Jordanian brewers compete in US market
Fuheis - It took gumption to pour millions of dollars into starting a brewery in an overwhelmingly Muslim country where many frown on consuming alcohol.
Jordanian beer pioneer Yazan Karadsheh is now taking his next risky step, sending a shipment of his Carakale beer to the United States, where it will compete with thousands of brands in the $22 billion-a-year craft beer market.
Karadsheh, 32, is part of a small but growing brotherhood of Arab brewers in the Levant who want to nurture local beer-drinking cultures and compete against the brews of large companies.
Carakale is the first craft beer made in Jordan. The West Bank has three independent breweries — well-established veteran Taybeh, newcomer Shepherds and tiny Wise Men Choice, made in a basement near Bethlehem. Lebanese brands include Colonel, made at a large brew pub in the coastal town of Batroun, and 961, named after the country’s international dialling code. Small breweries have popped up in Israel over the past decade.
It is a modest revival in a region where beer-brewing traditions date to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia but had been dormant for centuries.
Demand is also up. Regional beer consumption increased 44% over the past decade, though the close to 4 million hectolitres guzzled in nine Arab countries and Israel last year amount to a drop compared to US consumption of 234 million hectolitres, according to industry figures and IWSR, an alcoholic drinks research company.
Karadsheh said there is room for expansion.
“Obviously, they drink,” Karadsheh, a member of Jordan’s Christian minority, said of his compatriots. “Alcohol might be taboo but you can find alcohol and buy alcohol easily in the market. Jordan is a very liberal place compared to surrounding countries.”
Karadsheh and other up-and-coming brewers — Shepherds founder Alaa Sayej and Colonel creator Jamil Haddad — stumbled onto their career-changing passion by chance.
Karadsheh studied engineering in Colorado a decade ago but then earned a second degree in brewing. Sayej, 27, earned a master’s degree in finance but began brewing in his British dorm room. Haddad, 33, quit a job in advertising to turn his long-time beer brewing hobby into a business.
In liberal, diverse Lebanon, getting a brewing licence was a relatively simple procedure unfettered by social taboos, said Haddad. By contrast, Karadsheh and Sayej battled red tape and religious backlash.
Sayej said officials in the Palestinian self-rule government rejected his label featuring the drawing of a shepherd, insisting it was a depiction of Jesus and thus blasphemous on a beer bottle. Sayej, a Christian, said it took him three months to persuade the authorities otherwise.
There was also trouble in his home village of Bir Zeit, where he set up his brewery.
Once predominantly Christian, the village has a growing Muslim population. At a recent Bir Zeit heritage festival, Shepherds decided to remove its booth after a local Muslim preacher railed against the brewery at the local mosque, saying it is religiously forbidden. Sayej said he withdrew because he did not want to disrupt community relations. Shepherds later had its own festival in Bir Zeit.
Karadsheh’s initial land deal for his brewery fell through because the owner did not want to be linked to alcohol production. Karadsheh found another plot near Fuheis, a predominantly Christian community close to Amman. During construction, a tile layer walked off the job, saying he felt it was wrong to work in a brewery.
Still, they managed to start brewing — Karadsheh in 2013, Haddad in 2014 and Sayej last year.
All three say they are passionate about what goes into their different styles of beers, including seasonal brews for summer and Christmas, as well as staples blond ale, wheat and stout beer.
Karadsheh and his onsite brewer, Jordan Wambeke, hope to break into the US market with beers infused with distinctly Middle Eastern flavours, such as a coffee porter with a pinch of cardamom and a hint of date molasses.
“In general, people go to imports looking for something different, something they absolutely can’t get locally and something that is going to last the trip overseas,” said Wambeke, 28, who is from Wyoming and joined Carakale six months ago.
The first shipment of about 7,000 litres was to leave the Fuheis brewery soon for distribution along the US East Coast, said Karadsheh.
Carakale will be competing with products from more than 4,500 craft beer breweries in the United States, where on average two microbreweries open each day, said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, which represents independent brewers.
Watson said it was a challenge to break into the competitive US beer market, worth more than $100 billion a year, but that consumption of craft beers and imports is growing. “Any company that can differentiate itself and offer something new has an opportunity,” he said.
Sayej, who teamed with younger brothers Khalid and Aziz — the company slogan is “Brothers Brewing for Friends” — also hopes to export. He said he has orders from Italy, Britain, Sweden, Belgium and the United States but is waiting to install pasteurisation equipment this fall. Pasteurisation helps beer survive a long journey, he said.
Sayej banks on the beer’s origins for his marketing strategy.
“We have the best ingredient in the world to distinguish us,” he said jokingly. “It’s Holy Land water.”
Veteran brewer Nadim Khoury, who launched Taybeh beer in the West Bank in 1994 and produces 600,000 litres a year, takes pride in being the first to put the Palestinian territories on the global beer map.
“We don’t have a country,” Khoury said of decades of failed efforts to set up a Palestinian state, “but we have our own beer.”
Karadsheh wants the same for Jordan — to “create the first internationally recognised Jordanian beer”.
(The Associated Press)