The Booze Baron of the West Bank

In a land where neither business nor booze is known to prosper, one enterprising Palestinian turns hops and locally grown grapes into both profit and pride.

The Booze Baron of the West Bank

In an otherwise sleepy village twelve miles northeast of Jerusalem lies a markedly bustling hub of activity, where crates full of grapes and hops are brought in and full boxes of clinking bottles are brought out. Welcome to Taybeh, the only center for wine and beer production in the West Bank, and the first microbrewery in the Middle East.

“Taste the revolution,” the poster on the door invites. Inside the Taybeh Brewery headquarters, men patrol a conveyer belt of brown bottles, checking that everything is fine each step of the way. Tiny Palestinian flags are draped across the roof, hanging above large steel barrels where malt, barley, and hops are being mixed with water from Ein Samia, a spring around twelve miles north of Ramallah. Next door is a different scene. Four men huddle around a big vat of grapes and verify their quality before they’re churned into liquid. In the corner, a man tests the acidity of the wine by pouring it into various test tubes.

The Taybeh Brewery, in the West Bank. (Photo courtesy Taybeh.)
The Taybeh Brewery, in the West Bank. (Photo courtesy Taybeh.)

The Taybeh Brewery was started in 1995 amid the temporary stability that followed the Oslo peace accords. Nadim Khoury, fifty-four, who had previously studied brewing in Boston, scraped together $1.2 million and, with his family, which is part of a Christian Palestinian minority, launched the brewery named for the town; “taybeh” fittingly means “delicious” in Arabic. It’s a family affair, with Nadim at the helm. His daughter, Madees, who has shown a passion for beer since the age of ten, is poised to take over the brewery, while his son, Canaan, a fresh graduate from Harvard, is set to assume control of the new winery.

Its unusual location in the last all-Christian community in the Muslim-dominated West Bank has not stopped the business from growing steadily over the years. Since its establishment, it has remained the only brewery in the Palestinian territories. Having started off with a small local distribution, it has now developed somewhat of a cult following—not only regionally, but around the world. The company is now exporting to Japan, Germany, Belgium and Sweden, and can be found in bars across the Palestinian territories and Israel. Its crude but cheerful branding depicting an old-fashioned brewery and a bubbly, overflowing mug of beer is hard to miss among the much simpler labels of other regional beers, such as Israel’s Goldstar and Lebanon’s Almaza.

Drinkers can choose from a selection of golden, light, dark, and even non-alcoholic Halal beer, the latter recently added to appeal to Muslim drinkers. The brewery gets its hops from the Czech Republic, its barley from France, and brews according to the Bavarian purity law of 1516, which involves the usage of spring water. The dark variety, a stout, follows the classic method monks used to brew beer in the Middle Ages in order to strengthen themselves during their fasting.

In the country where Jesus once turned water into wine, it seemed only a matter of time before Taybeh expanded and went into the wine business. Grapes are currently the second-largest agricultural crop produced in the country after olives, and Nadim sees wine as a natural way to grow his business while also helping local farmers.

“We have many farmers in Palestine that grow grapes,” says Nadim. “We thought of making an identity for Palestinian wine because there are so many good grapes, but no good wineries.”

Nadim and his son Canaan have been practicing winemaking for the past four years in the basement of their home. “My son Canaan says he wants to do something different. He always practiced with making wine in Boston, so I convinced him to open the first boutique winery” in the West Bank, says Nadim.

Palestine has been producing wine since biblical times. Its dry climate and high elevation make it an ideal setting. “The climate is great,” says Canaan. “We have the elevations over about nine hundred meters above sea level, which is good for the varieties we have. The temperature is good and so is the humidity.”

However, Nadim and his son are restricted in the amount of grapes and the varieties that they can purchase. “The local varieties are not suitable for winemaking—they’re more of a table grape. We have been fortunate enough to have varieties in neighboring cities like Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, which is what we’re making right now,” says Canaan.

It’s an organic process that takes and gives back to local farmers and producers. The grapes come from the nearby villages of Aboud and Birzeit. In the next few years, Nadim is hoping to be able to harvest grapes from his own vineyard in Taybeh. Additionally, “we give most of our leftovers from crushing to the local farmers to give to their sheep and cows for free,” says Canaan.

Grown by local farmers, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah grapes are also sold to Israeli settlers in the West Bank, who in turn make the wine and export it as Israeli wine. The only two other Palestinian wineries, Cremisan and Latrun, have had their vineyards annexed by Israel, which technically makes Taybeh the only Palestinian winery. Latrun was captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. Cremisan, where wine has been produced on the outskirts of Bethlehem since the Iron Age, is sandwiched between two Israeli settlements, and in April of this year it was earmarked to lie on the Israeli side of the “separation wall.” Thus, it’s been cut off from the rest of the West Bank.

Workers at the Taybeh Brewery gather grapes and prepare them for fermentation.
Workers at the Taybeh Brewery gather grapes and prepare them for fermentation.

