How a Palestinian brewery is taking on the US

Taybeh, Occupied West Bank – When it launched in 1994, Taybeh Brewing Company was the Middle East‘s first microbrewery; today, the family-owned business produces 600,000 litres of beer annually and is selling to the United States for the first time.

The convoluted journey to the US market involved a 40-foot container, 40,000 bottles of beer and wine, Israeli port bureaucracy and countless checkpoints – but the owners were undeterred. Last month, Taybeh beer and wine were on the shelves of two US liquor stores for the first time.

Selling to North America has been a long-held dream for the Khoury family, who established their microbrewery in the small Palestinian village of Taybeh more than two decades ago.

Their products are made from grapes found in vineyards near the West Bank town of Birzeit and from hops and malt brewed in Taybeh, about 10km northeast of Ramallah.

“People … thought I was crazy, to come to the end of nowhere [in Palestine] and open a brewery,” founder Nadim Khoury told Al Jazeera over the chink of the beer-bottling machine in Taybeh.

 Madees Khoury managed the brewery in Palestine while her family members handled the US expansion [Leila Molana-Allen/Al Jazeera]

But the gambit paid off: Nadim recently travelled to the US city of Boston to oversee the arrival of the Palestinian wine and beer, which travelled from the commercial port at Ashdod, Israel.

“We are very excited and happy to have finally been able to bring the beer to Boston,” Nadim’s son, Canaan, told Al Jazeera. “[My father] spent more than 15 years living there, and there is a lot of sentimental value in this accomplishment. His friends in the area have been ecstatic, waiting to try the beer since 1994.”

Taybeh is a family enterprise: While Nadim and Canaan managed the US expansion, daughter Madees handled the brewery, with some help from her younger sister, Raneen, who is training to be a lawyer.

“Brewing beer in Palestine is not like brewing beer anywhere else in the world,” said Nadim, who opened the business with his brother, David, under the guidance of their late father.

“From occupation to local ports, which we don’t have, getting ingredients, the wall [Israel’s separation barrier], you name it – you could make a book out of it.”

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On the first day of sales at Foley’s Liquors in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, bottles of Taybeh’s Cabernet Sauvignon were accompanied by a sign reading: “Conceived in Boston; created in the Holy Land; just hit US ground”.

The Brighton Gourmet and Wine Cellar in the town of Brighton, Massachusetts, was also stocking Taybeh beer and wine and offering tastings.

Boston resident Nicholas Croce said that he sampled Taybeh beer on a previous visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank, and rushed to buy it two days after he heard it had become available in the US.

“I had been waiting since I moved to Boston a few years ago to hear this news. I immediately told other friends, near and far, who have a connection to Israel and Palestine,” Croce told Al Jazeera.

The high cost of shipping – due to checkpoints and other constraints posed by Israel – makes it extremely difficult to compete in the US market.

Canaan Khoury, Taybeh brewery

“I do hope the beer grows in popularity [in the US],” he added. “Perhaps it can start important conversations. I’ve always thought that peace is possible when we take the time to know each other, and if beer can facilitate that, I support Taybeh all the more.”

Since the US launch, Taybeh’s Facebook page has been flooded with scores of comments from US residents, asking for expanded distribution from Nevada, to Washington, to Colorado.

But exporting to the US from the occupied Palestinian territories comes with inevitable challenges. Under the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s rules against making “false or misleading statements on labels”, Taybeh was told it had to remove the word “Palestine” from the “Product of” description on the beer label.

“We are able to export the beer to many countries all over the world with the words ‘Product of Palestine’, such as Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Belgium, UK and even Israel,” Canaan said.

However, the beer label was only approved for the US after Taybeh changed the wording to “Product of West Bank”.

In addition, “the high cost of shipping – due to checkpoints and other constraints posed by Israel – makes it extremely difficult to compete in the US market”, Canaan said.

“The container got sent back twice and couldn’t pass the checkpoints until it finally went through. These unforeseen costs make the situation even harder.”

Showing Al Jazeera a beer keg sliced in half lengthways, Nadim explained how it accompanies him on export trips to Israeli ports, to convince officials at checkpoints that his cargo contains nothing illicit.

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Despite the limitations imposed by Israeli authorities, however, Israel and the occupied West Bank make up 60 percent of Taybeh’s current market. Their products are not sold in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Madees, 31, points out that she is among the few – if not the only – female brewers in the Middle East region: “When I started, I was 21, and then the older generation of distributors and suppliers were used to dealing with my father and uncle. But now they are much older, so their sons are taking over, and they would rather talk to me, not my dad and uncle. So it’s changing, and that makes me feel better.”

She believes the family product is helping to shape the view of Palestine in the region and internationally.

“With Taybeh, you are getting the name Palestine, and a high-quality product, to Israelis – and you are changing the way they see Palestinians,” she told Al Jazeera, sitting in the sunshine overlooking the olive groves that surround the brewery. “[Our global expansion] resembles hope, determination, and success; not just for us, but for Palestinians in general.”

Source: Al Jazeera