Beer in Turkey can be summed up with one name … Efes. This is the beer that everyone thinks of when they think of Turkey. But is there more to the Turkish beer scene than meets the eye?
Efes Pilsen is the most common beer in Turkey and dominates the market. But it is by no means the only beer in Turkey. Other brands from Europe are licenced to be brewed in Turkey, Tuborg from Carlsburg being popular. There aren’t any independent Turkish breweries though, and the craft beer scene has struggled to grow.
In this article, I will take a look at the history of Turkey, the history of beer in Turkey, and I will look at the best Turkish beers you can buy. I’ll also take a look at the craft beer scene.
The most commonly drunk beer in Turkey is Efes Pilsen, followed by other Efes variations. There are no other large Turkish breweries in Turkey. The only other brewery in Turkey at the moment is Tuborg, which is owned by Carlsburg. Efes has a licence to brew some European beers such as Fosters and Becks. Craft beer is in its infancy, and there are very few craft breweries in Turkey. This is slowly starting to change now, particularly in Istanbul.
Turkey as a country has only existed since 1923 when the Ottoman Empire was overthrown, but there is so much history before that. While the history of Anatolia is fascinating, it doesn’t become relevant to this article until the fall of Constantinople and the rise of the Ottoman Empire.
After the Ottoman army captured Constantinople in 1453, the empire began to expand rapidly. Taking over Greece, the Balkans, as well as the Middle East and the coast of North Africa. While the Ottoman empire could be brutal at times, it was also quite good at allowing different cultures within the Empire to express themselves. This will become relevant later.
During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began to slowly crumble. With Greece and other countries rising and declaring independence. WW1 was the last throw of the dice for the Ottomans, aligning themselves with the Axis armies. After losing the war, the Ottoman empire was greatly reduced as land was ceded to the Greeks, Italians, French, and the British. This did not last long, with the people rising up in 1922 and declaring Turkish independence. This spelt the end of the Ottoman empire and in 1923 Turkey became an internationally recognised country.
The period between 1923 and the 1980s was dominated by political strife, with three military coups taking place. Since the 1980s, political turmoil has ended (apart from the odd attempted coup), and Turkey has thrived as a country. With massive increases in population, and closer ties with Europe.
While writing this series of articles about beer in different countries (check out my articles on Poland, Mexico, and Portugal) it has amazed me how beer production has been so influenced by the political history of each country. Turkey is the same. The Ottoman Empire had an interesting relationship with alcohol. It was often banned for being against the laws of Islam, yet the ruling class continued to drink alcohol.
The Ottomans did not allow beer to be brewed in many cities within their empire, yet it was often brewed illegally. It doesn’t appear as if the authorities were too strict in enforcing these rules. The Ottoman Empire existed for centuries, and the laws on beer changed over time. The first brewery in Istanbul was established in 1894 by Swiss brothers. This was called the Bomonti brewery. It produced Turkey’s first national beer: Tekel Birasi.
Though Turkey is a religious country, it is also a secular one. Meaning that religious laws do not affect the laws of the land. Which is why Turkey is not a dry country. After gaining independence, the government helped the Bomonti brewery to establish itself. Bomonti was Turkey’s biggest brewery for decades until it was overtaken by Efes.
Efes is brewed by Anadolu Efes Biracılık ve Malt Sanayii A.Ş (Anadolu Efes for short) and was established in 1966. At about the same time the Türk Tuborg was granted permission to open their brewery. It did not take long for Efes to effectively become the number one brand in Turkey. In the 1980s they led a successful television advertising campaign, just before Turkey banned beer adverts. This helped it to stand out, it also benefited from intelligent sponsorship of sporting teams, and targeting the tourist market.
Bomonti quickly fell out of fashion, and by the early 2000s, it was finished. Making Efes and Türk Tuborg the oldest breweries in Turkey. Efes’ grip on the market is so tight that it is no surprise that no real competition has emerged. It is certainly possible that Efes has too much power, which is stifling any competition. Some have claimed that bar owners have their hands tied, with exclusivity contracts. But this could just be speculation/rumour (if I had a lawyer they’d be forcing me to write that).
This virtual-monopoly by Efes looks set to last for quite some time yet, but there are signs of change. The rise of craft beer in Turkey has only just started, with only a handful of craft breweries and brewpubs. But they are a great sign, and the movement even seems to be supported by Efes (who sponsored a Craft beer festival). I don’t think that craft beer will make a huge change, but even Efes admits that competition could be good for business.
While beer is legal, the government appears to be doing everything it can to make the sale of beer difficult. Turkey has some of the highest taxes on beer in Europe, it has banned all advertising, breweries aren’t even allowed to place their logo on their own facilities! This occurred after the 2013 protests, and has had a huge effect on breweries both large and small.
The thing about having a virtual monopoly on the beer in your country is that it certainly shortens the list of Turkish beers that I can put in this list. As I always talk about craft beer separately, I’ve got just two breweries to choose from. Efes or Türk Tuborg, and Tuborg isn’t even Turkish!
While I don’t like the fact that Efes dominates the market so thoroughly in Turkey, I cannot deny that Efes is a seriously good beer. Don’t get me wrong, there are better pilsners out there. But Efes can hold its head high. Efes uses Hallertau hops from Germany, to give you that German Pilsner taste. Served ice-cold in a Turkish restaurant, it is an excellent beer.
