If you want to drink local beer in Palestine your choices are blissfully simple – there is Shepherds or there is Taybeh. The good news is that not only do both of them taste pretty good but they both come from the sort of small-family businesses that you want to get behind.
The conservative and predominantly Muslim population of Palestine has meant that beer is not part of the culture here. There is a local market in Christian areas, amongst internationals and both breweries also export internationally.
I have always been more of a wine person than a beer drinker, but there is something special about a cold beer in the garden on a hot summer’s day as the sun starts to dip and who also doesn’t like a wintery beer too for that matter.
Last Saturday we made an unexpected tour of Shepherds Brewery in the town of Birzeit, North of Ramallah. We had been visiting friends and before lunch (more of a dinner-like feast really), we went on a stroll through Birzeit’s picturesque old town and down towards the brewery.
It was a bottling day and the manager Alaa, a friend of our friend, kindly agreed to let us step inside the small factory to see the production line in full swing.
It was a satisfyingly efficient process. First the brown glass bottles rolled along the conveyer belt to be filled. Then just as the beer was starting to bubble up into the neck of the bottle they were capped. They then rolled around the corner, where the bottles were dried before the labels were stuck on.
Alaa had first got his taste for beer and learned about home brewing whilst at university in the UK. After graduating, he was inspired to start the brewery in his hometown of Birzeit and Shepherds started selling their beer in July 2015. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength and you would almost think they were sponsoring Bethlehem such is the prominence of the brand there.
Stepping into the shop at the front of the factory is a bit like visiting a traditional English pub and Alaa will almost certainly invite you to try one or more of the beers available. Their beer Christmas tree gives a festive glow to the room and the shop also sells some nice local wine as well as crates of beer.
Taybeh brewery also knows how to welcome visitors with hospitality. We had visited several times, including for their Oktoberfest last year. When the brewery was founded in 1994 it was the first in the Middle East. Madees is the daughter of the founder and she is the current driving force behind daily operations. When we arrived, she welcomed us in warmly for a chat about brewing in Palestine, a sample of the beers on offer and a tour of the equipment.
I was shocked to hear just how difficult the occupation made exporting the beer but Madees’ story is also a brilliant one of resilience and resistance. It is best explained in her own words:
‘We are currently exporting to about 10 countries: Japan, Sweden, US, Germany, Belgium, France, Chile, Canada, Jordan, Norway. The challenges with exporting is that we have to get the permit first from Israeli to send our beer to the Port (Haifa or Ashdod). Once we get the permit, we are not allowed to load containers on site at the brewery and so we have to find a Palestinian truck driver to pick up the beer the day before so that at 6 am in the morning the drivers are at the checkpoint waiting for their turn. At the same time, we have to have an Israeli truck driver on the other side waiting to pick up the beer. After the security check and paper work, it’s too late to drive to the port because the warehouse closes at 12 or 2 depending on the day so then the driver has to leave the beer over night at the checkpoint and drive it the next morning. What should take 2 hours driving from Taybeh to Haifa port takes us 3 days for the beer IF things move smoothly’.
Madees goes on to explain why they persevere in such difficult circumstances:
‘It is very important to us that regardless of the challenges and difficulties we face, to export our products or import. This is our form of resistance to the occupation and we continue to do business and grow locally and internationally.
My family strongly believes that in order to build the state of Palestine and the economy we as Palestinians need to invest our money, knowledge and experience in the country and not rely on foreign funds for short term project and being under the mercy of foreign governments.
Although 10 countries sound a lot for a small micro-brewery but we believe we not only produce a high quality beer but also represent an image of Palestine in the International market. Internationals do not know that Palestinians have a micro-brewery, drink alcohol and even have an Oktoberfest, when they see Taybeh in Europe for example, this intrigues them in wanting to know more about Taybeh Beer, Palestine, Palestinians and the occupation’.
2020 has been a difficult year for all businesses but the hospitality sector has been particularly hard hit and that in turn has impacted on beer sales. Taybeh made a breakthrough this year in that they sent their first shipment of beer to Jordan. This was a proud moment for Madees and her family:
‘Imagine, after 26 years we were finally able to send the beer to our neighbours! After entering Jordan, I hope this will be our gateway to other Arab countries. and possibly to the Far East’.
Many internationals (myself included!) will be spending Christmas in Jerusalem this year rather than travelling home. Both Taybeh and Shepherds have launched Winter Lagers to see us through these dark times so now is the time to stock up and show some support for these inspiring local businesses.
Cheers to everyone!