Destinations, Food, Interviews, Lebanon

Change is Brewing in the Middle East: 961 Beer

August 20, 2012

“Hezbollah is meeting with the President at noon; that’s why the trouble on the roads.”

The taxi driver scooted along as he could, keeping pace with lanes of beat up, horn-honking Mercedes all plowing eastward through Beirut traffic. The radio scratched Arabic news stories that we couldn’t understand.

Ted and I looked to our new friend, Wade, a thirty-something cool-as-a-cucumber history teacher with a baby strapped to his chest. He’d flagged down the taxi and mapped our way toward our destination. He’d lived in Beirut for a handful of years. If he was calm, we’d be calm.

He raised his eyebrows. “Never a dull moment. Who knows? The @#$% could hit the fan…”

And so it was, as Syrian violence escalated just across the border and as Hezbollah bent the ear of the Lebanese President, we four Americans carried on in a ramshackle taxi toward our field trip to the only microbrewery in the Middle East.

It was one of those days that makes a good story after the fact; in the present moment, we simply say prayers that our moms aren’t worried at home.

We pulled away from waterfront traffic and climbed a bit into suburb hills. The driver stopped at a side street next to a chicken restaurant, leaving us to find our final steps. Somewhere in the maze of warehouses and gravel drives, we spotted the tiny red, white, and black 961 sign perched on the balcony of a grey concrete building. We’d made it this far on an email exchange and an addresses, time to find the door.



“For the record” – twoOregonians in the gritty 961 neighborhood

Enter. Climb the stairwell. Oops, wrong door. Keep going.

Ah. Here we are. Behind door number two: a bright office, a cheery young woman working the reception desk, and a fridge full of brown bottles in bright labels. Never mind the clock barely 10:30am, Lebanese hospitality was in full force, fresh glasses were fetched from the cabinet, and we were circled around the fridge, sampling brews within minutes of arrival.

Wade and baby Jane and bottles of brew.
The first of many generous pours at 961 headquarters…

Coming from Portland, we’re spoiled with a local culture where microbreweries supply pubs, restaurants, and grocery stores with a beer for every season, every palette, every preference. Head to a local eatery and choose from a list as long as fingertip to elbow. Take your pick, find your preference, bottom’s up. On the road, it’s not so easy. In Lebanon, it’s nearly impossible.

On our first evening in Beirut just a few days prior, Wade and his wife Megan joined Jodi, Ted, and I for dinner at t-marbouta in Hamra. A quick rundown on traditional Lebanese menu items was followed by a passionate explanation of the country’s beer situation: dismal with a lone bright spot.

In a land saturated with Almaza (the Heineken subsidiary in Africa/the Middle East), one local brewery in Beirut supplies a refreshing alternative: 961 Beer, named plainly for the country’s telephone area code.

Ted ordered his first 961 on draft, and so began a love affair.

Wade emailed 961 and made arrangements for a visit to their headquarters, and by the time we stood in front of the fridge, eyes were dancing gleefully over the generous selection: red ale, traditional lager, witbeer, stout, IPA, and tripel, with a secret batch awaiting us in tanks on the ground floor.

We each claimed a glass to kick off the informal tasting, and took a look around the office.


We waited for our host, admiring the collection of bottles on display: a colorful tribute to springs of tasty brew bubbling up in lands far away from this beer desert. Ted laughed seeing Pliny the Elder: flashbacks to Portland drinks at Horsebrass Pub while watching World Cup games and debating finer notes of apricot; memories of blind taste tests with his home-brew buddies Darian and Ryan. The only downside to visiting exciting places overseas is not being able to bring along a group of friends from home who would thoroughly appreciate the adventure…

Another thirty-something fellow joined us, walking in casually dressed in jeans and black. A round of handshakes and names and then an invitation to join him in his office. Turns out this hospitable and enthusiastic character, Mazen Hajjar, with his shaggy hair and bit of scruff on the cheeks, was the founder, CEO, and dynamo behind 961 Beer.


