposed as a thriving cultural center and even carries on the original site’s storied tradition, having become home to a microbrewery called Torch, which opened in 2016.

According to brewmaster Philip Green, Torch Brewery relies on custom-sized equipment and a “less-than-ideal” floor plan to operate in the century-old space. “It is an incredible feeling to be producing beer in such a historic location,” says Green.

Today, Bomonti Brewery is memorialized in the cultural center on its old grounds and a series of namesake brews from Turkish beer producer Efes Beverage Group. Perhaps best, its spirit lives on in those public meeting places where defiant Istanbulites continue the tradition of coming together for a drink.

Published on July 5, 2021
Topics: Drinks History