BAGHDAD, Iraq - Beer has many fine qualities but, to the great disappointment of the brewers of Baghdad, it cannot bottle itself. So the men over at the Shahrazad Brewery here have been standing guard over 30 metal cylinders holding 4,500 liters of beer, minus that which they have consumed themselves since the start of the war.
"We are proud of our beer," said Yousif Gadin, a 25-year employee of the brewery, who backed up his claim by taking a morning slug from a small plastic pitcher and smiling a foam mustache. "We would like for people to be able to drink it again."
Brewing is just one industry among hundreds in Baghdad that have been unable to resume operation because what electricity there is in the city is inadequate to feed the huge machinery necessary for mass production.
Depending on whom one asks, between 25 percent and 50 percent of Baghdad has power, but even people lucky enough to be in the glow of lights find themselves in the dark for hours a day as the electricity suddenly fails. In the brewery business, a sudden electrical outage could ruin beer - which needs to be cooked just so - so, spotty power is not enough.
The power problems are far more serious than those associated with breweries. Security is a constant concern in the country, and darkened streets are doing nothing to improve matters. While the sound of gunfire has tapered in recent days, the night air is still peppered with blasts. And the electric problems have led to shortages of gasoline for cars and kerosene for cooking, a source of great frustration for a country awash in oil.
At the Shahrazad Brewery, on a dirt road just beyond the National Chemical and Plastic Factory and the Iraqi Company for Carton Manufacturing, the mood has been sober. More than 100 tons of malt is in storage, there is plenty of hops on hand and enough sugar to sweeten the pots, but there is no electricity to bring the ingredients to life.
Huge vats used for mixing and boiling the brew cannot be run by the lawnmower-like generators that light the offices. The fermentation tanks are empty. The conveyor belts where empty brown bottles once clanked on their way to becoming useful have been stopped cold.
"We are paying our employees because they are good workers and we do not want to lose them," said Manaam Mohamed, the brewery's control manager. "We cannot afford to do that much longer. We need to sell our beer."
Though Iraq is predominantly Muslim, alcohol was legal under the government of Saddam Hussein. In recent years, as a show of austerity and national stoicism in the face of the international sanctions, he ordered that it not be served at Iraq's social clubs, and public drunkenness could lead to imprisonment, but people could buy it and drink it at home.
Explained Akeel Ahmed, a 27-year-old electrician at the brewery, with Homer-like brevity: "We pray, we drink."
Before the war, the Shahrazad Brewery was bottling 1,500 liters a day, had been since 1975, with just a hiccup or two in production during the 1991 gulf war.
The beer is a deep yellow but is light and lively, easy on the malt, comparable to many American beers but less wimpy. Prior to the war, it sold in stores for about 8 cents a bottle, 48 cents a six-pack. Now it is not available. Store owners have been charging $40 and $50 for a case of imported Amstel.
Nobody at the plant is sure when the electricity will be back and reliable enough to bottle the beer that has been brewed and to crank up the huge boilers needed to make more.
Dathar Al-Khashab, a manager at the Daura Power Plant, which - among other forms of power, produces electricity - said only one of his four electric transformers is working. One is being repaired by his crews, he said, and should be working in a few weeks. The others are awaiting German repair crews.
Adding to the difficulties, he said, are the security problems in Iraq, which have prevented crews from reaching many of the 350 substations. That has created a circular problem: Power is needed to increase security, but more security is needed to produce more power.
The problems associated with the lack of electricity are evident at the long, snaking lines of cars at Baghdad's gas stations. When crude oil is refined into gasoline, a by-product is fuel oil that is used to operate power plants. But because the power plants are not operating at full capacity, there is an excess of the by-product. That has led some refineries to drastically reduce or even cut their gasoline production because there is no storage left for the fuel oil, and it is too valuable to waste.
"I am as frustrated as everybody else," Al-Khashab said. "Iraq has oil, we are standing on it, but we have no lights and our cars are running out of gas."
Back at the Shahrazad Brewery, Mohamed, the control manager, said he optimistic that once electricity is restored he will sell more beer than ever. He will appeal to the new government to allow beer back into the social clubs.
He said he is prepared with his argument: "Why not?"
He also confessed to being a bit anxious to get the taps going again because his beer competes with one brewed down the road, Fereda Beer.
But Fereda's general manager, Satar Jabar, said he will not be brewing soon, either. That beer plant's boilers were damaged during the bombing of Baghdad, he said, and repairs look a long way off. Many of his workers are transported by bus, and with gasoline in short supply, bus drivers might not be willing to make the trek to his plant, which is well off any main roads.
So the plant remained closed.
That is a shame, because his workers need to be paid, he said, and, with a bit of brewer's pride, added that his plant's closing is also a shame for the country because Fereda is a beer far superior to Shahrazad.
"When the American troops came in, they took our beer and they took their beer," he said. "They said ours is better."