Beer-making traditions suffer as sectarianism brews in Iraq
Amman Letter: Yaqthan Chadirji, an Iraqi who trained in Germany as a master brewer, is now practising his vocation in exile in Amman rather than Baghdad, writes Michael Jansen
He began his career by making Ferida, a rich, nutty, golden brew greatly loved by Iraqis and a symbol of the good old days, before the dragon of sectarianism reared its ugly head.
Beer-making is an ancient craft which can be traced back to the Sumerian civilisation of Iraq. The oldest depiction of beer drinking is on a 6,000-year-old clay tablet showing people sipping the beverage through straws from a large communal bowl. A 3,900-year-old poem honouring Nikasi, the goddess of brewing, contains the oldest known beer recipe.
Beer is mentioned in the epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament. Noah packed beer for his journey on the ark. In 2100 BC Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, included provisions regulating taverns in the world's first legal code. At that time, there were 20 varieties of beer in Mesopotamia.
Until sectarianism took root in Iraq in 2003, modern breweries did well in spite of 60 years of political turbulence. Beer was non-sectarian.
The first Western-style beer was produced during the British-backed monarchy by a wealthy Shia businessman named Madhaf Khedairi, who bought a small brewery from a British naval vessel shortly after the second World War.
"He started doing stout," Yaqthan says. "But it was not profitable, so he invested more money and made lager."
In 1954 Khadduri Khadduri, a Christian originally from Mosul, established the Eastern Brewery, which made Ferida. These two firms flourished due to the unquenchable thirst of British colonials, as well as an emerging class of prosperous businessmen who gathered for pre-lunch beer at the elegant teak bar of the Alwiya Club off Paradise Square in central Baghdad.
The 1958 revolution did not diminish the Iraqi taste for beer, although the officers who ousted the young king were deeply suspicious of the exclusive Alwiya Club and its members.
Yaqthan, a Sunni who had studied biology at university in Britain, was sent by Ferida to learn beer-making in Germany two years after the socialist-minded Baath party seized power in 1968.
Beer was popular with the Baath. In 1973-74 the Khedairi firm was nationalised, and in 1975-76 the government established two breweries, one in the mixed Christian-Muslim city of Mosul and the other at Amara, a very strict Muslim city where locals refused jobs at the brewery and workers had to be brought in from China.
Ferida reached peak production of 15 million litres, or 30 million bottles a year, during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
"Always in bottles, never in cans," says Yaqthan. If supplies were short, Yaqthan used a pick-up to deliver Ferida to friends.
When sanctions were imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the government ordered a 50 per cent cut in production and banned money transfers abroad. Ferida survived by bartering malt and hops with a supplier who did not mind flouting the prohibition.
"How he paid was not our concern. He gave us 100 tons of malt for 30,000 cases of beer," says Yaqthan.
In 1998, Ferida made an arrangement with a Jordanian company for the production of beer in Amman. "In tins," remarks Yaqthan disapprovingly. This lasted less than two years.
Ferida remained privately owned until 2001 when Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, and his friends took partial control of the firm and made soft drinks as well as beer.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 US occupation, Ferida competed with imports from Holland and Turkey, but in 2004 Shia fundamentalists began burning shops selling alcoholic beverages. Clandestine vendors hawking beer in buckets of ice appeared beneath the Jadriya Bridge, alongside pedlars selling hash and heroin. The rise of Shia and Sunni fundamentalist parties, banned during the republican and Baathist eras, ended public beer-drinking in Baghdad and Basra. Violence closed down hotels and restaurants. People stayed at home rather than risk bombers, shooters and kidnappers.
Today, the gate of the Alwiya Club is locked, its spacious rooms are shuttered, its bar is empty. Ferida shares are falling on the stock market. Yaqthan is making non-alcoholic beer at an automated computerised brewery not far from Queen Alia international airport, 1,000km (600 miles) from his home in the turbulent Adhamiya district of Baghdad. All 75 workers at the brewery are strict Muslims.
"It's much more difficult to make non-alcoholic beer," he observes.
"It's necessary to compensate for the taste and smell of alcohol. Non-alcoholic beer is very delicate; it is sensitive to infection by bacteria." He sighs: "Beer is just not the same without alcohol."
The factory makes beer in five flavours: the original, plus strawberry, lemon, apple and peach.