Taybeh is planning to release its first bottle in January 2014. “We aim to enter the Palestinian market initially, and afterwards go into the Israeli and then international markets, following a similar marketing approach as our brewery,” says Canaan.

Nadim sees his brewery and winery not only as a business, but a way of giving back to the community by helping grow the local economy, and even as a way to counter the occupation. “As a Palestinian business going through all the difficulties we face from the occupation, we still remain in business and are successfully growing and producing high-quality products, exporting abroad and competing with Israeli products,” he says. “This is our stance against the occupation.”

Starting a business on occupied land has been no walk in the park. Everything coming in or out must go through checkpoints, and often the things being checked sit there for days. Uprisings and protests in the volatile region can seal the borders up in minutes, making movement—like the exportation and distribution of beer—impossible.

The beer is unpasteurized, like many microbrews, in order to maintain freshness and flavor, which also means the optimal shelf life is reduced to around four months, making it prone to spoilage if left exposed to light or heat. This hampers Taybeh’s ability to export overseas.

In a state where water distribution is controlled by the Israeli government, the distilling process, which requires the use of spring water, is also a constant challenge. The taps are turned on only about once every twenty days. “Since water is controlled by the Israelis and the quantity the Israelis give to the Palestinians is limited, our business is affected by water shortages,” says Nadim. “When we do get water coming to the brewery, we store it on the roof of the brewery, yet it is still not enough.”

Getting the raw material for the bottles and labels has also proven difficult. With no bottle manufacturers in the West Bank, the Khourys bought their bottles from Portugal. But, they say, the Israeli authorities have essentially forced them to begin buying both their wine and beer bottles from an Israeli company by making it very hard for them to import raw materials from elsewhere. This, and the fact that they sell and distribute their product across Israel, has brought people to question their dedication to the Palestinian economy and identity, which Nadim has tried to address by keeping the product as local as possible. Aside from these tensions, the Khorys say they haven’t heard from Muslim or any other religious leaders opposed to alcohol consumption.

The biggest challenge faced by Taybeh is to persuade the local and international markets. Years of heavily restricted trade and a virtually non-existent ministry of health means the international market often questions the quality of Palestinian products.

“You can make a book about the different challenges we have. In terms of the brewery, it’s completely different because we suffer from the occupation, the seizure, the closure of the wall,” says Nadim. “Yesterday, we received a shipment of hops that came for the brewery—it was for almost a month at the Israeli port [Ashtun]. We have no port yet for Palestine so we still suffer from many obstacles. The winery is different because we don’t have to bring in the raw material from abroad.”

The wine of Taybeh in one of its final stages before bottling.
The wine of Taybeh in one of its final stages before bottling.

Yet despite these difficulties, Taybeh is reporting a steady double-digit growth, increasing popularity and recognition worldwide. While the brewery does not release revenue figures, the Khorys say they sold more than 150,000 gallons last year and are making a profit.

The beer has not only proved popular as a drink in the region but has also acted as a boon for tourism to the small town. Since 2005, Taybeh Brewery has hosted an annual Oktoberfest, which is a calendar favorite among locals and foreign workers living in the area. For two days, keffiyeh- and lederhosen-clad tourists from Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, mingle, dance, and toast to freedom and Palestine.

“Oktoberfest started off as a small-scale festival and every year it got bigger and bigger. Last year, Taybeh village population ballooned to 20,000 people [from its usual population of 2,000] as both locals and foreigners streamed into the village. Everyone appreciated it. It became the number one event in Palestine,” says Nadim.

In truth, not everyone appreciated it. Tensions rose between Nadim and the mayor, as well as other residents, who felt that the festivities created security issues. Nadim says his car was torched and he was the subject of an attempted assassination.

Moving one step further, Nadim has put his funds towards building an eighty-room boutique hotel that will house a gastropub for wine and beer tasting. The four-star hotel, which is due to open next year, aims to bring in a more discerning crowd of tourists and banish the country’s reputation as an unsafe place to travel.

According to the New Testament, Taybeh, which was known back then as Ephraim, was the place where Jesus and his disciples retreated from threats of violence. The town holds a number of historical sites, including the el-Khadr Greek Orthodox Church, which dates back to the Byzantine period. The town itself dates back to the Bronze Age. Also, “the hotel has a nice view—we can see the Jordan Valley from the rooms upstairs,” says Nadim.

This comes at an opportune time. Tourists are slowly trickling into the West Bank thanks to an increasing number of alternative tour companies and the opening of a youth hostel in Ramallah.

As the winery gets underway and the brewery continues to churn out beer, Nadim has high hopes for the future and for his company. Despite the current political situation, he sees Palestine as a country with potential and plenty to offer to tourists looking for something different. He is looking to contribute to that “something different” as much as he can.

“There are so many problems in the Middle East. But we don’t see it as a negative thing. We know people will come to Palestine. It’s the Holy Land, after all,” says Nadim, raising a glass of newly fermented wine to a bright and alcohol-filled Palestinian future.