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Af-Pak 2013: There's trouble brewing

A. Afridi and Lutfullah Waziri
Despite strict prohibitions on alcohol consumption by Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan, underground brewers still thrive amid demand for noxious raisin, molasses and guava-flavoured hooch. But consumers risk…
30.12.2013  |  Peshawar/Kabul
Borderline brewery: The no-frills paraphernalia of a typical underground distillery, from which produce is sold in plastic bags. (Photos: Private)
Borderline brewery: The no-frills paraphernalia of a typical underground distillery, from which produce is sold in plastic bags. (Photos: Private)

Of all things cooking in houses in Afghanistan and Pakistan, home-concocted alcohol served in a plastic bag might seem least likely to be on offer.

Yet at the risk of a jail term or even a lashing if Sharia Law is applied, an underground clique of brewers and consumers in both countries ensure a busy trade in a range of crude and often harzardous alcoholic beverages.

“I get orders from customers in various parts of Khyber Agency and other parts of the country and even from Afghanistan,” says 43-year-old Jawad, a brewer of moonshine known in Pashtu as desi sharab (home-made alcohol), who operates in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

While Afghan drinkers - mainly middle-class youngsters, wedding celebrators or curious first-timers - often buy foreign 'status symbol' alcohol in Afghanistan, local brew still rules the roost in Pakistan, where consumption is broader.

“The main reason that people prefer buying locally-brewed low quality alcohol is that it is cheap and affordable,” says Jawad. "Most people cannot afford to buy good-quality imported alcohol."

Unholy molasses!

In business for the last four years, Jawad has a tried and tested procedure for brewing his homemade liquor, which is considerably more potent than standard 38 per cent proof licenced spirits.

“First of all, the ingredients, the acacia skin, aniseed, ammonium and several other acids, are poured together into a boiler,” says the distiller, who requires three large airtight containers for his recipe.

“The ingredients sit in the boiler for 10 to 15 days," he explains with the nonchalance of a seasoned bootlegger, but still withholding a few trade secrets. "It is then heated to a certain temperature to boil the ingredients."

The ingredients then move in the form of vapour from container to container until the process is complete. But don't try this at home, Jawad warns, or you can easily invite the attentions of law-enforcers or doctors.

Booze in a bag

According to this supplier, guava, grape, citrus and date are popular flavours. His brew is sold in plastic containers ranging from 50cl to 5 litres and distributed in Karkhano Market, Peshawar, Charsada, Nowshera, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Landi Kotal. And also across the border in Afghanistan, where alcohol is rarer but also still possible to find. 

Because of the large international presence, imported brands can be sourced by those with contacts. And until around 2007, one could still find tins of imported beer on store shelves in Kabul, simply because people did not know what it was.

"Consumption of locally-brewed alcohol can cause kidney, stomach, blood pressure and vision problems," Dr. Tahir Khattak, Peshawar physician 

In Afghanistan, the homemade variety is known as sharab plastiki, or 'alcohol in a plastic bag', although bottles have now replaced bags, says Younus, 48, who used to make and sell moonshine but now only deals in imported spirits, wines and beer.  

"The bottles are refilled in Pakistan but these days they are also refilled locally," he says, putting the current price of sharab plastiki at 700 afghanis (12.5 US dollars).

Younus began drinking and brewing during the Soviet occupation and has managed to preserve his network, freedom and life in the harshest of business climates.

“I made alcohol for myself and for sale among a small circle of customers during the Taliban time,” he says. “I think there were other people who made alcohol for themselves during the Taliban government, too."

Taliban hangover

Under Islamic Sharia law - which the Taliban applied in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 - punishment for drinking is 80 whip lashes. 

Alcohol became readily available shortly after the fall of that regime, before dealers again went underground or behind fortified doors. Under the current constitution, anyone found drinking or drunk risks up to six months in jail, although there have been recent cases where lashing was ordered instead. grocer found drunk in a park by police in Nangarhar in 2011 was sentenced to 80 lashes. The ruling judge administered the punishment himself, although he later stated that he did not use much force in the blows.

Despite the risks, Younus sells whisky and vodka for 80 to 120 US dollars, while a bottle of cheap wine can cost up to 70 dollars. He buys this from fellow suppliers "with connections," leaving others to tout the infamous sharab plastiki.

“This type of fake alcohol is very bad for one's health, so I don’t want my customers to get sick or even die,” says the black marketeer, who has now quit drinking because of his own health problems.

As for the morality of his business, he offers his own interpretation: “I know it is forbidden in our religion, but I think selling alcohol is still better than taking a bribe or stealing."

Liquid poverty remedy?

Jawad, the supplier in FATA, says he has reservations about remaining in this field of work but that he has no choice but to continue to support his family.

“There are no other factories in Khyber Agency where I can get a job. If there were employment opportunities for people in Khyber Agency, nobody would work in alcohol brewing plants,” he says in defence of his trade.

But the poverty plea only stretches so far: By his own estimation Jawad is a major player on the local market, claiming to produce tens of thousands of litres of his own brew a year. And since he sells six litres of guava homebrew for 300 rupees (2.8 dollars), his annual turnover also runs into tens of thousands of dollars.

According to insiders, local brews are sometimes mixed with pills and other chemicals to increase the level of intoxication, which carries grave consequences for drinkers' health. 

“When people brew alcohol they don't pay attention to the amount of ingredients they use in the process," says Nadim, a 24-year-old supplier of alcohol to consumers and middlemen in various parts of Khyber Agency.

“Consumption of locally-brewed alcohol can cause kidney, stomach, blood pressure, and vision
problems in consumers,” says Dr. Tahir Khattak, a physician at the Khyber Teaching Hospital in Peshawar.

“The main reason that local alcohol causes health problems is that it is not brewed and produced according to the accepted norms and standards; brewers don't pay attention to the quality and quantity of different ingredients during the brewing process,” he adds.

More wait-and-see for 2014 

The paradox, however, lies in the fact that alcohol is still legally produced in Pakistan, a tradition stemming to the British colonial era, and ostensibly still only for export or licenced consumption by non-Muslim nationals or foreigners. 

Producing beer, whisky, gin, vodka and brandy, the famous Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi, founded in 1860, advertises itself as "the oldest continuing enterprise in Pakistan".

Under the counter, imported brands of alcohol, including beer, wine and spirits, can be sourced in cities for under 50 dollars a bottle. And unless there is a broad and genuine enforcement of Shariah law, the availability is unlikely to end, considering the known partiality to a tipple among members of wealthy and privileged circles. 

However, the underground brewing culture is also on the wane as the armed conflict escalates. Before government action against insurgent strongholds was stepped up in the city of Jamrud in Khyber Agency in 2010 there were as many as 20 local underground brewing outfits, says Jawad. “But after the military operations, the military took over the city and demolished most of the breweries. Currently, there are about three to five local alcohol breweries.”

In Afghanistan, the illegal alcohol market may tilt the other way from 2014, some predict.

“After the foreign forces leave, I don’t think I will be able to buy or sell foreign imported bottles, so I will have to make more to satisfy my customers," says Younus.