For the next hour and a half, stories came spilling out. Mazen calls himself an “Arab atheist” and speaks of beer as if it were his faith. He’s found a truth that’s changed his soul and his outlook on the world, and his great desire is to introduce as many as will hear to his message of quality, complexity, flavor, and the spirit of celebration.

His experience began with a thirst for something more and the revelation that his thirst could be met.

“I got fed up with drinking crap beer,” he said matter of factly. “I remember thinking there must be more to it than this. I mean I remember drinking bitters in the U.K., and I kept thinking, there must be something more flavorful than this crap I’m drinking.”

Mazen, raised in Lebanon, spent seven years in the U.K., tasting beyond the limits of Almaza’s territory and bumping up against the edge of new flavors.

“Nobody really explains this stuff to you; nobody’s ever brewed in Lebanon, so you can’t really go and say, ‘What is this?'”

Intrigued, thirsty for more (and better) and curious to learn learn the craft, he read every beer-related book he could get his hands on, soaked up knowledge, and returned to Lebanon a new man carrying a burning passion for the flavors and culture of quality beer.

Mazen dreamed out loud to a friend in Denmark about the prospects of starting a brewery, and his dream was met with an offer of investment. Money arrived, he bought up supplies, and began brewing his first batches in his kitchen: and three days later, bombs started falling from the sky.

*

Ted and I were married in the summer of 2006. Shortly after returning from our honeymoon through Oregon, Washington State, and British Columbia, I was working at my drafting table, listening to the radio when news of rockets crossing the border between Israel and Lebanon came jumping out of the speakers. I felt uneasy. I couldn’t unravel the politics, but I could sense the tension, and my heart mourned.

Meanwhile, half the world away, Mazen was wondering whether or not to close up shop.

*

That fateful July morning, the phone rang. Denmark calling. He offered to refund his partner’s money and withdraw from the dream, but the line crackled with optimism and the new tagline: “Brewed under siege!” There would be no quitting: this was the time to capture the story.

Now, six years later, in his top-floor office at 961 Brewery, Mazen reflects on those uncertain early days, and gets up from his chair to grab a treasured possession from the shelf.

“So, I’m sitting on my balcony and bombs are falling, and I open up…the book Beer School, which is the autobiography of Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, who set up Brooklyn Brewery. First sentence: (remember, I just got this phone call, I’m sitting there…trying to find inspiration) first sentence, first paragraph, first page: ‘I woke up to the sounds of bombs exploding outside my hotel Alexander in Ashrafieyeh, Beirut.'”

“Turns out Steve Hindy is third generation Lebanese, and he had never been to Lebanon, graduated I think from Berkley, ended up being the Associated Press correspondent during the civil war in Lebanon and while he was in Lebanon traveled to Saudi Arabia and tried some home brew and thought, ‘Wow, this is really tasty beer, why the hell don’t we drink this in the US?’ So his inspiration came from home brewing in Saudi Arabia of all places.”

Earlier in the conversation, Mazen had smiled proudly while playing the Discovery Channel documentary reference to the birthplace of beer: just down the road, practically. “Barley, wild yeast, poof! Beer,” he explains the origin of the first beverage.

Fitting, he thinks, to orchestrate a resurgence of craft brew based on historical roots in Mesopotamia.

“Beer in its simplest form is basically starch consumed by yeast which produces alcohol and CO2. That is it’s very basic form. Over the years, we started adding spices like sage to balance that sweetness with some bitterness, but also to help preserve it longer…in the 17th century we started adding hops…”

Then his speech turns to the minutiae of brewing techniques and criticisms of the current state of craft brew:

“The problem with American craft beer these days…is, okay, how many 120 IBU beers can you drink? I mean really…and the risk of doing that is you end up alienating people who are on the cusp of drinking good beer. If you start making these ridiculous beers that are completely unbalanced and it’s a challenge of how much bitterness I can put into my beer or how high I can drive the alcohol without any consideration as to how drinkable this beers is-”

His iPhone rings with the old phone jingle: “Hello? Bonjour?”

We’re interrupted, and he steps away, leaving us hanging on the theme of his pulpit message: passionate for quality and craft, passionate for the experience, passion for introducing new palettes to the flavors he’s come to cherish.


