Lebanon's Unlikely Microbrewed Beers



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Joshua Hersh

All told, 961 makes four kinds of beer: a gentle, slightly sweet red ale; a doughy wittbier; a coffee-infused stout; and the lager, which is crisp and mildly bitter. At some point this summer, after his brewery completes a scheduled renovation and upgrade, Hajjar intends to produce some new options, including a porter, an IPA, and a selection of seasonal brews.

"Thriving" would not be quite the right word—Hajjar acknowledges that, infrastructure costs aside, the company is still struggling to reach the break-even point—but there are promising signs. In the summer of 2008, the first real year of production, 961 shipped about 200 cases of beer per month. This summer, they expect to move 18,000, and the brightly-colored labels of 961 are slowly starting to encroach on the fridge space of Almaza, in mini-marts and bars across Beirut. At the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel, at the downtown waterfront, 961 was the only beer approved by the visiting corporate sommelier.

There have been significant stumbles, too. For a time, Hajjar and his partner couldn't figure out how to work the bottle-capping machine, and all of the caps rusted. Last year, Hajjar witnessed the closure of his 961-branded restaurant, in a bar district in east Beirut, after a year and a half of operation. Among its several fatal flaws, the restaurant had trouble concocting an appetizing menu, was designed to look a little bit like a prison (red metal bars crisscrossed all the windows), and rarely had a full selection of 961 beers on tap.

The fact that Hajjar has so far weathered this adversity may be the most promising indication yet. After all, as Hajjar is acutely aware, Lebanon is not exactly a beer country. The total consumption of beer in Lebanon, Hajjar says, is about equal to 10 days worth of Oktoberfest. He can't resist adding: "Although, you can't blame them, because for 75 years they only had Almaza." Almaza's hegemony, though, is no joke in a country where you might be told that the Arabic word for "beer" is almaza . There is also the matter of taste, or lack thereof: Almaza, like Budweiser or Coors Light, emphasizes extreme coldness in its marketing materials, and recommends that it be served at negative two degrees C. At temperatures that low, it's hard to discern any flavors at all, and, in Lebanon at least, this has resulted in a hardened sensibility about the entire category. (Lebanese who drink tend to prefer wine and cocktails.) "Americans like [961] because it reminds them of their microbrews," the owner of a Beirut liquor store that has carried 961 since almost the beginning told me. "I'd say 10 percent of Europeans like it, and 90 percent of Lebanese hate it."

In recognition of this reality, two of the new beers Hajjar plans to offer are an "easy drinking" lager and a 961 Light, although you can practically here him gritting his teeth as he says it. Hajjar, convert-like, is something of a hard-line beer purist—he believes beer should be imbibed from a wide-mouthed glass, like wine, and advocates the pairing of beers with food. (He begrudgingly calls the easy-drinking lager "a competitor to Almaza, but brewed much better.") After all, it's just business.

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Joshua Hersh

Still, it's clear where Hajjar's passion lies. As he jogged around the various churning machines in his warehouse, Hajjar stopped to give a vat of the lager a quick stir. "The lager is close to my heart," he said. "It's the first lager brewed from Lebanese hops." (Almaza is owned by the Dutch brewery Heineken, and the raw materials for it are imported from Holland .) Another time, Hajjar told me, "I love my lager. I think it's a fucking great lager." He has a sharp tongue, and a malty sense of humor ("What do sex in a canoe and American beer have in common? They're both fucking close to water"), but he saves his most effusive language for his true love. "The wittbier is a killer—it's a beautiful, beautiful brew," he said as we passed a tank of the stuff just a few days away from bottling. "But my favorite is the red ale. That rocks. Literally, it's one of the best red ales I've ever tasted in my life."

The big question, of course, is whether Hajjar can translate his raw enthusiasm into something palatable to the average Lebanese. Steve Hindy, who still occasionally offers Hajjar encouragement and advice, told me that when he first started producing his now-omnipresent beer, in New York, in 1987, he faced a similar challenge. "When I came out with Brooklyn Lager people tasted it and were kind of repulsed. They said, 'Geez, why don't you make something like Heineken?' What they didn't understand was the point was to make flavor in beer. That is what craft brewing is all about, about turning people on to flavor in beer and the tremendous range of flavors that you can achieve in beers." He added, "It was an uphill battle here, and I told [Mazen] it would be even more there."

Kamal Mouzawak, a friend of Hajjar and the proprietor of a popular market and restaurant in Beirut, where he has sold the Lebanese on the benefits of healthy eating and buying local, thinks Hajjar's personality makes him well-suited to the challenge. He said, "How do you get people to eat organic? How do you get them to stop throwing tissues out of the window of their cars? It just takes time. And you have to be stubborn and focused." These are traits, everyone agrees, Hajjar has in abundance.

"Almaza? Nobody really minds it," Hajjar told me while we made our way around his brewery. "Some people love my beer, some people hate my beer, but at least they're opinionated about my beer."

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Joshua Hersh is a freelance writer who lives in Beirut. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the New York Times.

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