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What It's Like to Brew Beer Under Occupation in the Palestinian Territories

"Checking in for the festival?"

 A man motions me onto a chartered bus, filled with United Nation staffers and their families. There’s no formal diplomacy work happening today. On this Saturday morning, we’re heading from East Jerusalem to the Taybeh Beer Festival—an annual Oktoberfest celebration that attracts approximately 16,000 people from across the world.

I grab a seat on the bus, feeling lucky. I’ve scored a spot through my cousin, an employee of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. In an hour, I’ll be singing German tunes and sipping a pint in Taybeh—a tiny West Bank town meaning "delicious" in Arabic and home to the Middle East’s first micro-brewery.

Driving in the UN-mobile, we zoom past craggy fields and shrivelled up shrubs. I imagine the Three Wise Men trekking across the desert, but instead, I see a little village in the distance, perched on a hill overlooking the valley. This is Taybeh, the birthplace of Palestine’s beer culture and one of the region’s last all-Christian villages.

An outsider might assume that a beer scene wouldn't exist here given that many Palestinians are practicing Muslims who do not drink alcohol. But in the West Bank, the beer scene not only exists—it thrives.

Brewing the Middle East’s Beer Culture

At first, everyone thought David and Nadim Khoury were crazy.

In 1995, the Khourys sold their property in Boston, Massachusetts and relocated 6,000 miles to Palestine. With the Oslo Accords in 1993—a peace treaty between Palestine and Israel—the brothers were hopeful about an improved relationship between the two nations.

"I was a home brewer," says Nadim. "We were coming back home every year to renew our ID, and my father wanted us to come back. We were encouraged to do something for Palestine."

Back in their homeland, the brothers opened the Taybeh Brewing Company, Palestine’s first microbrewery. They began brewing and selling amber, golden, dark and white beers, as well as a non-alcoholic brew targeting the Muslim population.

"They thought I went out of my mind to open a brewery in a Muslim country," says Nadim. "But I didn’t listen because it’s my hobby and I do the beer with passion. I love what I’m doing, and I also taught my daughter and son to have a sustainable business."

Turns out, the Khoury brothers had a knack for brewing. Twenty years later, their beer is still one of the most popular brands in Israel and Palestine, even attracting demand from international suppliers. But when the Khourys first started the business, micro-brewing was non-existent in the Middle East.

"There were no breweries in 1994 when I came back," says Nadim. "Not just in Palestine, but the whole Middle East! The people were used to mass produced beer."

Nadim admits that it wasn’t easy being the trailblazer. With a 98 percent Muslim population, many don’t drink alcohol for religious reasons. In addition, an old Jordanian law forbids alcohol advertising. So the Khoury brothers resorted to going door to door, offering beer tastings. And what they found was ignorance about craft beer.

"They just believed that beer was beer," recalls Nadim. "I was educating the workers, the bartenders, and restaurant owners, showing them what we have, letting them taste the beer, tour the brewery, see the tanks, touch the hops. And this is how I was able to do it."

Before Taybeh Brewery arrived, beer consumed in Palestine was largely mass produced, sporting foreign labels such as Carlsberg, Goldstar and Maccabee.

"When we first opened in 1994, the Palestinian consumer was actually a bit brainwashed," says Madees Khoury, Nadim’s daughter and a fellow brew master. "They believed that Israeli and foreign products were better than Palestinian products. So when we introduced the beer, it was a challenge."

While the door-to-door promotion helped, the response from expats and tourists turned the tide. Eager to sample local beer, they frequently ordered Taybeh brews in restaurants.

"Palestinians saw foreigners drinking Taybeh rather than Carlsberg or Heineken," says Madees. "So then they started drinking it too."

Eventually, the hard work not only paid off, but also triggered a "beer movement." Since Taybeh Brewery opened, craft breweries have begun to pop up across the Middle East: at least ten in Israel, two in Lebanon, one in Jordan, and most recently, one in Palestine. As of last June, brothers Alaa and Khalid Sayej launched Shepherds Beer, a microbrewery in the West Bank town of Birzeit.

"When I studied my masters in England, I was a home brewer," says Alaa Sayej. "I used to be a banker, but when I got back here, I didn’t like many job offers. So I decided to open my own business."

Now, Shepherds Beer is bottling three varieties sold across Israel and Palestine, and has plans to export. And as the craft beer scene spreads across the Middle East, the culture is evolving with it.

"Going out in Ramallah, you see people drinking better quality beers," says Madees Khoury. "Whether it’s Taybeh or international beer. They know what they’re drinking now."

As lady brew master, Madees is certainly pushing cultural norms within Palestine and the wider international beer industry. In fact, she is understood to be the first female brewer in the Middle East.

"I really enjoy shocking people with that," she says. "People think if you’re a woman, you don’t get your hands dirty making beer. But I think of myself as a role model for girls, and I want Palestinian women to do whatever they want to do!"

A Very Palestinian Oktoberfest

The UN bus unloads onto a narrow street, packed with taxis and cars with license plates from foreign countries. A bright orange banner hangs over the festival’s entrance, screaming "TAYBEH OKTOBERFEST…THE HIGHLIGHT OF PALESTINE!"

This is not the Palestine that typically appears in the media. Under the desert sun, people line up for foamy pints and shawarma from food stalls. Costumed dancers flit across the stage, singing in Arabic to an audience of children, some with painted faces. A Bavarian band hovers nearby, wearing Lederhosen and holding percussion instruments, patiently awaiting their set. Everywhere, people are dancing, laughing, and clutching plastic cups filled with beer. There’s no sign of human misery here.