Wade reads aloud from Mazen’s copy of Beer School

Since that moment reading on the balcony outside kitchen-brew central, Mazen’s been fine-tuning his craft and business strategies, growing 961 into the regional success that it is today while constantly aiming to expand the number of new craft brew converts and new fans overseas.

It’s a tall order, though. As it is now, he’s the lone independent operation in the middle east.

“It’s not that I need to be ultimate dictator of the beer world in Lebanon. No,” he says with a mock fist slam, “that’s not how it works.”

His desire is not to play solo.

“I actually like [the idea of] somebody else coming along because that is helping me spread the gospel. I mean, I don’t want to be the only beer that Lebanese drink. I want to offer choice; a democracy. I want as many beers out here as possible. We’re actually investigating importing craft beer into Lebanon. I mean, I drink my beer all the time. I would like to drink something different, too.

His desire is to bring craft brew to Lebanon, to invite a cultural shift that could spawn the atmosphere of beer appreciation that he’s experienced in places like Portland.

Mazen loves the Pacific Northwest. He and his wife honeymooned in Seattle, Washington and Portland and Bend, Oregon, drinking microbrews (adding to that office bottle collection) all along the way.

“I mean, Portland is so awesome. It’s people on bicycles, saying ‘Why are you using big@$$ cars like the rest of the U.S.?’ Last time I was in Portland, taxis weren’t driving around, and I was like, ‘I need a taxi, don’t they drive around?’ [Nope. Why not?] Yeah, not to waste gas. I thought, I love this place! I love this place. So, Portland is the exact mentality where I [personally] come from, it reminds me a lot of Scandinavia.”

“I spent [several] years in Dubai…it is the exact opposite of Portland: ‘How can we @#$% the environment and do completely stupid things to it? Because we have money and we can throw it away. It’s a soulless, heartless place, where let’s bring slave laborers…it’s just, it’s strictly inhumane.'”

*

Wade peppered Mazen with questions about entrepreneurship and business in Lebanon. Red tape? Not so much; the real issue is educating a virgin market. Regulations? He wishes there were more. Political unrest? Surprisingly, not a concern.

“Political unrest, great, you factor it and you have a Plan B. 911 happens, the country shuts down. Too much snow in London, the country shuts down. I don’t know what the @#$% happens, the country shuts down. Here, you expect it to shut down, and so you have plan B and plan C and plan D and if this happens, I’ll do this and so you’re in a much better position to handle it, actually.”

*

He plans to conquer the challenges of the Lebanese market and grow his connections overseas.

“I think the US market is heading toward where you’re either local, so I go down to the brewpub and I have whatever Tom is making, or you’ve got an awesome story. And if it’s not or you’re somewhere in between, screw you.”

He scoffs at the over-done storylines of certain Colorado beer companies and confidently asserts his edge.

“The beautiful thing is that I went to my importers, and they said, “Great! You’re not another couple of guys from Colorado who got high on their own supply and brewed their own beer. We have enough of these. And we can’t sell them. We can’t get shelf space anymore.” I mean, how many craft beers can be on shelf? …especially these names – Rat’s @$$ Pale Ale, Dog S**t, Fat Bastard, I don’t know. Where the @#$% is the beer? Okay, there’s so many names – unless you have a really good story, it’s impossible to get on the shelf. And how many people have a ‘Yeah, I got high and I love Colorado water and I set up a brewery”? Great, join the crew.”

He laughs over video ads like these that are willing to poke fun at the ridiculous state of advertising.

The marketing genius at 961 is impressive. They’re not afraid to blaze new trails or stir the pot using award-winning social media campaigns, or gut-busting lines like, “Politics and Beer: At least we’re getting one right.”

Our visit came just a day before the release of 961’s newest brew and accompanying advertising campaign: an ESB (Extra Special Bitter) marketed under “God Save the Beer” posters soon plastered all over town. The Queen’s jubilee never tasted so good.

Mazen invited us to the ground floor to visit the tanks, see the setup, and taste the new batch for ourselves.



