Palestinian beer: Taybeh on tap

Taybeh’s Oktoberfest, now in its eighth year, celebrates a patriotic and independent Palestinian business and a lot of good beer.

Taybeh 521 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Taybeh 521
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
There were plenty of beer glasses to be raised in celebration last weekend in the Arab Christian village of Taiba: approximately 7,000 liters per day. And there was plenty to celebrate: rebuilding the Palestinian economy, supporting local businesses, encouraging organic, environmentally friendly consumption and promoting Israeli-Palestinian relations. Not to mention liters and liters of pretty delicious beer.
Taiba’s annual Oktoberfest is now in its eighth year. The proudly Palestinian Taybeh brewery is the largest microbrewery in the region and predates Israeli microbreweries by nearly a decade. Since 2005, it has celebrated with a community beer festival that pumps hundreds of thousands of shekels into the impoverished village. Upward of 20,000 visitors from around the world pour through the city in two days, snapping up local crafts such as soap, olive oil, honey, embroidery and more felafel balls than the village sells during the rest of the year combined.
The brewery was started by brothers David and Nadim Khoury with their father, Canaan Khoury. The brothers had been living in Boston, Massachusetts, for more than 30 years, where Nadim picked up the hobby of home-brewing. He would brew beer for his family during trips back to Taiba in the summer.
They called the brewing “magic” and convinced Nadim he could turn it into a business.
In the fevered optimism surrounding the 1993 Oslo Accords, when an independent Palestinian state seemed achievable, Canaan convinced Nadim and David to join the flood of expat Palestinians returning to help build their new state.
Inspired by the hope that the Oslo Accords would bring peace and stability, the Khoury family decided to pursue their dream of opening the first Palestinian brewery.
In 1995, they received the necessary permits and began to sell bottles of Taybeh Beer Golden, a mild and citrusy German Pilsener. Today they sell the original Golden, as well as Amber, Dark and a special non-alcoholic brew for observant Muslims.
The annual Oktoberfest is a rollicking party, with musicians from around the world, as well as local performers and a palpitation-inducing performance by the Palestinian Circus School on dilapidated equipment. At one point, I catch a Bavarian tuba player from Munich stuffing his face with felafel while dressed in lederhosen and holding a Palestinian beer in the other hand; the smorgasbord of cultures makes me laugh out loud.
TAYBEH HAS a lot of firsts under its label. It’s the first Palestinian beer, which is no small feat given that 98 percent of the West Bank is Muslim, and traditionally observant Muslims don’t drink alcohol. It was the first microbrewery in the region, opening a full decade before Israelis caught the trend. It was the first organic beer in the region. And Nadim’s daughter, Mades Khoury, is one of the first female brewmasters in the region, and the first female Palestinian brewmaster.
That’s not to say the beer is lacking in challenges.
Because the Palestinian territories have no independent port by sea, air or land, Taybeh depends on customs at the Ashdod Port. All of the raw material is imported from Europe – malted barley from Belgium, hops from the Czech Republic, yeast from London. Difficulties with the Customs Authority mean that sometimes the materials are held up for days or weeks, leading to spoilage and a loss in profits. The ever-changing situation with the checkpoints means that often Taybeh needs to use the checkpoint closest to Hebron for deliveries to Israel.
“Sometimes it takes us a full day to deliver a keg to Jerusalem,” says David.
During the second intifada, the company suffered badly as the Palestinian economy collapsed. Business picked up again in 2005 and has been increasing steadily ever since. Today, the company exports to Japan and Sweden and has a franchise in Belgium that makes Nadim’s recipe and sells it in Germany.
Nadim is proud of the company’s status as an independently owned Palestinian business.
“This is peaceful resistance to the [Israeli] occupation,” he says. Encouraging small business owners to create jobs and rebuild the Palestinian economy is essential to an independent Palestinian state, he reasons. Without a sound economy, Palestine will never become a reality.
“Whatever we do for Palestine, we give it a good image – that we are normal people, that we like to practice our daily needs and to live like human beings,” he says.
“And to show the world that Palestinians are not terrorists, and they like to enjoy life.”
DAVID’S WIFE, Maria Khoury, is the force behind the festival.