"What you see on the news is not reality," says Madees. "You don’t see the good. Palestinians want to live their lives. They go to work, school; they’re educated, have cars. The girls wear tank tops, high heels, make up, and drink beer."

Taybeh’s Oktoberfest kicked off in 2005, when David Khoury became mayor of Taybeh. The brothers organized the festival to "show the whole world that we’re normal people."

"I’ve been to many Oktoberfests all over the world," says Nadim. "If every country has Oktoberfest, why not Palestine?"

But the festival isn’t just about beer: it’s a chance to boost the local economy and promote "a different image of Palestine." Over two days, local residents sell olive oil, soaps, and artisan crafts in stalls. On stage, performers belt out Palestinian music hourly, ranging from hip hop, rap, rock, reggae, and traditional tunes.

And then there are the food stalls. At one shack, chicken kebabs sizzle on the grill, while pita bread bakes on a dome-shaped griddle. At another station, the chef cuts off chicken shavings from a spit, rolling the tender meat into a pita stuffed with roasted veggies and homemade hummus.

Ten years later, the Taybeh Beer Festival has grown into Palestine’s largest event. Thousands flood the tiny village, packing the restaurants and hotels. All weekend, taxis shuffle back and forth from Taybeh to Ramallah and Jerusalem, picking up more people eager to celebrate the German-inspired Palestinian holiday.

"It’s like you’re in a bubble for those two days," says Madees. "You don’t feel like there’s occupation or there’s anything going on."

Taste the Revolution

A queue snakes from the Taybeh Brewery’s front door. At first glance, the shabby building looks more like a car repair shop than a tasting room for craft beer.

But don’t be mistaken: inside, it’s a small but mighty business, producing 600,000 litres of beer a year. Half of sales are within the West Bank; 38 percent go to Israel, and the rest are exported directly to Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and Italy. It’s also brewed under license in Germany and sold in Belgium.

"Right now, we’re working on expanding to the United States and United Kingdom," says Madees.

All the beers are brewed in small batches, without additives or preservatives, and using natural spring water flowing from a nearby village. The other ingredients are imported from Europe: Belgian and French malts, Bavarian and Czech hops, and yeast from London that, as Nadim says, "gives good characteristics to the beer."

Brewery tours are free and five varieties can be sampled, including the classic Golden Ale—the Khoury’s first and best-selling beer. There’s also an Amber Ale that’s aged longer; a special Light beer; a Dark Ale with a chocolatey-malt flavor; and a popular non-alcoholic beer that’s "not just for Muslims." Most recently, the brewery launched a new citrusy brew—Taybeh White.

"It’s an unfiltered option, so it’s is a very different beer," says Madees. "This one is a Belgian-style wheat beer made with local wheat, spices, and oranges. People like it because it’s sweet—Arabs put three or four tablespoons of sugars in their tea!"

Opposition

Not everyone embraces the Taybeh Beer Festival. Two years ago, the Oktoberfest celebration was temporarily relocated to a hotel in Ramallah, after the new municipal council opposed the annual event.

"It’s nothing religious," says Madees. "It’s a few conservative people who have a big impact on the whole town. They like Taybeh to stay small, quiet, and peaceful."

This year, the festival was back in Taybeh, outside the brewery. The Khourys shrug off such setbacks as just one of many challenges to brewing in Palestine. The business has lived through the Second Intifada in 2000 and the building of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank.

"Staying here, doing business, and going through the difficulties, it’s a peaceful way of resistance to the occupation," says Madees. "It’s not just making beer in Palestine. It’s more."

However, recent political strife has disrupted the new kid on the block, too. "With the Gaza war, I couldn’t install my brewery," says Alaa Sayej from Shepherds Beer.

Conflict aside, the breweries endure unique challenges that are, as Madees says, "normal in Palestine, but not anywhere else in the world." For starters, there are major obstacles to moving product outside of Palestine.

"There is no port or airport. For exports, we have to use the Israeli port," says Nadim. "We have to get permits from the Palestinian authority, permits from the Israelis, then get it examined. So it’s a lot of headaches and formality."

"With the wall, it’s like exporting twice," says Madees. "One time to Israel, and then another time to the country importing the beer. From here to Haifa, it’s only two hours driving. But a small shipment took us three days."

Moreover, the brewers are also never sure what will happen to the beer once it leaves the facility.

"You have no control over what security people do to your product," says Madees. "You don’t know how long it sits under the sun, or how they handle the package. Whenever I have a shipment leaving, I take a picture and send it to the customer, so that they know how the beer left the brewery."

"If they don’t like your package, they just put you on continuous on hold at the port," says Alaa Sayej from Shepherds Beer. "That’s what happened to me. I paid a lot of money for nothing."

With such delays and damages, doing beer business under occupation can be pricey. The Khourys’ shipping costs from Taybeh to Haifa are twice as much as exporting internationally from Israel’s port. After a year in business, the Sayej brothers have reported a similar situation.

"The expenses were 30 percent more than any regular brewery, just because I’m living and doing business in Palestine," says Sayej.

Hope Prevails

Despite the obstacles, the breweries are optimistic about their future in Palestine and worldwide. This December, the Sayej brothers are sponsoring Bethlehem’s annual Christmas Market, where they plan to launch a specialty Christmas ale. In Taybeh, the Khourys have opened a boutique hotel and started producing wine made from Palestinian grapes. Despite political flare ups, there are high hopes for the future of the local beer industry—and for Palestine.

"We are determined that someday we will have peace," professes Nadim. "And we will celebrate the peace with our wine and beer."

Award Year: 
2015