Mazen poured a prized sample straight from the tank: creamy but not-yet-carbonated. Within 24 hours, it would be finished, bottled, and out on the shelves in Beirut.

Mazen’s humor came across on his tanks: Larry, Curly, Mo, and Andy and Lou from Little Britain.

Bottling machines and stacks of boxes showed evidence of booming business for 961 as well as their Lebanese Brew, an entry level beer targeting the market still wanting a light lager alternative to mass produced commercial brew.

“We said fine. We’re going to brew a light lager with no corn, no rice, none of [those] chemicals that you stick into it, and the batch tastes like a pure lager. And that was supposed to be a stepping stone so people could finally break that mental [barrier to] local beer.”

Mazen continues leading the true brew revival in the middle east.

The Lebanese Brew campaign won accolades from social media and marketing mavens, and more importantly, customers in Lebanon gave a new brand a first chance.


The award-winning Lebanese Brew social media campaign.

To educate the people of Lebanon about craft beer and initiate interest beyond the common lager, they opened their own night club in Beirut and gave beer away.

For free.

“How do you educate people about craft beer? You don’t stick billboards on the street and say, ‘Hey, drink the red ale. It’s awesome.’ People go, yeah whatever. So, we had to explain to people what a Whitbeer was, what a Red Ale was, what all this stuff was. So we opened a bar where when you walked in, we gave you six samplers, free. This was in Gemmayzeh, but by year two we were selling so much beer we had to close down the bar because we couldn’t manage.”

By then it didn’t matter. The word was out, and the people were singing the praises of the new local brew.

*

So what of the international market, for those who aren’t planning a trip to Lebanon anytime soon? 961 Beer just received their FDA approved labels for the United States and will begin shipping to east coast locations: New York, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey. “Boston, definitely Boston,” Mazen says.

And what about Portland?

Ted asks, “So, if you’re exporting to the United States, I assume you’re getting some of your hops from Oregon?”

“Yes, most of my hops from Oregon,” Mazen says.

“So, why not open a small operation in Oregon, then?”

“I would!” he answers with a grin, “Once I buy my house in Portland then we can start a brewery in Portland. I mean, you’re preaching to the choir.”

Then the choir and the preacher batted the Portland gospel back and forth:

M: “My favorite hotel in Portland is the Ace Hotel.”

T: “Stumptown Coffee right downstairs?”

M: “Exactly. Unbelievable. It’s great, it’s awesome. I love it. I love Portland.”

T: [to Wade] “It’s this old building that’s been renovated by these guys-”

M: “It’s the most fantastic hotel, and Clyde Common, seriously the best food ever… Yeah, I mean, for me, at some point in time, I will reside in Portland. When exactly, I’m not sure, but I will reside in Portland, and I feel at home there. I feel home in three places around the world: Portland, Copenhagen or Stockholm, and Lebanon.”

Here we are, exploring the other half of the globe, and our new friend wants to move a few streets down the road from our home, hang at our favorite spots, and serve one of the top travel mementos from our entire trip.


Ted, Wade, Jane, Mazen and Me; and crates of Brave New Beer for the world.

We shook hands, swapped email addresses, plotted a someday-meet up in Portland, and bid Mazen farewell. His phone was ringing. Employees were waiting. Again, Arabic conversation we couldn’t understand.

Wade was right, hours ago in the taxi: “Never a dull moment.”

Jabbering, smiling, crunching gravel beneath our feet, we returned back up the hillside to the chicken restaurant where the taxi originally let us out. More than a few beers and two hours of conservation later, it was time for a proper meal.

No news on Hezbollah’s meeting with the Lebanese President. No guarantees of safety or certainty of harm. No clear understanding of how the present political circumstances would play out or what more we would see and learn while in the country.

No matter.

We knew we’d spent the morning witnessing history in the making.

*

While extremists and dictators battle on, while heads are butting and bullets are flying, while old roots run deep and brittle, an entirely different effort is being staged.

Resilience. Vision. Passion.

Change is brewing in the middle east.


