The traditional beers from the fringes of the Ottoman world.


The fermented beverages made from grains are ancient and can still be found in Muslim countries today. A vast geopolitical area, from Turkey to Sudan, makes and drinks a family of beers called boza (Turkey, Central Europe and the Balkan region, Ukraine[1]), bouza (Egypt, Sudan) or busaa (Kenya). These regions have long been Islamicised for the most part, when they do not belong, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to the heartland and the original source of its expansion. From the 15th century, most of them are integrated into the Ottoman Empire.

Expansion of the Ottoman Empire between 1481 and 1683 (excluding Algeria, Sudan, Hejaz, Asir and Yemen)
Map of the Ottoman Empire between 1481 and 1683, in its maximum expansion, but not showing Algeria, Sudan, Hejaz, Asir and Yemen.


The phonetic similarities (bouza, boza, busaa, booza) refer to the realities of the Ottoman empire (1299~1922) in its greatest historical extension. Whether the popularity of sour bread-beer preceded the Ottoman Empire or not is unclear. But the linguistic cousinhood hides technical variations. The boza clearly belongs to the family of sour beers from Central and Eastern Europe, like the braga or the kvas. The Egyptian bouza is a malt beer, like the Nubian or Kenyan busaa. But the Nubian bouza clearly comes from the crumbling of leavened bread (without making malt) according to Burckhardt's descriptions (Merin, Bouza, Om Belbel). Two technical traditions are superimposed or overlapped, depending on the historical period and population movements, most of them forced migration or deportation conducted by the ottoman imperial gouvernment.

A testimony is provided to us by Pierre Belon du Mans (1517-1564) who in 1553 accompanied the French diplomatic and commercial missions in the Levant to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman, known as the Magnificent. He freely visited the countries of the empire, from Anatolia to Egypt. Here is what he writes " From the taverns of Turkey where the Turks drink a kind of beverage called "posca" or "zytum", different from beer " (Chapter XCVIII). The author refers to European malt beer to compare it with his own observations :

« I first observed in Hamous [region of Homs in Syria] that the use of making the ancient beverage called posca is not abolished at all, and furthermore that there is no city in Asia where there are not taverns selling the above-mentioned beverage. They vulgarly call it chousset, which is what the ancient Greeks called zitum, the Latins posca, or pusca, or phusca, from the same Latin dictions which Sueone and Columella used, as also Serapium and Avicenna made mention of.
It is a beverage as white as milk, thick and well nourishing, and it is very heady for those who drink too much of it, until it makes them drunken. It has been thought that posca was oxycratum, but it is something else, because oxycratum is that thing which is now in use in Venetian and Italian ships and galleys, and even the "chiournes" of Venetian ships and galleys usually drink it ...
[Belon describes the addition of vinegar to slow down the rotting of the waters on board ships].
But posca or posset or chousset, different to beer, is what the ancients called curmi, different to oxycratum. The curmi, that is beer, is made of whole and sometimes broken grains. But the zytum or posca now called posset is made of flour put into a dough, which is cooked in a large boiler, then a ball of the said dough is thrown into water, which boils incontinent [ferments] and heats up without fire, so much so that it is made a thick drink [Pierre Belon writes bevette, from Italian bere, to drink]. Its scum is white and light [yeasts], which Turkish women are happy to buy as a cosmetic, especially as it makes the flesh very delicate and tender, and they use to bring it in the baths to rub them with it [ like the Egyptian women of Ptolemaic Egypt! ]. This is a usage of zitum that the ancient authors did not ignore. That is why we should not be mistaken while thinking that oxycratum is posca, but too well that zitum and posca are one and the same thing. And to prove that posca is not oxycratum, only one passage in Suetonius is convincing, which says that a fugitive slave of the emperor was found in the city of Capua selling posca, and if there had been nothing else in that drink than some oxycratum, it is manisfest that his tavern would have been badly frequented, and would not have made much profit. » ( et Voyage au Levant (1553). Les observations de Pierre Belon du Mans. Ed. Chandeigne 2001, p. 407).

