An inverse relationship between the price of a drink and Turkey’s stability.
A subject of much consternation among those inclined to enjoy a drink in Turkey is the high taxes regularly imposed on booze, one stacked on after the next. It’s as if there is an inverse relationship between the price of a drink and the country’s stability, with the former surging as the latter descends. As longtime President Recep Tayyip and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began to pursue an exceedingly brash, heavy-handed approach to running the country around half a decade ago, restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcoholic beverages were rolled out in a hurry alongside the barrage of tax increases that occur twice a year. As the hikes have mounted over the years, the value Turkish lira has steadily fallen, so while the price of beer in dollar terms is roughly the same as it was ten years ago, it has become quite expensive for those earning the troubled currency.
As prices have escalated, a stream of media coverage focused on the growing number of Turks opting to make their own libations rather than purchasing them at bars and stores. Though there has been a definite upswing in the number of homebrewers, the lenses of these articles zoom in on this behind-doors practice rather than analyzing how the attack on suds has transformed the visual landscape of the city and how people socialize in it.
While some of these changes appear superficial, they are nevertheless widespread and at times injected with meaning. After a 2013 law barred all alcohol brands from advertising, suddenly the thousands of small convenience stores decked out in the colors and logo of either the country’s top brew, Efes, or the Danish beer Tuborg, its main competitor, were forced to remodel. The names of the brands had to go, though most shops opted to maintain the exact colors and patterns used by the manufacturers, retaining an unmistakable visual signifier. It’s still possible to see a shop buttressed by an old Efes or Tuborg sign, but that’s probably because it has closed down and the space has yet to find a new tenant.
For their part, liquor companies wasted no time in skirting around the ban. The grog heavyweights were known for sponsoring music events large and small, and while some festivals named after their bankrolling brand were abruptly canceled, sneakier routes were pursued. Recently, Irish whiskey giant Jameson ingeniously rearranged their logo to spell ‘Jam Session’ for a series of concerts. Bars around the city selling Guinness beer advertise this fact by displaying signs bearing the word ‘Greatness’ in the same font. Efes and another beer it owns, Bomonti, have frequently used their recognizable logos in conjunction with succinct phrases that replace the brand name.
Perpetually ascending prices have certainly increased the attractiveness of imbibing in public places, in what has remained a bizarre contradiction to the restrictions imposed on drink. Somehow it is still permissible in Istanbul to drink in public parks, or even wander the streets with beer in hand, a feat that results in the prompt issuing of a steep fine when caught doing this in the US. Of course, depending on the neighborhood, one might get a dirty look or worse from a pious pedestrian, but in other areas pretty much everyone, police included, turns a blind eye. Maçka Park, the largest green space in central Istanbul and one of the city’s best parks, has exploded in popularity and can be seen packed with people enjoying booze-infused picnics during the nicer months. The already-coveted coastal parks of Moda and Caddebostan, on the Anatolian side of the city, have only increased in popularity, as one can enjoy the cheaper prices of store-bought drinks alongside the intoxicating views of the sea. It’s not uncommon to see dozens of concertgoers dip outside the venue between bands and purchase a beer to enjoy on the street, as prices inside can be twice as high or more.
There have been a number of startling consequences from the price climb. Recent years brought a spike in the use and sale of bonzai, a very cheap, synthetic drug that, when smoked, can cause erratic behavior, heart attacks, and even death. Some have blamed the burst in popularity of the drug in poor Istanbul neighborhoods on the inaccessibility of alcohol. Reports regularly emerge of people being hospitalized or dying after consuming smuggled liquor often produced with the toxic methanol.
Yet in another ironic twist, the bar scene in the city seems to be flourishing like never before. Though numerous establishments in the main entertainment district of Beyoğlu have closed down amid a nosedive in the area’s desirability, hundreds of bars in the districts of Beşiktaş, Kadıköy, and Karaköy have opened their doors in the past several years, simultaneously decentralizing and fortifying nightlife in different pockets of the city. Even Beyoğlu seems to be experiencing a resurgence in recent months. While ten years ago, the selections on the beer list at most bars could be counted on one hand, many places now offer dozens of imports, as well as a handful of Turkish craft brews that have lately popped up on the scene, indicating that the worldwide craft beer explosion has not escaped Turkey in spite of the inevitably high costs of an IPA.
At the same time, these new bars that have sprouted up are patronized mostly by young, educated people who are at least middle class. The current net minimum wage is 1600 TL, while a pint of Efes at the bar costs around twelve TL (eight TL from the store). Imagine living in the US, making 1600 dollars a month and having to pay twelve dollars for a pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the dive bar or eight dollars for a single can from 7-Eleven.
These prices are a sore subject, and only the truly wealthy (drinkers) remain unaffected. The rampant price boosts and advertising ban have impacted the city spatially and aesthetically, and the gallons of homemade beer pumping out of the corners of cramped one-bedroom apartments are increasing all the time. What is truly interesting is watching how the city’s drinking and nightlife culture have managed to remain resilient and perhaps become more vibrant across a larger terrain during this period, reflecting the determination of the Istanbulites who will not allow their right to go out and enjoy a drink to be stripped away.
Paul Benjamin Osterlund is a freelance journalist and writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. You can follow him on Twitter at @Paul_Osterlund