Meet the Brewers at the Forefront of Turkey's Craft Beer Scene

November 06, 2018

By Paul Osterlund, November 06, 2018

In the midst of a barren stretch of shipping warehouses on the outskirts of the small city of Muğla near Turkey's Aegean coast, I fear that I have come to the wrong place. Google Maps tells me that Gara Guzu, the country's most successful microbrewery, is nearby but I seem to have missed it. This makes me nervous as I had just disembarked a shuttle bus on the highway and walked through a maze of dusty streets in the middle of nowhere.

My fears are allayed as I see co-owner Ataç Besi emerge from a garage just ahead. The factory is nondescript and lacks signage, due to the fact that an absolute alcohol advertising ban, which has been in effect for five years, even forbids brewers from putting their own name on their headquarters. Ataç greets me warmly and immediately hands over a tester can of Gara Guzu's blonde ale. I crack it open and take a hearty pull, which is brisk, refreshing, and finishes with a pleasant funkiness—just what I needed after breaking a sweat clearing the highway on a warm, oppressively bright October day. A representative from American Brewing Equipment was in town and had just helped Ataç and crew install state-of-the-art canning machinery, the latest step in Gara Guzu's growth and evolution.

Ataç launched Gara Guzu with his wife and co-founder Akgonca in 2014 after several years of experimentation and hopping over bureaucratic red tape to obtain the proper licensing. Starting with its blonde and amber ales, Gara Guzu now offers ten different beers and has become the vanguard of a burgeoning craft beer scene in Turkey. Its emergence has ironically coincided with the introduction of numerous regulations banning advertising and restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol, in addition to the frequent tax hikes that have resulted in beer prices surging fourfold in lira terms within the past decade in Turkey. In spite of what seem like bankrupting business conditions, Gara Guzu has managed keep its head above water.  

Ataç and Akgonca met 30 years ago and became best friends while at college in the capital of Ankara, where they both were members of their university's mountain climbing club. Two decades later, Akgonca was tired of working as an on-boat chef off the coast of France, while Ataç was fed up doing marketing for large firms in Istanbul. The two embarked on an education in Thailand in 2009 and spontaneously decided to get married. Just after getting hitched, the Besis moved down south to Muğla, where they ran a boutique hotel in Patara for six months out of the year, traveling the world during the off season.

Ataç's interest in craft beer had begun years earlier while working in the US. “I went to North Carolina in 1993 and worked at a rafting company. I was drinking beer pretty often, and this guy came up and said, 'Since you like beer, try this—it's called craft beer.' I didn't even know what ‘craft’ meant in English at the time,” Ataç says of the first time someone handed him a Samuel Adams.   

Akgonca and Ataç Besi. All photos by the author.

Ataç rediscovered craft beer while traveling through South America as it first started to take off on the continent, and then proposed the idea of brewing their own to Akgonca.

“We established the company in 2011, but it took three and a half years to obtain permission to begin production,” Akgonca says. During this process, they became the parents of two children. Their first beer was sold in July of 2014.

Just a year prior, the Gezi Park protests had broken out throughout Turkey in opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's controversial plans to pave over a park in the heart of Istanbul. Around the same time, a packet of regulations were passed that included an outright ban on alcohol ads. Thousands of liquor shops throughout the country were forced to amend or remove their ubiquitous signs emblazoned with the logos of Efes, Turkey's flagship beer, or Tuborg, its biggest competitor. Sales were outlawed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. (a regulation that many shops continue to defy at risk of major fines) and the sale of alcoholic drinks was forbidden in sports stadiums, restaurants, and other venues located on highways. Films, TV series, and music videos shown on television channels had to censor alcoholic drinks in the hands of actors.

“We emerged right after the Gezi Park protests. Our motto is ‘separate from the herd.’ That is the meaning of Gara Guzu, and people really associated with this,” Akgonca says. Gara Guzu comes from the Aegean-accented pronunciation of “kara kuzu,” which means black sheep in Turkish.

Though Gara Guzu wasn't able to advertise when its first beers launched, this didn't prevent word of mouth from spreading, and the blonde and amber ales quickly reached bars and shops throughout the country. In fact, the Besis believe that the ban may have even helped them.

“Advertising is something utilized by industries. Even if you want, where are you going to advertise? There's no budget. I'm not defending the advertising ban, but what needs to be talked about is how in Turkey, in every sector, if you are a large firm, there is support [from the state], but if you are small, there's none. We weren't able to advertise anyway, so if there wasn't this ban, maybe [the big companies] would have kept us down. It brought things to a more balanced level, though people aren't looking at it from this perspective,” Ataç says, adding that he was trying to approach the matter positively.  

Gara Guzu's appearance on the market also had the unforeseen consequence of drastically influencing how the major companies operate. Well over a year after Gara Guzu debuted its amber ale, Tuborg released its own amber in Turkey. At this point, in spite of the new restrictions and ever-increasing taxes, which are hiked at around 15 percent every six months, dozens of new bars were springing up in a number of neighborhoods throughout Istanbul and in other major Turkish cities. A decade ago in Turkey, the choice of brew at the bar would have been limited to Efes or Tuborg, and maybe Carlsberg and Miller if one was lucky, but today it is common for establishments to include upward of 100 domestic and foreign selections on their menus. The Besis decided to experiment.

“We said, ‘Let's put out something that we call ‘red ale’ but isn't and see what happens.’ If we had called it 'experimental ale' it would have been more correct, but we wanted to see what they would do. They all started making red ale. This means they are watching us,” Ataç says.

Sure enough, in the wake of what Akgonca says can be more accurately dubbed a “pink ale,” Efes released its Brewmasters Series, a trio of white, amber, and red ales. Its sister company Bomonti followed suit with its own red ale. The latter has since released a black ale, which tastes like Guinness with a drizzle of soy sauce.

So far, the blonde and amber ale remain Gara Guzu's strongest offerings. The red ale is certainly an interesting experiment, and packs a punch at 7% ABV. The IPA has a pleasant hoppy flavor but clocks in at a mere 4.5% ABV. The weissbier lacks the elegance and refinement of many of its peers.

But Gara Guzu has started off on the right foot, and has already made waves in a growing scene that encompasses a handful of microbreweries in several Turkish cities including Istanbul, Izmir, and Muğla's coastal neighbor of Bodrum. Gara Guzu is currently sold in 20 cities throughout the country, and is also available in Germany, France, Canada, Japan, and Australia. Ironically, it is only sold at one bar and one shop in the Besis’ hometown of Muğla, perhaps owing to conservative tastes that prefer Efes.

“In our generation there aren't that many beer lovers, but in the younger generation there are much more. They don't want the same thing, they want to change it,” Ataç says.

And in spite of an atmosphere seemingly averse to imbibing, Gara Guzu has risen to the occasion, meeting the demands of the country's changing tastes, prompting the big labels to take notice and act accordingly. Its success hinges on its owners’ sincerity and ability to connect with the legions of beer drinkers who have embraced their product and told their friends.

“Our motive is, before all else, to produce something we like to drink," Akgonca says. "We share it with those who enjoy it. We thought, ‘Let's drink some great beer already. We deserve it.’”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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