The year’s first snow dances and twinkles with Disneyesque abandon around the minarets of the Sultan Ahmed (“Blue”) Mosque, whiting out the muezzin as he issues the Yatsi, the day’s fifth and last adhan, or call to prayer. The holy man’s ornately melodious, disembodied song echoes in Mixolydian counterpoint throughout the old Vefa neighborhood of Istanbul: “Hayya … hayya … ala salah … ala salah.”
Perhaps an hour later, a mournful bellow reverberates off the cobblestone streets and high-walled courtyards of the Old City. Unlike the keening tenor of the muezzin, this song is delivered in an earthy basso profundo, midway between a Bosporus foghorn and Paul Robeson singing Othello.
“Boo-zah … Booooooo-zaaah.”
Within one of the modest residences that line the narrow streets of this ancient neigborhood, a young girl, hidden behind an upstairs latticework screen, peers out at the accumulating snow on the street below.
“Mommy, I hear the boogeyman.”
“Don’t be frightened, kuzucugum (“my little lamb”), that’s just the bozaci, [beer man],” her mother reassures. “Go get a bowl. I’ll buy us some.”
Outside, a man wearing a traditional fez hat stoops slightly under the weight of a small wooden cask strapped to his back. He glances skyward and catches a large, wet snowflake on his tongue. “Allahu Akbar,” he says. “Business will be good tonight.” And as if on cue, a door opens and a woman appears with a small ceramic bowl; a young girl peeks out from behind her waist.
“Boza?” she asks, holding out the bowl.
“Boza,” he affirms, and removes the barrel from his back.
He dips a small tin cup into the barrel and fills the bowl with a frothy, viscous liquid that has the consistency of whipped snot and still bubbles with the action of living yeasts. Its sweet and sour flavor has been likened to rotten donuts, but for untold generations of Turks, boza is the quintessential winter warmer, a robust nutritional supplement packed with vitamins and minerals that is widely believed to aid digestion, improve circulation, and even increase lactation in nursing mothers.
“Have you been a good girl and prayed to Allah today?” The bozaci asks the young girl.
“Yes,” she replies.
The bozaci removes a cinnamon shaker from his waistband and sprinkles the porridgey liquid with light brown powder.
“Have you been a smart girl and completed all your homework?”
The bozaci then extracts half a dozen leblebi, or roasted chickpeas, from a pouch and drops them into the bowl. As the young girl rocks on her heels in anticipation, the bozaci thrusts a plastic spoon into the boza and passes it back.
No matter how you dress it up, boza is what archaeologists have dubbed “fossil beer,” a direct descendant of the first fermented-grain drinks and a living reminder of beer’s earliest incarnation as a source of nutrition: liquid bread. Most scholars believe it was probably first brewed by accident.
Imagine leaving a bowl of uneaten chipotle grits in the sink and forgetting to wash it out before leaving for vacation. Cooking the kernels has already gelatinized, or unraveled, many of the protein sheaths that protect the seed’s precious cargo: complex starch molecules that will fuel the next generation of corn. A powerful enzyme (beta-amylase) present in the seed’s endosperm will cleave the newly exposed tips of the long, branched polysaccharides, releasing small quantities of simple fermentable sugars into the gruel. Spontaneous fermentation by airborne yeasts, lactic acid bacteria, and other microflora quickly ensues.
Even still, the alcohol produced is meager, because so little of the grain’s starch gets converted to sugar. While the beta-amylase breaks off sugars from the edges and tips of the complex polysaccharides, the mother lode of starch remains locked away awaiting germination of the seed. Brewers eventually gained access to this energy-rich cache by coaxing grass seeds into sprouting prematurely. Repeated cycles of soaking and draining stimulate the embryo into launching a miniature solar energy generator: a tiny leaf known as an acrospire. As soon as the leaf emerges from the seed head, the sprouted grains are spread out to dry under the sun, halting further growth. By then, the brewer has gotten what he wanted: activation of alpha-amylase within the seed head. This critical enzyme, when heated to the appropriate temperature, breaks up the complex strands of starch into smaller pieces that can then be converted into simple sugars by beta-amylase. It also converts the grain’s proteins into amino acids that keep the yeasts healthy enough to keep gobbling up sugar. Brewers call the process malting, and it is vital to producing a beverage strong enough to intoxicate.