I’m struggling here, so I’ve added the Efes Dark Brown. Which is an okay beer, but nowhere near as good a beer as the Efes Pilsen. This was clearly brewed to be similar to a coffee porter, but they did not manage it. Still, it’s not terrible and is at least a variation from the sea of Pilsner.
The bottle is by far the coolest thing about this beer. It’s just Efes Pilsen that has been semi-pasteurised to remain “fresh”. Regular bottles of Efes Pilsen are fully pasteurised, meaning that they last longer but won’t taste as good. Sadly, the only time I had an Efes Draft was when fellow Beer N Biceps Podcaster Todd had an old bottle in his fridge. So I can’t say it was too fresh!
Based in Muğla, Gara Guzu was founded in 2014 and is seen as the first successful craft beer brewery in Turkey. Despite a fairly hostile environment for innovative brewing practices, Gara Guzu has managed to thrive over the last six years. They sell a blonde ale, an IPA, an American IPA, a stout, a porter, a sour beer. The list goes on. Gara Guzu’s porter is the highest-rated Turkish beer on ratebeer.com at the moment.
Based in Istanbul, Graf microbrewery was founded in 2016. They sell five beers; a Mosaic IPA, a Czech-style pilsner, an IPA, a porter, and a Belgian Blonde. There is a nice combination of well-made classics, and a few more interesting brews (the mosaic IPA in particular).
One of the first Brewpubs in Istanbul, Bosphorus is a craft brewery run by an Englishman and a local Turkish craft beer lover. Their most well-known beer is the cleverly named Istanbul Pale Ale (IPA). It is a 5.6% abv IPA. BBC also sell a lager named Brew 81, as well as stouts, Blonde beers, Scottish ales, and many more.
Torch is a craft brewery that is set up inside the old Bomonti brewery (the first brewery in Turkey). They have an absolutely massive range of beers for a microbrewery. Run by a German (these guys seem to be drafted in to countries solely to teach proper brewing), Torch has some amazing beers on offer. They do a Vienna-style lager, a kolsch-style beer, and a few other German/Austrian styles. But they have also taken inspiration from Turkey, as this article from manvsglobe.com explains.
Pablo Bira was founded in 2017 and as far as I can tell is named after a dog. It’s difficult to tell, because Google Translate is not particularly effective when it comes to Turkish craft beer websites. What I can say though is that they sell quite a good selection of craft beers. They sell an American IPA, a weissbier, a pilsner, and a kolsch-style beer. They also appear to sell a satsuma white beer, which sounds amazing!
Taps is similar to Bosphorus in that it is more of a brewpub. There is a serious German love-in going on here, with weissbiers, kolsch beers, Helles, Dunkel … the list goes on and on. There are even some smoked beers! Taps is situated in Istanbul and you can try some great American and Turkish food while you drink.
A tiny microbrewery based in Izmir, Feliz Kolpa only offers four craft beers but they’re all pretty ambitious. An English Pale Ale, a Belgian Pale Ale, a weissbier, and a Berliner Weisse. They have no website, and all I can find is their ratebeer page.
Last but not least is Khoffner brewery based in Antalya. Again, there is no website so I can only base this information on the ratebeer page. As with many of the other microbreweries there is a huge German influence on the beers chosen to be brewed. They brew a dunkel, a Vienna-style lager (okay Vienna is in Austria, but this type of beer is also brewed in Bavaria). A Helles beer, and a pilsner. Very German.
Until 2016, Turkey had never had a beer festival. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, you have to remember that Turkey is primarily a Muslim country. While it does allow alcohol (obviously), for many Turks, alcohol is taboo. Celebrating beer may have been seen as a step too far.
The other reason why Turkey hasn’t had a beer festival is the lack of a need for one. In a country with only one serious brewery, what would a beer festival have looked like? Efes dominates so hard that the beer festival would have been pointless.
It may come as a surprise to you that the company behind Turkey’s first-ever beer festival would be Efes. But the reason is quite interesting. The Tuborg brewery controls around 15% of the Turkish beer market, and the brewery was set up around the same time as Efes’. They placed it right down the road from the Efes brewery. While Efes dominates, Tuborg has done surprisingly well. Feathers have been ruffled. Efes has decided to highlight the fact that it is a Turkish brewery, and that Tuborg is not.
So Efes funded Turkey’s first beer festival “Brewstival” to highlight Turkish beer. This was great for the craft beer scene in Turkey as they were able to promote their beers, and it was good for Efes because they were able to create an “Us vs Them” mentality in Turkish beer.
Maybe I’m being a bit cynical, but the first beer festival in Turkey is a great thing, and it has been repeated ever since. Brewstival is held in Izmir in May.
Thanks to the ban on beer advertising, this article has been ridiculously hard to research and write! Almost none of the breweries in Turkey have a website, and none of those websites talk about the beer that they brew! The word beer is often censored to b**r. Turkey may be a secular country, but clearly the 2013 changes were made to appease religious conservatives. Which is such a shame, because it really is affecting craft beer as well as the growth of rival breweries to Efes.