The 4,000 year old town of Taybeh is a small Christian settlement nestled in the Palestinian countryside around 12 kilometres north-east of Ramallah. Located between Muslim villages, Israeli military checkpoints and contentious settlements it’s a strange place to stop for a beer. However this small town, famous for hosting Jesus shortly before his crucifixion, is home to Palestine’s only brewery - started by the Khoury brothers in 1994.
The political and cultural uphill battle of opening a business right in the middle of the West Bank didn’t waver the enthusiasm of the two entrepreneurial brothers, who stepped out in the promising reforms of the ‘93 Oslo Agreement to make their father proud.
“My brother David and I were encouraged by our late father to return to our homeland, from the United States, and contribute to the Palestinian economy by establishing a business that would create jobs in Palestine,” Nadim shares with me.
The brothers made their way back to Taybeh, where Khoury family roots can be traced back 600 years. The inspiration for the business stemmed from Nadim’s hobby in home brewing, which began back when he was a student in Boston. His aspirations obviously extended beyond personal interest though, “I’d wanted to build an identity for Palestinian products and a national beer of Palestine. We named the beer after our town, Taybeh, which means ‘delicious’ when referring to food or drink, and ‘kind’ when referring to people in Arabic.”
With the business and the product set, the brothers launched their first craft beer in 1995, Taybeh Golden. The beers are world class standard, all created from natural ingredients and with water drawn from a local spring. The Golden is a clean, crisp tasting drink, the product of a top fermenting yeast and cold lagering. At the opposite end of the flavour spectrum, Taybeh’s Dark is brewed with roasted malted barley in a style traditionally used by medieval German monks who would have consumed the heavier drink during periods of fasting.
“Taybeh Golden is our flagship beer and best seller. It’s a session beer, refreshing with a pleasant aroma,” Nadim tells me. When I ask him about his favourite he replies, “They are all my favourites and dear to me - hand crafted and micro-brewed. Of course, they are the finest in the Middle East.”
The Khoury brothers have faced the kind of challenges in the journey of setting up this business that would smother the average entrepreneur.
Firstly, Nadim explains to me that drinking alcohol is a cultural taboo, “There is no craft beer drinking culture here. For the past 20 years, we have been educating our consumers to drink local and natural products and a better glass of beer.”
Palestine is, of course, 93% Muslim. General cultural practice amongst the population is to refrain from drinking. Alcohol is consumed predominantly by the Christian Palestinian community, like that in Taybeh, and by other minority groups. In cities like Ramallah, which used to be Christian, alcohol is sometimes served in restaurants. You’ll easily find the six Taybeh brews there, one of which is the non-alcoholic green labelled brew, manufactured exclusively with the aim of enabling particularly conservative or religious members of society to enjoy the product.
Other challenges arise due to politics and the law. While the local spring keeps the water in good supply, other ingredients must be imported.
“We do not have Palestinian airports or ports, yet we import our raw materials as we don't have them available here.”
Nadim goes into more detail, “Our malt comes from Belgium, through the Israeli port. It needs special import permits from both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. It also needs to pass Israeli standard testing and go through the security check. The same applies for our hops from Bavaria and the Czech Republic. Doing back to back transfer of finished beer is more costly due to the separation wall.”
But that’s just getting the ingredients in! Moving your alcoholic product around Palestine is even more tricky. “Advertising is prohibited due to old Jordanian laws that we are still following. There are no updated laws that deal with advertising.”
If the difficulty of getting the word out wasn’t enough, Nadim explains how the business must also endlessly navigate the shifting maze of checkpoints and separation walls - all of which perform their own checks. “It’s difficult to move the product around, due to the checkpoints, the separation wall and closures. After building the apartheid wall, there were designated commercial gates to transport Palestinian products. The instability of the political situation affects our ability to do business, as well as constant closures, strikes, and demonstrations impacting the business too.”
One thing struck me about Nadim, how his love of product and project far outweighed challenges that would make the average entrepreneur pack up and leave. To him these things are no more than minor setbacks, the brewery represents much more than just its product.
A champion of cultural and economic progress in the surrounding area, and indeed the region, Taybeh Brewery has benefited the town and the Muslim villages greatly. The staff at Taybeh are from both Muslim and Christian heritage, working in peace together. “Our employees are mostly from the town itself and surrounding villages. Since 2007, I’ve been brewing alongside my daughter Madees, the first female brewer in all of Palestine.”
While the West Bank is not as religiously conservative as other parts of the Middle East, women are still to find real equality in the workplace. Nadim expressed great pride in his daughter’s key role, “Madees' involvement is a positive influence to women. She is a role model for those who want to be in business, especially family businesses.”
With the success of the business, co-founder David Khoury became the first democratically elected Mayor in 2005. He worked with Nadim to bring together the Taybeh Municipality, which he devoted his time to without salary. It’s one of many local civic organisations that lifted the collapsed local economy through combined effort. The town has raised funds to improve roads and infrastructure, as well as education and job creation.
After hearing that the Khoury brothers had launched an annual Palestinian Oktoberfest in Taybeh, I learned that Nadim had been travelling to the German beer festival in Munich for many years. “I thought it would help the Palestinian community by encouraging people to visit Taybeh. Each year it’s proved a boost to the economy at a time when unemployment is high and making an income is difficult for many families, due to the political situation.”
With the people at the heart of the festival, rather than the beer, Taybeh’s Oktoberfest allows for local cooperatives and families to sell their own produce. Tourists from across the world have come across the celebrations during their travels, spreading the word and enjoying the fun. The festivities now attract over 6,000 visitors annually.
“It really brings a sense of normality to Palestine by showing diversity and democracy,” Nadim continues, “It’s a peaceful resistance to the occupation and gives a new image to Palestine. It also puts Taybeh on the world tourism map.” In fact, the brewery has funded the construction of a new hotel in the town, due to open mid-2015.
In terms of alcohol, Taybeh's new venture has been wine-making and starting a new boutique Palestinian winery. “We now have Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Our white wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, will be released in April 2015. Our Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve will be released later this year too”.
It appears that this small town’s move from strength to strength as a flame of peace and prosperity pushing Palestine toward better times is not yet finished. May it be Taybeh’s own brew with which the Palestinians drink to it.