"Brewed by brothers for friends” is the slogan of Shepherds Beer, the handcrafted local brew that was introduced to the Palestinian market recently.
A family business based in Bir Zeit in the West Bank, the brand-new business is overseen by 27-year-old Alaa Sayej, oldest of three brothers, CEO of the company, and tour guide for The Media Line’s visit.
In mid-June, after many months of delay due to logistic and licensing issues, the Sayej brothers finally bottled the first batch of 2,000 bottles of their Blonde Pilsner Lager recipe. A week later, two additional flavors, the Amber Ale and the Stout, invaded bars and restaurants in Christian cities across the West Bank.
“It was a fastidious and challenging launch, but the results after only five weeks are really positive and encouraging. We received many orders from bars, restaurants and retailers,” Sayej, who previously studied business and spent time working in a bank before moving into beverages, told The Media Line.
Moreover, the company offers innovations new to its Palestinian customers such as a draft machine that can be ordered for an event, installed by a brewery worker who delivers the kegs along with plastic cups, leaving it ready for all to pour a tall one.
“Since the first bottling, we’ve had more than 15 events, from weddings and graduations to engagements and baptisms. People are really enthusiastic about the idea of having fresh beer served to them immediately,” the brewer said.
In addition to the three basic recipes, Shepherds Brewery will produce limited editions of one-off brews every season. The Summer Ale 2015 was launched on July 7, and a Christmas edition is being prepared for the coming winter. A nonalcoholic version should be out by the end of the year.
Shepherds Brewery also aims to introduce Palestinian connoisseurs to a positive beer-drinking culture by educating people, both adults and children, about the traditions of brewing. The factory is open for visits on Mondays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m.
The ambitious CEO is already thinking of producing and selling home-brewing kits based on his own recipes.
“If you love my beers and you want to brew your own, just learn the way I did. It is every man’s dream to have his own brewery and beer,” joked Sayej.
The idea originated in England where Sayej spent time studying for a master’s degree in finance and investment management. He made his first home- brewed beer with an Irish friend in the dormitory’s kitchen.
Although work opportunities existed abroad, Sayej was set on returning home after completing his studies and did just that. But unsatisfied by the job options available in the Palestinian Authority, he decided it was time to open his own business and fulfill his dream.
“I wanted to do something for my country, to boost our economy.”
His two brothers joined the venture. Aziz, 25, is responsible for bottling and maintenance, and Khalid, 23, is head brew master responsible for the daily quality control. Their sister, Norma, 20, is also assisting with marketing while continuing with her studies.
Four workers and a secretary complete the team, assisted by a number of external subcontractors. There are no intermediaries between the producers and the brewery. The different kinds of malts are of high quality, directly imported by the brewery from the Czech Republic, and the hops come from England, the Czech Republic and New Zealand.
The system and machines in the factory were designed by Alaa and a German brewing engineer specifically to fit the low-ceiling warehouse; all were imported from abroad.
But the entire brewing system, six containers in all, were held at an Israeli port for three months during the Gaza war last summer. In addition, the foreign engineer who was supposed to install the filling line did not get the required visa to enter the country, delaying bottling by another two months.
Importing goods and staff was not the only challenge. The Palestinian Authority imposed constraints, deliberate impediments due to restrictions regarding alcohol consumption observed by many Muslims.
“Some workers [in the ministries] refused to deal with my application because it is a brewery. Or some drivers would not deliver my malt because it is for an alcoholic drink,” explained Alaa. Special authorization from officials was required, and Alaa estimates that due to the permits and delays of licensing, his investment spiraled to more than a million dollars.
For the product logo, the Sayej brothers chose a picture of a shepherd with a star overhead.
“This is to honor our ancestors,” as all Palestinians were once farmers or shepherds, Alaa explained.
But the Commerce Ministry did not look so kindly on the symbolism and at first rejected the logo, stating that it appeared too similar to Jesus and was therefore a religious icon. But once again, the Sayejs’ efforts and tenacity succeeded, and after a three-month battle, the label design was approved.
“It is an excellent initiative; I wish more and more Palestinians would open such businesses,” said Saleh Totah, owner of the upscale La Vie Café in Ramallah. “It is a positive cultural attack in Palestine to start a brewery or winery project, the society needs it,” the restaurateur said.
Even though wine has been produced in the region for centuries, alcohol consumption remains taboo among some sections of Palestinian society. Only Christians are allowed to produce and sell alcoholic beverages; Muslims are discouraged from drinking.
But Alaa admits that Palestinian Christians alone – who constitute only 1.8 percent of the population – could not make up the entirety of his market.
“Everyone is allowed to drink... there’s no police - men standing in front of liquor stores. But we can’t sell in supermarkets in the Islamic cities [such as] Nablus [and] Hebron,” he explained.
Cities such as Bethlehem and Ramallah with Christian communities are where the majority of their sales are made. Some foreigners account for trade as well, but it’s hardly a secret that some Muslims drink, Alaa said. “It’s like Jews who eat pork.”
Women also enjoy Shepherds, with the stout beer flavors of chocolate and espresso particularly popular among them.
Totah confirmed that the new Shepherd beers were the No. 1-selling brand in his café since they were launched, and he expects the limited edition, Summer Ale, to break the records.
“I am glad to see new Palestinian products on the market. I have four beers on tap here, and finally in a few weeks I will have a Palestinian draft beer available,” he said.
Alaa admitted that a desire to see more local brands consumed by Palestinians had been one of his motivations for opening. The Shepherds Brewery is only the second Palestinian beer producer to open in the West Bank and is possibly inspired by a wave of microbreweries in neighboring Israel and in the wider world. Previously, beer drinkers had only the option of 14 foreign brands and five others from Israel, not including the very successful local brand, Taybeh.
Jimmy, a 26-year-old American Palestinian, said the new beers have great taste and offer a good local alternative to foreign beers.
“I am a whiskey drinker, but a nice cool beer always hits the spot. After trying it a couple of times, I place the Blonde Pilsner lager No. 1 on my chart,” Jimmy told The Media Line.
The Sayej brothers want their beers to win over the Palestinian market, but they hope by next spring to turn their gaze outward to European countries, such as the Czech Republic or England, and closer to home in Jordan, where their products are labeled with Jordanian bar codeFor more stories from the Media line