BEIRUT: In the early hours of the day he was due to leave Beirut, mortar shells hit Steve Hindy’s hotel. Hindy, a veteran war reporter and Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, picked up a still warm piece of shrapnel from the blast site. When he set up Brooklyn Brewery some years later, he placed the shrapnel on his desk, where it reminds him of his time working as a correspondent in the Middle East.
“When you cover news in the Middle East, you have to be ready for anything,” Hindy told The Daily Star. “You have to think on your feet and know when to charge ahead and when to back off. Starting a business is a similarly unpredictable environment.” Now a growing number of independent Lebanese breweries are looking to emulate Hindy’s success.
Omar Bekdache, 41, and Samir Tabiat, 38, opened their craft brewery, Brew Inc., in Badaro just over a month ago. Both have a deep passion for craft beer, and a vision for their project. “This concept exists around the world, but what we wanted to do is to make it for everyone,” Tabiat said.
There is a growing appreciation for craft beer around the country, Tabiat said. Consumers “like the craft beers that certain suppliers have been importing into Lebanon. ... Even non-beer drinkers, they’re curious to see the different concept. They try the beers and they choose the one they like.”
The variety of available beers gives these smaller breweries an edge over larger, commercial breweries. “People like it because there are choices,” said Bekdache. Brew Inc. offers “a few beers for the real beer drinker and a few beers for people who are starting to get into beer.”
Brew Inc. is unique, Tabiat said, because it provides not only beer – an experience is also on offer. “You can sit inside the brewery and eat and drink at the same time. ... The towers we pour the beer from are linked straight to the tank, which is as fresh as it gets.”
Despite the short amount of time Brew Inc. has been open, Bekdache and Tabiat are happy with their progress: they have even had to add some extra brewing tanks due to high demand. Once business has settled down, they plan to host live brewing events and sell bottled beer from the brewery for drinking at home; they are also looking to sell kegs and rent out draught machines for private events.
For the adventurous, Brew Inc. will offer home brewing kits. It may seem antithetical for a brewery – whose aim is to sell beer – to teach its customers how to make their own, but Bekdache insists this is good for the long-term health of the industry in Lebanon: “This is not something you keep as a secret. The more people who home brew, the more the business will grow, and the more we are going to grow. ... The craft beer business will grow by itself.”
Jamil Haddad, who founded Colonel Beer in Batroun in 2014, agrees that competition is good for the industry as a whole. After his initial success, “I knew that many people will follow in the market and open microbreweries in Lebanon,” he said. “This is very good and healthy, because as ... we [support] the craft beer industry, then we promote craft beer. ... So we have all to work together.”
Haddad quit his marketing job with Adidas and returned to Lebanon in 2013 to open Colonel.
His job had enabled him to travel widely; he saw the craft beer trend developing around the world. “It started in the U.K., it went to the [United] States ... and then it went back to Europe.”
He saw no reason why craft beer shouldn’t have a market in Lebanon. “I saw the opportunity. ... The Lebanese people are educated enough, the Lebanese people travel a lot,” he said. “I knew that I’m going to have enough people to support the concept and to appreciate craft beer, and this is what happened.”
Haddad is looking to capitalize on another developing trend: craft gin. He is scheduled to take delivery of a distillery in February, with the intention of supplying Lebanon with locally distilled gin by March 2018.
While Lebanon’s young microbreweries are enjoying success, brewing in the country presents challenges. Aside from the water, most ingredients have to be imported. Large commercial breweries can weather the consequent high costs because of the economies of scale at which they operate.
According to Bekdache and Tabiat, however, the benefits of operating on a small scale far outweigh the disadvantages. With fewer suppliers and distributors, for instance, they are less vulnerable to instability in the local market. “When you’re a brewhouse, it’s a cash business. If you’re doing well, you’re not selling and then giving credit to vendors. ... I believe in this country it’s much safer than when you’re a big company and you’re selling on credit.”
One of the principal advantages of operating at this scale is the control the brewers can exert over their beer, Bekdache said. “The size we have is very flexible ... When you’re brewing on this scale you can adapt to anything you want.” The amount of beer Brew Inc. produces is constrained partly, he pointed out, because “you’re emptying my tank glass by glass. I cannot use this tank until you drink [it all]. ... At the same time, I like this bottleneck because it offers me fresh beer that is really tasty, and, how do you call it ... ”
“Craft?” Tabiat suggested.