The amount of alcohol in boza, however, starts at about 1%, if fresh, and can rise to 2 or 2½% if allowed to keep fermenting. But in no meaningful way is it intoxicating. Extrapolating from the calculations of Muslim scholars, someone weighing 120 pounds would have to drink about eight 12-ounce bozas—in 40 minutes—to catch something a little more sinful more than a sugar rush. That’s a lot more approachable than 16 bottles of near beer, but still a daunting task for even the most dedicated sinner. Boza’s lack of potency explains why it is tolerated in more liberal regions of the Muslim world.
A More Permissive Age
Traditional boza was an entirely different beverage. It was allowed to ferment to about 4 percent ABV (about the strength of modern light beer) and probably as high as 6%, if you could stand its extreme sourness. It was served in a bozahane, a kind of Ottoman tavern where men idled away the day, gossiping and playing backgammon or chess. The 17th-century writer Turkish writer Evliya Celebi attests to the popularity of boza: He counted more than 300 bozahane in Istanbul alone. He also noted a high correlation between boza drinking and the crippling effects of gout and edema. Boza addicts, he observed, are never attacked by dogs because they always have a walking stick nearby.
The heyday of the Ottoman Empire was a more permissive age in which the consumption of alcoholic drinks, including wine, was treated with public disapproval but private tolerance. Boza, in particular, was very popular among the sultans’ military forces, who introduced the primitive form of beer throughout Rumelia (the name given to the Ottoman Empire’s European territories in the Balkans). Sultans Murad IV (1623–40) and Mehmed IV (1648–87) attempted to restrict boza consumption, but with little lasting success. Decisive action was not taken until the late 18th century, when gypsy and Tatar merchants began supplying the sultan’s army with a potent form of boza infused with opium. Alarmed by his military’s combat worthiness, Selim III outlawed all forms of the alcoholic beverage throughout Anatolia.
Boza enjoyed a renaissance in the 19th century as Albanian street vendors, or bozaci, popularized a sweeter, low-alcohol version of the beverage throughout Turkey. And though bozaci and their plaintive sales pitch have largely disappeared from the streets of Istanbul, boza continues to be brewed in a handful of bozahanes in Istanbul and Ankara. The best known is the historic Vefa Bozacisi in Istanbul, which has been brewing and serving boza continuously since its founding in 1876 by Hadji Sadik Bey, an Albanian immigrant from Prizren (now in Kosovo). Sadik’s descendants have preserved the look and feel of a traditional bozahane, with its marbled entrance and mirror-tiled columns on either side of an antique wooden bar. Prominently displayed on the wall is the cup from which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic, drank boza.
As boza drinking spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, each region adapted it to its own local customs and indigenous cereal grains. In Kirghizia, Boza is made from crushed wheat; wheat flour is used in the Crimea; and a version made from coarsely ground rice is enjoyed in Turkmenistan. In the Balkans, where the “modern” low-alcohol, semisweet version of boza was perfected, wheat and corn flour are the principal source of fermentable sugars. Most Balkan drinkers consume boza as a summer refresher, rather than a winter warmer. Bulgarians, however, produce a thick and filling boza from roasted millet, which they customarily combine with pastries for a hearty breakfast. Since joining the European Union, Bulgarian marketers have touted boza’s capacity to increase breast size. There is certainly some truth to this claim: Any diet supplemented by a highly caloric beverage such as boza will increase the girth, not just of breasts, but of the waist, hips, and buttocks as well.