Belgium and Germany may top many beer travelers’ bucket lists, but the Middle East? Not so much. With religious restrictions and the correlated legalities—it’s illegal to brew or consume alcohol in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia—the Middle East is hardly a haven for beer lovers.
Except, it can be. Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut, has vibrant, bar-lined streets that feel much more “Miami” than Middle East—and travelers have noticed. Beirut has earned titles like one of the “most exciting party cities in the world” from The Telegraph and “the Middle East’s original party city” from Lonely Planet, which dates Beirut’s party scene back to the 1960s.
The capital city’s drink of choice is also evolving. While the country is known for its prized wine, over the past 13 years, 35-year-old Emilio Halal, head brewer at 961 Beer, has noticed a community moving away from arak—the liquor of choice—and wine to focus on craft beer. The growing craft beer community is in large part thanks to the Middle East’s first microbrewery, 961 Beer.
“Mazen Hajjar started 961 Beer from his kitchen during the Lebanon War [in 2006],” Halal said. “There was early interest from local people, but he knew he needed to bring the beer to them. He worked with local pubs to start offering his craft beer, and this helped 961 become popular.”
Once 961 Beer gained traction, Hajjar—an established entrepreneur who launched an airline and worked as a war photographer—reached out to Halal for help. At the time, Halal was training alongside monks at Chimay Brewery in Belgium. Hajjar asked him to move back and lead the 961 brewing efforts. Halal gladly accepted. He joined the team in 2009 and, although Hajjar left 961 to start Hawkers Brewery in Australia, the two connect on 961’s progress weekly.
While Hajjar introduced Beirut to the world of craft beer, Lebanon’s beer roots can be traced back to almost 100 years ago. In the 1930s, beer lovers flocked to Beirut for The Grande Brasserie du Levant—the Middle East’s oldest brewery—for local beer brand Laziza, according to Foreign Policy. Laziza built a mega following among locals and tourists. It was at the heart of Beirut’s nightlife culture in the 1960s and 1970s, but, when stray shells hit The Grande Brasserie during the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, it was forced to shut down—and Laziza temporarily shut down along with it. However, the original Laziza brewer’s grandson took production to the Netherlands in the late 1990s and brought the brand back to Lebanon as a non-acolohic beer in 1999, according to The Daily Star.
Lebanon’s second oldest brewery, Almaza, launched in 1933. For a short stint, Almaza and the revived Laziza were in tense, head-to-head competition—until Heineken bought Almaza in 2002, and purchased Laziza one year later, according to Executive Magazine. To this day, Almaza’s pilsner remains the country’s most popular brew, but Halal hopes 961 can change that.
“Lebanese consumers prefer the pilsner, but now you can easily find people drinking a dark beer like the porter,” Halal said. “We’re finding this small niche of people is driving huge demand. We’ve had pubs asking us when we can get them more porter kegs.”
The 961 porter, brewed in a classic English style at 5.6% ABV, isn’t Halal’s only unique craft offering. His favorite brew, the Lebanese Pale Ale, put 961 on the map.
“Our distributor, St. Killian, didn’t want another pilsner from Lebanon; he wanted something special that was true to the area,” Halal said. “We developed a new recipe that was a mix of the American IPA with six Lebanese herbs and infused them with the beer like we do tea. We started with about 10 cases as a test; now 80 percent of our containers going to the states are Lebanese Pale Ale.”
The 6.3% ABV Lebanese Pale Ale’s recipe is “a marriage of Western brewing tradition, Eastern complexity, and Lebanese Renaissance,” according to St. Killian. Inspired by the Lebanese spice markets, it pairs herbs, spice, and citrus with caramel, malts, and subtle bitterness. The recipe includes za’atar, sumac, chamomile, sage, anise, and mint.
Halal, who attributes his beer expertise to Chimay’s talented monks, pays it forward by sharing his knowledge with local homebrewers. He sees homebrewing as a major growth opportunity for Lebanon’s beer market.
“Ten years ago you couldn’t find homebrewers [in Lebanon], but every week we have someone calling us asking about raw materials,” he said. “I think it’s a big part of developing our beer market, so I give them free materials and help in building their recipes.”
Lebanese homebrewers can also find their footing through the local Beirut International Beer Event, which started in 2017 to give local beer lovers a place to connect. The three-day event is a mix of beer sampling from major brewers like Almaza to craft brewers like 961 and Elmir Brewery. The event also includes educational sessions, such as a masterclass for homebrewers. In 2018, the homebrewing class drew over 20 students.
“I want to relate beer with education, tradition, and culture,” BIBE co-founder Nada Lenoir said. “In Lebanon, we have a really great craft beer scene you won’t see elsewhere. Our craft brewers have the guts to brew in a style that’s outside of the Almaza tradition. We’re the only country in the Middle East that we can say is a master of beer. Frankly, we’re up to the level of many global craft breweries.”
Interest in BIBE grows every year, according to Lenoir. She expects this July’s event to draw 10,000 to 15,000 local and international attendees. The diversity of guests demonstrates just how widespread Lebanon’s craft beer culture has become. “The range is between 18 years old to 60. We see families and even big groups of women come together,” Lenoir said.
While international markets are increasingly interested in Lebanon’s beer scene—Lenoir has Belgian ambassadors lined up to attend BIBE 2019—the 961 team vows not to lose sight of the local community that made them successful in the first place.
“Even if you have success in the export market, if people can’t find 961 at a local market, there’s no way we can grow,” Halal said. “We have a major effort to increase point of sales for 961 here, locally, and even though it’s pricier than an Almaza pilsner, people are willing to pay.”