21 January 2006

Saturday nite's beer review: Bomonti Ale from a century ago

Tonite I present the review of a beer I've never drunk and will never drink: a beer that was brewed in Istanbul early in the 20th century.

The first commercial breweries on the lands of the Ottoman Empire appeared towards the end of the 19th century1. Although strict adherence to Islam forbids the drinking of alcohol, because of its relatively low alcohol content, beer was apparently not considered an alcoholic beverage at that time and the establishment of breweries was sanctioned by the Ottoman administration. Another factor that may have made it easier for the breweries to obtain permits was that they were all owned by non-Moslems.

An undated advertisement for the Bomonti brewery in Istanbul from Toplumsal Tarih. "Beer guaranteed of pure malt and hops without salicylic acid."

The first large scale brewery in Istanbul was that of the Swiss Bomonti Brothers that started production in 1890. During the early years, beer was brewed using top fermentation. Therefore, their beer was probably an ale. It was sold at popular "beer gardens".

Ladies enjoying beer at Bomonti's Beer Garden in Istanbul in an undated photo from Toplumsal Tarih. From their attires and the fact that they were drinking beer in public, I am assuming they were not Moslem, but were either Armenian, Jewish or Greek.

How can I review a beer that I have never tasted? Well, it turns out that someone who tried Bomonti's beer a long time ago wrote about it. That person was Hagop Mıntzuri2 (1886-1978), a long-lived Armenian citizen of, first, the Ottoman Empire, and then, the Turkish Republic. In his memoirs3, Mıntzuri tells the story of his first visit to the Bomonti Beer Garden with his more experienced friends sometime between 1898-19004 (my translation):

"The glasses with beer on the tables were gleaming light orange in the sun. I thought they were honey sherbet5. Filtered pure honey is that color. They put full glasses in front of us at the table. Thinking that I was drinking sherbet, I lifted the glass with a great appetite. But no sooner did I take a sip than I got shaken and put it back down. It felt so bitter that I couldn't keep the beer in my mouth and spitted it out. They insisted that I drink it. 'No, I won't drink it!' I said…Those at the next table were also Armenians. They looked at me. Let them look. Even though the glasses on the tables were very pretty, glittering like gold, it wasn't anything that could be drunk, it was bitter."

From Mıntzuri's story we learn that Bomonti's beer had a golden color and was bitter. However, Mıntzuri's impression of the bitterness of the beer may have been strengthened by the fact that he had never had beer before and was, therefore, unfamiliar with the flavor of ordinary beer.

I don't quite care for bitter beers either, but I would love to jump on a time machine, if I could, and travel back to 1900 just to relax at Bomonti's Beer Garden for an hour drinking their beer.


Note added 20 July 2010: I did have a Bomonti beer in Istanbul in June 2010! The review of it is here.

1. The source of my information on the breweries of the Ottoman Empire is the article by Ercan Eren titled "Bomonti ve Olimpos" in the December 2005 issue of Toplumsal Tarih, the monthly Turkish history magazine of Tarih Vakfı.
2. I am using the Turkish spelling of Mıntzuri's name with an "undotted i" between the M and the n.
3. Hagop Mıntzuri. 1993. İstanbul Anıları (1897-1940) (Istanbul Memoirs). Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları.
4. If the dates are correct, he would have been not older than 14.
5. A sherbet would have been a very sweet drink made from fruit juice and sugar and/or honey.

Index to the Snail's Tales' Beer Reviews


Vasha said...

Question -- when reciting the Turkish alphabet, what do you call the "undotted i"?


The undotted i is called "ı", the sound it represents. In English it comes closest to the sound of the "e" in "open" or "broken".

Axoy said...

Those ladies are most probably Turkish muslims..I'm from Istanbul and I know what I'm saying ..those scarves they wear on their heads are very typical of Turkish women of that time..plus, I grew up on stories that my grand parents would go to that beer garden as family with theri kids as well, just like many other Turkish muslim families cause people who lived in Istanbul back then also had a modern lifestyle, living in a secular modern country was making it more than alright for women to wear estern clothes or drinking beer in public..


The scarves on their heads were typical of many European women of that period. I strongly suspect they were non-Moslems. But we will probably never know the answer unless someone recognizes them & tells us who they were.