The breweries of Palestine’s West Bank
After watching the news, you might think that there was nowhere safe, let alone worth visiting, in the West Bank Area of the Palestinian Territories, apart from Bethlehem. I believe that is a misconception that should be fixed. In reality, the region is home to incredible food, beautiful sights, and, perhaps surprisingly, a beer scene built on the foundations of good times and community.
Birzeit Brewery, better known as Shepherds (sic) Beer, is a small brewery located in the small town of Birzeit to the north of Ramallah that has been open since 2015.
The brewery’s CEO and founder Alaa Sayej was very interested in making alcohol. He had experience distilling vodka, and arak — a well-known regional drink. When he returned the West Bank after completing his master’s degree in finance in Preston, England, and failed to find a suitable career opportunity, his interest turned to beer making and he decided to start a brewery.
Despite Sayej’s love for English beer, Shepherds Beer is heavily inspired by the Czech breweries he and his younger brother, the brewmaster, enjoyed and learned from. Their flagship beer is a crisp and relatively sweet Czech pilsner, but their weiss summer beer, caramel-like amber ale, and chocolatey sweet stout are wonderful additions.
Rafat Houary is a woodworker in a suburb of Bethlehem whose story is a familiar one for many small breweries in Canada. Inspired by American beers, Houary set out to start Wise Men Choice Beer. Thanks to a small loan, Houary was able to purchase and install brewing equipment in the basement of his home.
Houary’s production output may be small, but his use of unique spices sets his beers apart from those of the other breweries in the West Bank. For instance, the pale ale has a hint of sage in it. While the possibility of visiting the brewery can be erratic due to security concerns, local bars including the piano bar of the Banksy-owned Walled Off Hotel have been known to serve his beers.
The story of Taybeh Brewing Co., the oldest brewery in the Middle East, is definitely an interesting one. Brothers Nadim and David Khoury were no strangers to good drink having grown up alongside a family-run a liquor store in Brookline, Massachusetts. Nadim began homebrewing in his college dorm and went on to study brewing at UC Davis in California. In 1994, shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accord, the pair moved back to their home country of Palestine to be with their family. Thinking that there would be peace at last, they started their own brewery. Interestingly, Yasser Arafat was an early (non-drinking) supporter.
The brewery is still proudly family-run but has since become a powerhouse. It now exports to eighteen countries, supports local businesses and charities, and organizes an Oktoberfest celebration that welcomes over 6,000 party-goers!