When it arrived in Mazen Hajjar's inbox in early 2007, the email from the CEO of the Canadian manufacturer of industrial beer machinery was not encouraging. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO BREW WITH THIS EQUIPMENT! it warned in big letters. RISK OF EXPLOSION!
By then, Hajjar had already painstakingly constructed a 15-foot grain mill and mash fermenter and produced their first batch of what would become 961, Lebanon's first microbrew. (961 is the country code for Lebanon.)
The brewing company, though, had good reason to be concerned. For weeks, Hajjar had been staring at a shipping container's worth of steel parts with not the faintest idea of how to put them together. Slowly, laboriously, and without written instructions, he had managed to turn an empty warehouse, with peeling paint and a water leak from the tenant next door, into a functional brewery. But it took him three months of working 12-hour shifts and firing off enough emails to the manufacturer, filled with boneheaded questions, to raise eyebrows back in Canada. This was clearly not a professional operation.
"We had no idea what we were doing," Hajjar boasted one day not too long ago. It was a supernaturally hot afternoon, and Hajjar had invited me to visit his now-churning brewery, in an industrial park just outside of Beirut. In a back room, a grain mill was loudly processing several bags worth of Weyermann pilsner malt for a batch of 961's best-seller, the Traditional Lager, which was destined for sale in London. The entire space smelled strongly of a barn.
In some ways, this is the story of 961 Beer: the triumph of stubborn determination over skill.
Four years ago, when Hajjar finally decided to manufacture his own beer, he had to realize how difficult the going would be. For one thing, he had absolutely no experience in the craft of brewing. Through the 1990s, Hajjar, who was born in Lebanon, worked as a photojournalist for British newspapers, covering the conflict in Bosnia, but he found the work unfulfilling. Beer, on the other handâin a manner typical of both students and journalistsâheld an abiding interest. What Hajjar did understand about it came from his university days in London, at the student bar at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and from drinking Almaza, then the only beer produced in Lebanon, and for which Hajjar spares no scorn. He says, "All I knew was that I was fed up with Almaza."
Hajjar started keeping tabs on the beers he'd tasted, and read books and watched online videosâthe Basic Brewery podcast, out of Portland, Oregon, was a favoriteâabout others he wished he could sample. With a girlfriend, he traveled to Belgium and tasted the dark, alcohol-laden brews of Trappist monks. On another trip, to Denver to attend the Great American Beer Festival, he tried 500 different kinds of beer.
One of the books Hajjar read, in the summer of 2006, was Beer School , an autobiography by Steve Hindy, the co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. In the early 1980s, Hindy was a correspondent for the AP in Beirut, covering the civil war in Lebanon. (He later moved to Cairo, where he first encountered homebrewing, before graduating to the real thing back in New York.) More than anything, it was Hindy's improbable tale, Hajjar says, that convinced him to try his hand at a homebrew. When he went to the States for the beer festival, Hajjar also scheduled a stop in Brooklyn, where he met his unwitting mentor.