The author discerns in a relevant way two ways of brewing beer: the first with malt, which is classic for the overwhelming majority of the literature on the subject, and the second with ground raw grains (simple flour) put into a dough which is converted into an authentic beer by an acidic fermentation. The zitum (zithum), one of the Greek terms for beer in late antiquity, is a classic reference for the Renaissance scholars as Pierre Belon. The ancient Roman posca was water mixed with approximately 1/10th wine vinegar. Pierre Belon du Mans' attempt to draw a parallel with beer, based on Suetonius, should be rejected. We must focus on the highly acidic character of traditional Syrian beers, which struck this traveller.

These beers are not relics that have escaped the more or less rigorous application of the Koranic precepts prohibiting the fermented beverages throughout the Ottoman Empire. They are the consequence of a very thin boundary between a leavened bread and a beer, between a solid fermented food (bread) and an alcoholic beverage. As for the nabid (date, fig, dried grape, plum, sycamore fruit), the biochemical transformations are continuous: grains => milling => paste => leaven => cooking => soaking => beer. The aerobic fermentation is already at work in the sourdough. Soaking the loaves is enough to obtain beer, with no evidence of alcoholic (anaerobic) fermentation apart from the taste of the beverage and the apparition of bubbles. In Sudan, bouza seems to be the minute beer of caravan traders or poor villagers.

These acidulous and low alcoholic beers cohabit, in Sudan or Egypt for example, with stronger beers produced as such, i.e. according to optimised brewing techniques, by non-Islamic populations. The Sudanese beer buuza has a Kenyan extension, a thick traditional sour beer made from sorghum and millet named buuza [2]. Maize has been integrated in recent centuries, among other cereals introduced by European settlers in African countries since the 16th century.

The Egyptian bouza is brewed today in Egypt, in cities and in the countryside. It can be bought in certain markets, although it is the object of a recent ban, pronounced for "sanitary" reasons that hide religious reasons. It is brewed from wheat, 3/4 raw and ¼ germinated as malt [3]. Raw wheat, cooked in the form of a cake, is sometimes replaced by maize recently introduced in Egypt. Morcos' analyses give : alcohol = 3.8% g (after 24 hours); 4.1% at 48 hours; 4.5% at 72 hours. The beer bouza in its present form already existed in Egypt before Islam. A manuscript attributed to Zosimos of Panopolis (Alexandria around 300 AD) describes malting and brewing to prepare a rather similar fermented beverage.

Un verre de bière boza bulgare


The beers of the type " boza " are of the same nature as the Sudanese bouza. They cover a very wide geographical area: Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. Mention of the beer boza (or its similar braga) dates back to the 10th century. This beer is assimilated to a liquid food, more than an alcoholic drink. The boza is a thick, acidulous beer (simultaneous lactic and alcoholic fermentations), low in alcohol (1%), made from wheat, millet, rice and maize (recently introduced), alone or mixed, with a portion of malted grains depending on the region and the period. The results of an analysis of a Turkish boza (ratio corn/wheat/rice = 2/1/1, water = 2.5 x vol. of flours, sugar 20%, ferment 2%) are after 24 hours of fermentation: alcohol 0.79%, pH 3.48, lactic acid bacteria 98%, yeasts 2% [4].

The analyses of a Bulgarian wheat beer boza are, after 24 hours of fermentation: alcohol 0.5%, pH 3.5, lactic acid bacteria 70%, yeasts 30% (Gotcheva & al. 2001[5]). Pederson[6] mentions a sour fermented beverage called busa, prepared with millet, rice and sugar (a recent invention) and drunk by the Tatars of Crimea and Turkestan .


In Saudi Arabia, sobia is a traditional fermented beverage from the western (Makkah Al-Mukarrmah) and central (Riyadh) provinces of the country. It is prepared and sold all year round and is particularly popular in the month of Ramadan (Gassem 2002[7]). It is prepared with raw wheat flour (45%), wheat malt flour (45%), sugar (glucose 10%), diluted in water and flavoured with cardamom or cinnamon. Fermentation is spontaneous: no addition of ferment or yeast. After one day at room temperature (30°-40°C), this drink is very low in alcohol or not at all (0 g alc./l < fresh sobia > 1.0 g alc./l) and acidulated by lactic acid (average pH 4). These two characteristics increase with time. After a week, the ethanol content is higher (0.22 g alc./l < sobia after 7 days > 4.5 g alc./l), the acidity also makes the drink very refreshing (Gassem 2003[7]). Its nutritional value is indisputable, and explains why in Riyadh the sobia is specially brewed during Ramadan. The sobia should be drunk after one day, no more. The absence of yeast is in accordance with the Qur'an. But the massive presence of sugar (malt, glucose) and spontaneous fermentation do their work. The sobia is not related by its name but by its brewing technique to the family of acidulous beer-porridges of the ancient Ottoman area.


