Sun, Nov 12, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Microbreweries edge their way into Lebanon’s beer market

By Sara Hussein  /  AFP, BATROUN, Lebanon

Workers fill beer bottles at Colonel Beer Microbrewery in Batroun, Lebanon, on Oct. 5.
Warning: Excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your health

Photo: AFP

For decades, beer in Lebanon has meant just one thing: the ubiquitous local pilsner, Almaza. However, now a crop of local microbrews is making headway in the home market.

On the shore of the seaside town of Batroun, 34-year-old Jamil Haddad presides over the Colonel Beer Microbrewery, now just more than three years old and expanding fast.

“Every year I’m growing like crazy,” he told reporters, as workers put the finishing touches to a stage in the brewery’s garden for its annual festival.

This year alone, thanks in part to his new beach bar a few hundred meters from the brewery, business is up 45 percent, he said.

“When I opened in 2014, I was afraid. Are people going to be okay with this concept? It’s new, it’s not traditional, it’s different,” Haddad said.

Initially he set his sights low, producing just a single lager, aiming for a product that would be accessible for beer drinkers used to the crisp, but one-note taste of Almaza (diamond in Arabic).

“Then I was surprised... I found that many people who came, they know what [it] means, different kind of beers,” he said. “The other people who don’t know, they were very open to understanding it.”

Microbreweries, small and often experimental producers focusing on flavor and quality, have been booming across the world, with the sector particularly frothy in the US and Britain.

However, in the Muslim-majority Middle East, alcohol is shunned by many for religious reasons, leaving smaller markets that are often dominated by a single standard beer.

Lebanon stands apart from many of its neighbors, with relatively relaxed social mores and a large Christian population, meaning its market for booze is larger.

With 4 million citizens overall, annual beer consumption totaled 29 million liters last year, according to Lebanon’s Blom Bank, with Almaza accounting for three-quarters of the market.

However, if the drinkers are there, local producers face a raft of challenges, most of them born of the fact that ingredients, including hops, are not available domestically and must be imported.

Even bottles are brought in from abroad, because Lebanon has no local glass industry, putting producers at the mercy of lengthy shipping times and high import fees.

Most Lebanese beer aficionados acknowledge that year zero for the country’s craft brew sector was 2006, when the founders of 961 Beer got started, even as a devastating war between the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and neighboring Israel was under way.

It was a challenging start for the company, which is named for Lebanon’s telephone country code, but despite some rocky years, it now produces for the international market, as well as local customers.

“We’re the only microbrewery in the region that exports,” 961 Beer chief commercial officer Iyad Rasbey said, manning a mobile stand offering several of the brewery’s products at a beer festival in Beirut.

“We export around six to seven containers a month to Europe, Brazil and the United States. That doesn’t include the Far East and Middle East region,” he told reporters, proffering a plastic cup emblazoned with the company logo and filled with its signature red ale.

Last year, 961 Beer accounted for 5 percent of Lebanon’s beer market, according to Blom Bank, but the company now focuses predominantly on exports, which make up 85 percent of its sales, Rasbey said.

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