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Turkish Crackdown Drives Home Brewers to Drink

The Turkish government's cocktail of efforts to reduce alcohol consumption have contributed to a rebellious citizens' menu of homemade drinks.

by Emel Atay 11 October 2018

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.

 

 

For the last year Bikem, a 33-year-old Istanbul-based editor, has been making the traditional – and very potent – aniseed-flavored spirit called raki at home.

 

She adds water and flavoring to pure alcohol, and there is no lengthy distillation necessary.

 

“It’s a short and easy process,” Bikem explained. “I do it in 10 minutes and I get an instant, drinkable raki.”

 

It’s also cheap, she continued, referring to the astronomical duties imposed on alcohol in Turkey. “I can get more than two liters (4.2 pints) of homemade raki for the price I would pay in a store for a half liter.

 

Bikem makes the aniseed-flavoured spirit raki at home.

 

“I don’t know any other country in the world in which people have to pay such high taxes on alcoholic beverages as we do,” she said. “That will not prevent people from drinking them, though, as more and more will learn how to make them at home.”

 

Next up, Bikem plans to embark on the slightly more complex process of making beer.

 

Unclear Motivations

 

Growing numbers of people in Turkey are turning to home-brewing in response to the high prices of alcoholic drinks and continuous government efforts to reduce alcohol consumption.

 

The policy seems to be motivated by a drift toward conservative Islamic mores rather than by concerns about public health.  Excessive drinking does not appear to be a serious problem in Turkey. According to a 2017 World Health Organization report, the country's alcohol consumption is only about 1.49 liters per person per year, putting Turkey in 137th place out of the 185 countries surveyed.

 

Nonetheless, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative government has been progressively targeting alcohol consumption. As well as high taxes, drinking alcohol in public places is increasingly frowned upon. On television, scenes in which people are shown drinking alcohol are routinely censored.

 

In 2013, all advertisement of alcohol and tobacco products was banned. The Turkish authorities also imposed a ban on selling alcoholic drinks in supermarkets and liquor stores after 10 p.m., although this does not apply to bars and restaurants.

 

The Special Consumption Tax (SCT) on alcoholic drinks is 80 percent, leading to a popular saying, often shared on social media: “When you buy yourself a beer, you buy one for the government.”

 

A beer or a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant in Istanbul costs between 15 and 20 Turkish lira ($2.44-$3.26). While foreign tourists find these prices very reasonable, the average Turkish monthly salary is between 2,000 and 2,500 lira, making alcohol a barely affordable luxury.

 

Many people, especially youngsters, prefer to buy alcohol from shops and drink on the streets of the more liberal neighborhoods of Istanbul, such as Kadikoy Kadife Street, Taksim Asmalimescit, Besiktas, and Macka Park.

 

And then there is the option of producing your own alcohol and enjoying it at home with friends.

 

“Two years ago, when I was visiting Iran, the friends I was staying with were making their own beer in their basement, and this was when I decided to brew my own beer,” said Can, a 46-year-old accountant who lives in Istanbul. He has since added raki and liquor to his repertoire.

 

Can began brewing his own beer two years ago.

 

Although admitting that homebrewing could be complicated, he said it was generally successful, “as long as you don’t make big mistakes.

 

“Of course, it is not possible to match the quality of beer brands that have a 100- or 150-year-old tradition,” Can continued. “However, drinking your own beer has its charms and can be pleasant. Sometimes we do beer-tasting nights at home and I can say that friends who drink my homemade beer enjoy it as much as I do. Unless they’re trying to be polite to their host!”

 

Can's home-brewed beer. Although he produces beer only for personal consumption, he likes the packaging to look nice.

 

Homemade beer costs around three lira for a half-liter bottle, five times cheaper than a similar product bought in a bar. A liter of homemade raki costs around 20 lira to produce, while the equivalent from a shop costs between 100-130 lira.

 

Risky Business

 

However, producing homemade raki is not without its risks. If the ethyl alcohol – the key ingredient – is not of high-quality, it can transform into methyl alcohol, which is poisonous.

 

After a spate of deaths linked to homemade raki, in December 2017, the authorities ordered that a substance called denatonium benzoate be added to all ethyl alcohol sold in shops.

 

Ethyl alcohol is a key ingredient for producing homemade raki.

 

Denatonium benzoate is one of the bitterest substances known to humans and is often used in highly toxic products such as antifreeze and detergent to deter children and pets from swallowing them.

 

Some shopkeepers have defied the government decree and continue to sell old supplies of ethyl alcohol. One shop owner in Kurtulus, a neighborhood of Istanbul inhabited mostly by Armenians and young, educated, middle-income people, said he tried to be discreet and planned to just sell off his old stock before stopping altogether.

 

However, he said that he doubted that the government’s tactic of adding denatonium benzoate would stop people from making their own alcoholic beverages.

 

“People will figure out how to remove the bitter substance from the ethyl alcohol,” he predicted.

 

Home-brewing is legal in Turkey, as long as limited amounts are produced – up to 350 liters of beer per year, for example – solely for personal consumption.

 

In recent years, many online shops in Turkey – such as Butik Bira, Bira House, Bang Good, and others – have begun selling brewing and distilling supplies.

 

Atilla Sezer, the director of Pamukkale Winery Chain Stores, said that high taxes on alcohol were the main reason for more and more people in Turkey producing beverages themselves.

 

“If they need our help or advice about the production techniques, we are willing to give it to them,” he said. “We believe in a world in which the individuals are free to act as they choose.”

Emel Altay graduated from the Marmara University department of cinema and TV. Between 2010 and 2017 she worked at several magazines in Turkey.  She is now an independent journalist writing for Journo, Zero Istanbul, Istanbul Art News, Art Unlimited, and other media.

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