A few testimonies on the use of beer in Cairo during the time of the Mameluk Sultanate (1250-1517) and then the Ottoman domination (1517-1798) tell us more about the sorts of beer brewed in Cairo. First of all the šašš, a beer made from wheat flour, is one of the favourite fermented beverages of the Mamluks. They also drink fermented milk, the koumiss, which is native to the steppes of Europe and Central Asia. The Mamluks who reigned as masters of Egypt at the time were Circassians originating from the northern Caucasus. The other popular beer is the buza, which the Arabic sources classify under the qualifier mizr which designates fermented beverages that are not grape or date wines (khamr). P. Lewicka (2001, 58) thinks that this beer is of Yemeni origin and is said to have reached Egypt with the conquest of the country in 642 and the foundation of the city of Al-Fustat by Yemeni troops, a city which became the capital of Egypt and has remained the historic centre of modern Cairo. In the 11th century, Ibn Ridwan, a physician from al-Giza, quotes the "mizr made of wheat" among the beverages of Egypt which "are bad because of the rapidity of their transformation (alcoholic fermentation) and the rot of their essence.”.

/images_histo_globale/Portait d'un des seigneurs Circasse ou arabes à cheval, les plus riches seigneurs d'Egypte - Belon du Man 1553


Portrait of one Circassian or Arab lords on horseback, the richest lords of Egypt - Belon du Man 1553. (Circasse of Egypt = Circassian = Mamluk)


The often unsuccessful attempts of the sultans and caliphs to ban the brewing of mizr tell us more about the social role of this beer. In 1010, the Fatimid Caliph Al-Khakim forbade the Jews of the sacred site of Dammuh to brew mizr. In 1171, Saladin replaced the Fatimids in Egypt and decided to abolish the special tax on brewing mizr (buyut al-mizr), thus making its brewing illegal. His own nephew, himself engaged in the trade of mizr, is accused of defying what the Koran forbids, namely the very trade of alcohol for an abstinent Muslim. In 1194, Al-Malik al-'Aziz 'Uthman, Saladin's second son, succeeded him in Egypt and re-established the tax on beer brewing mizr. This vacillating policy expresses the difficulty of strictly applying the Koran in a partially Islamicised country where the taxes paid by non-Muslims who brewed and sold the beer were used to pay troops of Christian, Assyrian, African, etc. mercenaries who enjoyed the beer and defended the caliphate. As a result, the brewing of mizr became a protected trade (al-buyut al-makhmiyya) and the brewing of mizr at home was forbidden (al-mizr al-buyuti). At the beginning of the 12th century, Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi physician visits Egypt and observes that the "wheat nabid", i.e. the mizr, is the local drink of the people ('awamm).

This is confirmed around 1240-1260 by the Andalusian Ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi who notes that the mizr blanc is so much in demand among common people that the price of wheat rises. The " mizr blanc " refers to the milky colour of this unfiltered wheat beer. In 1265, the economic policy changes again. Sultan Az-Zahir Baybars (1223-1277) forbids the brewing of mizr (abolition of taxes) and orders his vizier in Egypt to "demolish the breweries of mizr [buyut al-mizr], erase all traces of the drink and break its containers (...)". By this date, the beer mizr disappears from documentary sources until the 19th century. The effectiveness of this ban, which the Mamluk sultans had to repeat until the 16th century, is not known. In 1504-5, the last of them ordered by Sultan Al-Ašraf Qansuh al-Guri, in the midst of a plague epidemic, ordered to " loot the Christian houses, burn there the wine jugs [jugs of nabid], burn the places of hashish and buza [a beer], and allow none of these things to continue ". This order is proclaimed again a decade later by the same sultan. In 1519, when the flood of the Nile stopped, the Mameluk bey of the Ottoman Empire ordered the elimination of wine, hashish, beer buza and prostitution.

