Like many of his classmates, in 2013, when Alaa Sayej finished up his business studies, he took his diploma and entrepreneurial spirit back home. His dream? To start a craft brewery.
For Sayej, home is a village in occupied Palestine, a Muslim-majority nation where businesses face strict restrictions on construction, imports and exports, as well as access to vital resources like water.
Sayej, who now owns and operates Birzeit Brewery, along with other brewers in the West Bank like the Khoury family of Taybeh Brewing Company, say maintaining a viable business there demands innovation and resilience.
“Experimenting with local ingredients not only lets us showcase our local flavors, but differentiate ourselves and connect with consumers and keep them interested.” —Canaan Khoury, Taybeh Brewing Company
A challenging business environment inspires clever solutions. Sayej has designed an elaborate water treatment system to recycle water for cleaning and other auxiliary uses in the brewery. The Khourys bottle and sell Palestine’s first and only halal beer. Both breweries host annual festivals meant to foster local beer culture and entice new customers.
The most recent trend in the Palestinian beer market, though, has been the incorporation of indigenous ingredients, whether handpicked from local farms, the surrounding countryside or grandma’s front yard.
“Experimenting with local ingredients not only lets us showcase our local flavors, but differentiate ourselves and connect with consumers and keep them interested,” says Canaan Khoury.
The turn to local ingredients among brewers in Palestine is also about supporting local workers, caring for the environment and reducing dependence on foreign supply chains.
“We are quite restricted from importing products and raw materials, so it’s beneficial for us to try to incorporate as many local ingredients as we can to become more independent,” says Canaan.
At Birzeit Brewery, about 30 minutes north of Ramallah, Sayej infuses local spices, fruit and berries into experimental brews.
“Our berry wheat beer was great,” says Sayej. The small-batch brew uses four types of berries harvested from farms around Birzeit. While it was popular on tap among brewery visitors, Sayej says he has had trouble marketing such novel brews to the larger local audience. Even Birzeit’s award-winning Shepherd’s Stout was slow to take off in the local market.
Not far from Birzeit, in a Christian village called Taybeh, the Khourys operate Taybeh Brewing Company. Canaan and Madees Khoury, the brother-sister duo that steers the operation, inherited the brewery from their father, uncle and grandfather, who opened the brewery in 1994.
The Khourys made a name for themselves as owner-operators of the oldest craft brewery in the Middle East. Now, the next generation is pioneering the trend toward indigenous flavors in the Palestinian beer market.
Madees serves as brewmaster at Taybeh. For her, testing new recipes is about having fun, feeding curiosity and indulging obsessions. While Birzeit seeks wider acceptance of its experimental brews, Taybeh has had success selling large batches of its seasonal Winter Lager brewed with Palestinian honey. A Belgian-style wheat beer infused with local coriander and fresh orange peel from nearby Jericho has also found a following.
Taybeh also experiments with smaller batches served on tap at the brewery or special events like the local Oktoberfest. The Khourys have used local citrus and wild spices, Arabic coffee, prickly pears, and even shatta, a regional red chili pepper often used to make hot sauce.
“My brother [Canaan] is so addicted to Arabic coffee,” says Madees, which became inspiration for an Arabic Coffee Stout. Canaan developed the idea for their Palestinian Herbal Lager when he happened upon wild thyme during a camping trip. Lemons for a recent batch of Lemon Sitti Gose were plucked from a tree at his grandmother’s house.
The next frontier with local ingredients is the use of Palestinian grains and hops. Citrus and spices may make for novel brews, but grain and hops are the lifeblood of beer. If brewers in the West Bank can begin to draw them from local sources, they will be much less dependent on foreign supply chains.
Both Sayej and Canaan have experimented with growing their own hops. Sayej has had some success with a hydroponic farm, and using the hops to brew small batches of beers for special events. He hopes to scale up cultivation enough to produce a Palestinian IPA. Canaan has also experimented with isolating indigenous strains of yeast for use in fermentation.
Despite the challenging environment that they operate in, the future is bright for brewers in the West Bank. Taybeh already exports to 17 countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia and neighboring Jordan. Birzeit’s Shepherds line of beers is available in four countries, says Sayej, who is in talks with retailers to expand to more.
For foreign consumers, that means more opportunities to sample the best craft brews the Middle East has to offer. And to the Palestinian diaspora, it means a welcome taste of home.