961 BEER
@961beer
facebook.com/961beer

Our Favorite Spot for 961 in Beirut:
t-marbouta – great indoor/outdoor seating, free wifi, delicious fattouch

Mazen’s Favorite Spots in Portland, Oregon:
Clyde Common – Great Eats
The Ace Hotel: Portland
– Good Sleep (photo booth & Stumptown coffee in the lobby!)

A Few of Our Favorite Brew Stops in Portland:
Horse Brass Pub – A long, long beer list and horrible fish and chips. The real deal.
Belmont Station – A bottleshop boasting 1300+ beers from Oregon and around the world.
Saraveza – Midwestern/Wisconsin basement meets Portland: Hundreds of beers, cold and ready to drink. Appetizers: crazy good.
Barista II – Beer and coffee, coffee and beer. Just a few. Always good.
…and 961 Pacific Northwest (503?) – someday in the hopeful future.


Story dedicated to Darian and Ryan of the Oregon brew-team, and to Michelle and “Baab” who would’ve most definitely loved the adventure, too.

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22 Comments

  • Reply Jennifer August 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Sometimes it really is such a small world. And very cool story!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      Love, love finding Oregon connections around the world : )

  • Reply Jenna Osborne August 20, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    I’ve read about this brewery and I am thrilled that you were able to visit and meet the owner. What an experience to be a part of history in the making. I so wish we could have gone on that tour with you two. Thanks so much for including this in your trip and for all the lovely details. much love!! xxoo

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm

      You would’ve loved meeting Mazen! We’ll just have to work on a way to import 961 and host a tasting at home…then throw him a welcome-back party with a bunch of Oregon brew when he returns on his next visit to Portland : )
      Thanks so much for leaving a note – always makes my day to hear from you! xo

  • Reply Mira August 20, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    Small world! You covered three of my favorites: Portland (where I live), Beirut (where I’m from) and 961!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      So cool, Mira! I’m glad it’s a perfect trifecta : ) Thanks so much for reading, and I hope someday our paths may cross in person (Portland…or Beirut! Would love to return…)

  • Reply Sandra_Kathleen August 21, 2012 at 6:21 am

    Great Story. You never know what kind of interesting people and connections you’ll make while traveling abroad!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      Thanks so much, Sandra! Glad you enjoyed the tale. Really one of our favorite experiences of the trip… These kinds of adventures keep me constantly curious to learn what’s around the next corner : )

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica August 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    This is so awesome! I love that you found the only microbrewer in the Middle East. I want to meet this guy. I want to drink his beer. And his comments about Portland are great… I said many of the same things myself :-)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      You would LOVE this, Stephanie! If you ever make it to Lebanon, you’ll have to look him up… (Also: can’t wait to hear more about your time in Portland) : )

  • Reply Joel August 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    I love this post! And I’m very envious. I never thought of beer as such an opportunity for cross-cultural communication. It’s like a foreign language I could actually learn. ( :

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 9:08 pm

      Yes! Rosetta Stone for microbrew? ; )

  • Reply Darian August 22, 2012 at 4:19 am

    Great story, guys! Well written and engaging. I’m routing for 961 Brewing! Oh and P.S., thanks for the beers! I’m looking forward to trying them even more now. Next time we get together with Ryan and Sara we will defiantly bust them out and toast you two.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 9:10 pm

      We totally miss you guys. Please drink the bottles of 961 and think of us, and keep the updates coming on the batches you’re brewing while we’re gone : ) Cheers to our future reunion!

  • Reply Ryan August 22, 2012 at 5:18 am

    Great post! Totally rooting for this brewery as well! Everyone needs to have good beer; it should be one of the basic human rights. :)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 24, 2012 at 9:12 pm

      We’ll toast to that ; )

  • Reply Archana August 25, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Excellent! I love how you guys dug deep to share with us something truly different about the Middle East. Must’ve been such a great experience.

  • Reply Kathryn September 2, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I could murder a pint right now! (Although it is a little early in the morning here.) Just found their facebook page and asked if 961 is available anywhere in the UK. Would love to try some.
    http://www.facebook.com/961Beer

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