The sale and consumption of alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia, keeping in line with Islamic law. Smuggled drinks are available on the black market, where the price is close to that of cocaine. A cheaper alternative is the local moonshine called “saddiqi” which usually is poorly distilled and might contain harmful substances such as methanol. Despite this, saddiqi is popular in the Saudi underground party scene.
As a result of the alcohol ban, a wide array of alternative non-alcoholic beverages can be found on the market. There are dozens of various flavored non-alcoholic malt beverages (they’re rarely called beer). Also, there is the colorful and unique, elegantly named, “Saudi champagne”.
These beers have a taste of déjà-vu, for those who have had beers with alcohol.
Saudi malt beverages are popular in the country. Even though they are alcohol free, restaurants still serve them in frozen pints with peanuts and carrots. People drink them in front of soccer games, in social gatherings or just for the sake of it. Men drink them as well as women. And, they will give you a beer belly. But no hangover the following day, no matter how much you have abused of it.
There is also a choice of many flavors: the “normal” one as well as a variety of others, like strawberry, apple, lemon, orange, peach, mango, raspberry and so on. There are several non-alcoholic beer brands, all quite popular, like Laziza (which means “delicious”), Moussy, Almaza and Barbican, to cite just a few. Some have also managed to export to other countries in the region.
These beers have a taste of déjà-vu, for those who have had beers with alcohol. People probably drink them mostly for psychological reasons: since they have the same names as the ones found outside the country, you get the impression that you’re drinking one of these. The bottles look like regular beer bottles; green and brown with labels similar to those you can find in a liquor store. As for the taste, a simple juice might well have the same taste. It is just the fact that saying “So, do you want to grab a beer?” makes it a special drink for some.
It is just the fact that saying “So, do you want to grab a beer?” makes it a special drink for some.
Saudi champagne is on the menu of most mid to high-end restaurants. It is a sparkling fruit drink, often flavored with mint or orange blossom. It is light, fruity, sweet, and strangely addictive. It has very refreshing effects which serve well the climate in the country. The origins of Saudi champagne remain to this day unknown, although there are various urban legends circulating. In all likelihood, it was first concocted by a clever maître d’hôtel in an upscale restaurant, to revamp and add a touch of sophistication to the otherwise meager drinks menu.
One thing is for sure: by the early 80’s, the drink was already widespread across the kingdom. It was so popular in fact that many local food companies tried to produce industrial versions of it. They were obviously not labeled “champagne”, for legal reasons, and were instead called “sparkling fruit drink”.
The origins of Saudi champagne remain to this day unknown, although there are various urban legends circulating.
However, these “sparkling fruit drinks” are popular. It is always easier to buy a ready-to-be-used product than doing one yourself. The drinks are presented in big elegant green bottles with matching caps, and look fancier than other drinks. However, if you are expecting to get the celebratory spill of foam when opening a bottle of Saudi champagne, you will get disappointed. No matter how much you shake the bottle there will be at least three times more foam if you open a cheap bottle of Pepsi after shaking it for a few seconds. But, on the bright side, almost none of this champagne goes wasted while opening it. This is called saving money and making some economies.
None of the industrial versions of champagne however, could match the home made versions. Recipes vary between restaurants, from using dubious apple nectars mixed with 7up to preparing delicate mint-flavored mixtures. Saudi champagne, simple yet surprisingly sophisticated, remains a comfort drink and typical of the Saudi experience.
And, unlike in any other country in the world, beverages and champagne are not forbidden for under-aged children. At Jeddah and Riyadh restaurants, a five year old can drink a can of beer. Kids could even buy it at the store, without anyone asking for their ID. Do you know of any other place with this kind of policy? So, think twice before saying that the kingdom is the country of discrimination par excellence.
At Jeddah and Riyadh restaurants, a five year old can drink a can of beer.
Although there is no one recipe for Saudi champagne, this one represents the basis for most mixtures in restaurants. Feel free to change the juice, sweetener and flavoring (you can add things like rosewater, orange blossom or star anise).
For 4 servings:
2 cups of natural apple juice
2 tablespoons of gum syrup (or granulated sugar or sugar candy)
3-4 leaves of fresh mint
1 large apple, cored and sliced
Sparkling mineral water to taste
Mix the apple juice with the gum syrup.
Slightly bruise the mint leaves and let them seep in the sweetened juice for 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how strong you want the taste to be.
Pour the mixture into a pitcher filled with ice and the apple slices.
Fill with sparkling water to taste and serve.
For those living outside of Saudi Arabia, you can cut out some of the apple juice (or not), and add some white rum. Doesn’t it remind you of something?