Brewing in the Heart of Instanbul

Beer Without Borders by | Apr 2014 | Issue #87

It’s easy to daydream about opening your own commercial brewery when you’re kicking back with a beer after a day of homebrewing. But would it still be an attractive dream if you had to design and fabricate your own industrial brewing equipment?

What if you knew that you’d be facing over 80 percent taxes on your beer, and that you’d be unable to advertise anywhere—even on your own company’s website?

It’s hard to imagine anyone would want to go up against those odds, but they’re exactly what Philip Hall overcame when he opened Istanbul’s first microbrewery in 2012. “Coming to a Muslim country and starting a microbrewery when the country is getting more Islamic and less secular—it’s a bit daunting,” Hall says.

Walk into Hall’s Bosphorus Brewing Company on any given night, and you’ll see a healthy crowd of people drinking his craft brews. But the British expat is still facing an increasingly hostile Turkish government.

“They’re doing anything they possibly can to discourage people from drinking,” Hall says.

Istanbul straddles the European and Asian continents, and has been shaped by thousands of years of trade between Africa, Asia and Europe. Hall marks that cosmopolitan tradition by brewing a wide array of beer styles.

He tips his hat to his native England with a pub full of beer engines and a balanced, mild English Bitter. He nods to America with his Istanbul Pale Ale, an IPA brewed with Cascade and Amarillo Gold hops. A few Belgian styles, like a Blonde, Witbier and a Dubbel, round out Hall’s tribute to the modern beer traditions before he delves into the stranger sides of beer with his Turkish brewing partner, Hüseyin Öztürk. Istanbul is at the edge of ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of brewing, and the two have honored that history by brewing hop-free beers bittered only with nettles and other local herbs, and by working with archaeologists in reproducing ancient beers.

For BBC’s summer seasonal, Öztürk and Hall created the “Sümerian Ale,” a cloudy wheat beer brewed with emmer, an ancient type of wheat believed to have been used by some of the world’s first brewers in Eastern Anatolia (now part of Turkey), and “dry-coriandered” to give it a delicate, spicy punch. As part of their experiments with traditional bittering herbs, their house Pilsner is flavored with wormwood, the bark used in absinthe and Czech Pilsners.

Despite being the world’s third largest city, Istanbul’s craft beer scene essentially ends when you walk out of Bosphorus Brewing Company’s front door. There are a few bars selling craft beer imports at steep prices, and there is one microbrewery, Taps, that brews 40 miles outside of the city and sells at a pub inside Istanbul. The city is almost completely dominated by Effes Beverage Group, and signs for the Turkish company’s two most popular brands, Effes and Bomonti, can be found on nearly every street.

That means the 13 million people in Istanbul have only one place to get great beer made locally. Rachel Davidson, an American who moved to Istanbul in 2013, says BBC fills a need within the city.

“BBC provides a very valuable product in Istanbul, both to expats and Turks who have lived abroad and miss those various types of beers, and also to a wider population of Turks who are starting to try new kinds of beer,” Davidson says.

“On a Friday night, we can get 400 people here, because there is nowhere else you can get such a choice of fresh real ale and lager,” Hall says.

When Hall set out to build a brewery in 2008, the Turkish authorities told him that they would only decide if his brewery could be legal after everything was operational. Hall forged ahead anyway, retrofitting a former restaurant and fabricating his own brewing equipment.

“Trying to import things that are not understood [by the Turkish authorities] is very difficult,” Hall says. “I went from using plastic buckets in my kitchen to designing and building my own brewery.”

The government made opening new breweries in Istanbul virtually impossible after BBC opened. Now, new restrictions are regularly put on Hall’s business. For one, “a brewery cannot be located within 100 meters of a mosque or school,” says Hall. Another regulation is that now, beer can’t be served from conditioning or serving tanks, so even brewpubs (read: Bosphorus) need to have a kegging facility.

“I am very concerned with the future, because if this political trend continues, it is going to be very difficult to stay operate a brewpub,” Hall says.

Hall isn’t the only person upset with the current administration’s encroachment on Turkey’s secularism. Hundreds of thousands of people have protested the government’s limits on free speech and freedom of assembly, and close to 5,000 people have been arrested since protests started last summer.

Hall says he sees a drop in clientele whenever there’s another round of protests, as his customers take to the streets.

“We’re not just a pub. We’re not just someplace to quaff large amounts of beer. Beer is a way to connect people, it’s a way for people to express themselves,” Hall says. “It enables you to have interesting conversation, and in a place like this, it’ll be with more interesting people.”

Hall has even felt the increased police presence in his own brewpub. During a brewday last summer, he started feeling a burning sensation in his eyes and chest, only to see tear gas wafting through an open window from a nearby protest march.

“Only in Turkey. Where else would you be brewing and suffer from tear gas?” Hall says.

Trying to keep the brewery open during the growing instability can be discouraging—Hall’s sure his activities are being monitored—but in a way, he’s grown to like the unpredictability, he says. “Going back to the UK, where every day is the same, I don’t know if I could do it.”