She starts fund-raising in February, securing corporate sponsorship so the artisans and food vendors can keep 100% of the money they make from sales. At the beginning, it was hard trying to get local politicians in the West Bank to support the idea of a beer festival, she says. But gradually they understood the economic importance.
“[After the first year], one of the vendors said, ‘I sell more felafel in those two days than I do the rest of the year,’” she says. “It gave me the energy, just imagine – it encouraged me.”
Maria calls the Taiba Oktoberfest “a different face for Palestine,” adding, “I hope it shows how deep our cultural identity is, so people look at us as regular people too. I go to America a lot, and people say, ‘All the Palestinians are terrorists.’” David is another first: Taiba’s first democratically elected mayor. Since his election in 2005, he has been able to unite various groups such as women’s craft groups, boy scouts and artisan groups, to make a festival that would benefit as many of the village’s residents as possible.
The economic impact is important in encouraging more Taiba residents to come back to the village. Nadim says there are actually more former Taiba residents in Dearborn, Michigan, than there are in all of Taiba today.
According to David, there are approximately 17,000 of the village’s former residents and their children scattered around the world; most of them left for economic reasons.
The village has about 1,500 people living there today.
It’s not easy being a brewery in a predominantly Muslim area. Maria says advertising is constantly a challenge in the West Bank, where it’s not culturally acceptable to advertise alcohol. However, both Khoury brothers point out, many hotels serving foreigners proudly display signs for Taybeh beer. Even if many citizens can’t drink it openly, Palestinian hotels are proud to share their local beer with tourists.
“Palestinians have lost their nationalistic feeling about drinking or consuming their own country’s products,” says Nadim. “And now if you go to a bar or a restaurant or a hotel in Palestine, proudly they’re serving Taybeh beer... they feel good about their own products. This is how the state of Palestine can be created and can be built.”
“We are producing a high-quality product and getting the name Palestine into the national market,” explains Mades, the youngest brewmaster, as she serves cup after cup to thirsty festival goers.
The recipe for Taybeh beer is based on the German purity laws of 1516, which allow for only four ingredients – hops, malted barley, yeast and natural spring water (yeast was added in a later provision, as it was only discovered in the late 1800s and brewmasters had always used sediment containing yeast from previous batches to aid in fermentation). Taybeh is also all-organic and has no preservatives.
Taybeh’s secret is high-quality water from the Ein Samia spring five kilometers away, explains Buthina Canaan Khoury, Nadim’s and David’s youngest sister, in charge of brewery tours during the festival. The entire family of five siblings, as well as Mades and a smattering of cousins, all work in the brewery, along with 15 other employees who aren’t related to the Khourys.
The Oktoberfest is also notable for the wide range of people it draws – including Israelis of all ages.
“As an Israeli, I think it’s in the interest of Israel that Palestine should be independent and should have a good economic base,” says David Sitman from Tel Aviv. “I can only hope that a place like Taybeh Brewery, which makes excellent beer, can supply the kind of economic base which will promote good relations between Israel and Palestine.”
Adam Waddell from Haifa says he came to the festival “to try to break out of our comfort zone, to see new cultures, meet new people, to communicate, to create dialogue, and also to promote Palestinian economy.”
Waddell adds that he planned on coming to last year’s festival, but at the last minute decided against it because he was worried about traveling to the Palestinian territories.
This year, the political situation was much calmer, and he is glad he came.
“I think it’s important to see everything that Israel and the territories has to offer,” says Waddell’s friend Max Spitalnick from Reut. “It’s important to keep an open mind and experience things firsthand rather than listening to rhetoric.”
The symbolism behind the beer isn’t lost during Oktoberfest.
Palestinian flags fly prominently from almost every building. From the stage, the MC talks about Palestinian pride as she introduces local breakdancers from Bethlehem.
But it is, after all, a beer festival, and the beer is flowing freely. Nadim says his professor at the University of California, Davis, where he completed a degree in brewing engineering, told him to name his beer something local, so people would know where it came from. He didn’t hesitate for a moment in deciding to call it Taybeh.
In Arabic, after all, “taybeh” means “delicious.”