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So long to dirt and spiders _ Egypt’s beer looks to new future

July 29, 1997

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Beer has been brewed in Egypt for 3,000 years. That might come as a shock to anyone who has tasted Stella _ the state-owned beer with the unsavory reputation.

There’s the joke about the American chemist who takes a sample of Stella home. He turns it over to a laboratory, which after a week delivers its finding: His camel has diabetes.

Or there’s the popular T-shirt featuring Stella’s familiar yellow label and a dark slogan: ``That which does not kill us makes us stronger.″

No longer. There’s a new brew brewing.

In a feat that has left Egyptian beer drinkers breathless, Stella has undergone a veritable revolution since U.S. and European investors purchased the government-owned brewing company in February.

In just a few months, the privatized company has turned management upside down, brought in foreign beer experts, launched an advertising campaign and promised to stop Stella from being a dangerous game of Russian roulette with a three-day hangover.

But good beer? In Egypt?

Well, there’s still that pyramid-sized image problem.

``We just have this horrendous reputation for quality,″ acknowledges Steven Keefer, chief of staff at Al-Ahram Beverages Co., the 100-year-old brewer of Stella. ``It was actually startling to me.″

He’s heard the jokes, like the one about buying a case of Stella and getting to choose from 24 different flavors.

There are also stories of unwanted surprises in Stella bottles.

Hisham Kassem, a publisher who started drinking Stella 23 years ago, recounts finding dirt, bottle caps, stones, flies, spiders and a variety of insects mixed in with the suds. And those were the items he could identify.

``You find worms in tequila bottles; we find a spider in our beer. Really chic,″ said Kassem, sipping a markedly improved big green bottle of Stella at a bar in downtown Cairo.

``You’d just take a sip and forget it,″ he said. ``Otherwise, you wait a couple of weeks for a good batch to hit the market.″

But, regrettably, that good batch was often hard to find.

Investors complained that they inherited a company buckling under bloated management, ``muted vision and poor morale.″

When the lab discovered a bad batch, Keefer said, it was disguised by mixing it in with a good one.

``The beer was flat sometimes. It wasn’t clean. It tasted sometimes horrible and it gave you indigestion,″ said Ahmed Zayat, the company’s new executive chairman and main shareholder.

``There was no such thing as a standard Stella, and the first thing we did was come here and define the recipe,″ he said.

Since February, the company has fixed exposed pipes, cleaned the breweries and improved quality with a better fermentation process. Clearly stamped on the bottle is the date it was brewed, and the Danish brewer Carlsberg now provides technical expertise.

In September, Stella Premium will hit the market, offering drinkers a darker, higher quality and stronger lager.

And as part of an advertising campaign, umbrellas, coasters, mirrors and mugs bearing the Stella logo will be passed out in hotels, restaurants and bars. Eventually, they might even overshadow the T-shirts that have helped bring the beer its notoriety.

It’s a good thing since two other Egyptian companies plan to brew beer in Egypt as early as next year, ending Stella’s longstanding monopoly. One of them has entered into an agreement with Germany’s Lowenbrau.

At Stella’s 83-year-old brewery in Cairo, newly invigorated workers look forward to the competition.

``We used to just worry about quantity. Now we’re worried about quality, too, the taste, the smell, everything,″ said Sami Qasim, standing next to two well-scrubbed vats.

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