What It's Like to Brew Beer Under Occupation in the Palestinian Territories
“Someday we will celebrate the peace with beer."
by Lisa Jackson, December 10, 2015


"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.