The question is to know whether the mizr from the 13th century and the buza from the 16th century designate two different kinds of beers or not. Būza is a name that appeared in Egypt with the Ottoman (and that of the Mamluks) influence and designates a family of millet beers indigenous to the Balkans and the Black Sea (see above), regions conquered by the Ottomans between 1389 and 1561. Starting from such fragmentary data, the simplest hypothesis is to consider a period of cohabitation of two different kinds of beer in earlier times, and then around the 17th century their fusion under the common name Busa, Būza following the social and political upheavals of Ottoman Egypt[8]). P. Lewicka (2011, 465) mentions for medieval Egypt a beer fuqqā. Another beer or another name for the same type of beer?

We find the same duality in the 19th century. The chronicle of Al-Ğabartī, 'Ağā 'ib al-atār fī at-tarāğim wa-al-akhbār, uses the term mazzār, "brew of mizr". A western traveller speaks of boozeh or boozah, an intoxicating liquor made with barley bread, crumbled, mixed with water, filtered and left to ferment ", " commonly drunk by Nile boatmen and other lower class people" [9]).

One fact is certain: the geographical area covered by this family of beers coincides with very ancient brewing cultures, both Asian (Mesopotamian, Hittite, Asia Minor), African (Egypt, Sudan) and European (Scythian, Danubian cultures, Balkans, Caucasus, etc.). It seems that the Islamisation of the elites after the 8th century and the rapid territorial expansion of Islam have nevertheless left ancestral habits intact, while pushing fermented food (bread and beverage) to be maintained in villages and rural areas, in the intimacy of homes and village habits, far from the cities (except in Egypt and Near East) and religious authorities. These sour beers are so low in alcohol (at least on the first day of their preparation) that they have over the centuries escaped foreign eyes and even misled the descriptions of most modern ethnologists who classify them as soups or sour groats.


[1] Köse Ergun, Yüsel Ufuk 2003, Chemical Composition of Boza, Journal of Food Technology, 1(4), 191-193. Yegin Sirma, Üren Ali 2008, Biogenic amine content of boza. A traditional cereal-based, fermented Turkish beverage, Food Chemistry 111(4), 983-987.

[2] Steinkraus 1977, Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods (edited by K. H. Steinkraus). Baervald 1988, The origin of bread based beverages, Getreide Mhel Brot 42, 335-338. Sanni A. I. 1993, The need for process optimization of African fermented foods and beverages, International, Journal of Food Microbiology 18, 85-95.

[3] Morcos Sabry, Hegazi S. M., El-Damhougy Soraya 1973, Fermented Foods of Comon Use in Egypt II. The chemical Composition of bouza and its Ingredients, J. Sci. Food Agriculture 24, 1157-1161.

[4] Bactéries lactiques 4.6 x IO8 cfu/cm3, levures 8.1 x lO6 cfu/cm3. Hancioglu Ömre, Karapinar 1997, Microflora of Boza, a traditional fermented beverage, International Journal of Food Microbiology 35, 271-274.

[5] Gotcheva V., Pandiella S., Angelov A., Roshkova Z. & Colin Webb 2001, Monitoring the Fermentation of the traditional Bulgarian beverage Boza, International Journal of Food Science and Technology 36, 129-134.

[6] Pederson C. S. 1979, Historical perspectives of the sauerkraut literature, Microbiology of Food Fermentations, 2nd ed. AVI, Wesport, 1-24.

[7] Gassem Mustafa A.A. 2002, A microbiological study of Sobia: a fermented beverage in the Western province of Saudi Arabia, World Journal of Microbiology & Biotechnology 18, 173–177. Gassem Mustafa A.A. 2003, Physico-chemical properties of sobia: a traditional fermented beverage in western province of saudi arabia, Ecology of Food and Nutrition 42, 25–35.

[8] Lewicka Paulina. Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes, 2011, 465-493. One of the few excellent studies on the subject. However, we do not subscribe to the author's technical analysis who wants to distinguish between "real" malt based beer and "pseudo-beers" such as bouza or mizr based on flour, not taking into account the multiple methods available to brew beer. The same remark applies to her analysis of Russian kwas, which she rightly compare to the fuqqā, and which nevertheless belongs to the large family of beers (op. cit. 63). In other words, there is no reasons to dismiss buza, mizr, fuqqā, kwas, etc. in a fictive category of "pseudo-beers". All are true beers brewed with brewing methods not matching the western european malting method.

[9] E. W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, London 1836, last repr.: East-West Publications 1989, pp. 99, 336.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger