West Bank brewery celebrates success with Oktoberfest

TAYBEH, West Bank — It may not be what signatories of the Oslo Accords had in mind, but optimism generated by the 1993 peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians had a relatively underreported positive result: beer.

And not just any beer, as an expected 10,000 participants in the Taybeh Oktoberfest being held in this small Christian village outside Ramallah over the weekend, will attest. The beer made at Taybeh Brewery — named for the town where it was first brewed and, incidentally, the Arabic word for "delicious" — is not only popular among Palestinians (there's a non-alcoholic variety for teetotalers), but has a following in Israel and beyond. It is stocked on shelves in Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and even Japan.

What began with a home beer-brewing kit in Boston for Taybeh's founder, Nadim Khoury, almost 30 years ago is now one of the only microbreweries in the Middle East. This will be its fifth annual Oktoberfest event.

Khoury, 50, and his brother David were enticed back to their native Taybeh in 1994, they say by the optimism of the optimism of the Oslo Accords, and the first bottle of Taybeh Golden was made the following year. Then Oslo collapsed, the Israeli occupation and settlement expansion increased, and the Second Intifada broke out. The choke of more checkpoints and closures prevented Taybeh trucks from moving around, even in the Ramallah district that is its immediate market. Sales  plummeted.

As Khoury fields phone calls and issues marching orders from a brewery floor littered with posters advertising Oktoberfest, he recounts his beer’s comeback.

“Now we make 600,000 liters of beer a year. See those Hebrew labels?” Khoury says, pointing toward a team of workers slapping clear stickers onto individual bottles before returning them to their cases. “That beer’s headed to Jerusalem.”

The German-style microbrew is crisp and full of the hops imported from Munich — nothing like Egypt’s fickle and watery Stella, or Syria’s often-flat Barada brand.

Taybeh is sold throughout the West Bank, though only in Christian areas. “There’s an old Jordanian law that says alcohol can only be sold in Christian communities,” Khoury says, which means Taybeh is available in Ramallah, but not nearby al-Bireh, in Bethlehem, but not Nablus.

For the European market, Taybeh has been produced under license in Germany since 1997 — the first Palestinian franchise to achieve that.

But its sale in Israel attracts the most attention.

“Beer and politics does not mix, I don’t think, but this is one hundred percent Palestinian, so why not sell it in Israel?” Khoury says. “Palestinians consume plenty of Israeli products, so why can an Israeli not consume a Palestinian one?”

Not that this matter-of-factness influences soldiers at Israeli checkpoints. Khoury points to an empty beer keg, cut in half on the floor.

“We had to do that to show the soldiers that when it’s full of beer, it can’t hold anything else.”

He cites long waits at checkpoints as high up on a long list of border-related hassles: “I keep trying to tell the soldiers that beer can’t keep in a keg, not refrigerated, for six hours.”

While Khoury is the master brewer, most of his family is also involved brewing business. His brother David is a co-founder, and incidentally the mayor of Taybeh. Khoury’s eldest daughter, Madees, 24, recently spent a month in China learning new brew crafts. “The days are long. I’m up at five in the morning, and usually when we get home at night, my father will start wanting to work on something else, like the website,” she says, sitting on the stoop between the factory and their house, which is just across the driveway.

“I could brew on the phone without being in the brewery,” she continues confidently, recalling her wonder when looking at fermenting tanks and filters of the newly opened factory.

Taybeh has five brews — Golden, Light, Amber, Dark — and recently introduced a non-alcoholic brand.

“There are over 15 brands of non-alcoholic drinks on the market, from Saudi, Egypt,” Khoury says. “And they’re all from artificial ingredients.”

Marketing a beverage that some Palestinians jokingly refer to as Taybeh’s “Hamas” beer, given its green label, is the next challenge.

Meantime, it’s clear Khoury has been asked one too many times about how he sells beer in a Muslim-majority society that only seems to be getting more religious.

“What am I supposed to do if someone doesn’t drink?” he snaps. “That’s why we have a new brand.”

Yet there are constant reminders of local resistance to Taybeh beer.

The car of David Khoury, mayor of Taybeh, was recently torched outside the Taybeh Municipality building during the mayor’s weekly evening meeting. Nadim Khoury said they hoped to find out who threw a plastic bottle of fuel into his brother’s car and prosecute. “Who knows,” Khoury shrugs, “maybe someone who doesn’t like Taybeh, or doesn’t like that we’re having another Oktoberfest.”

Both Nadim and Madees Khoury are quick to acknowledge the non-alcohol-related attractions of the festival, which draws performers and other local vendors from across the West Bank.

“It helps boost Taybeh’s economy, and if we can do that, and help in our way toward peace,” Madees says, looking into the sun and the olive groves on hills over the fence.

[Editor's note: This story was updated to remove an assertion that Taybeh is the only microbrewery in the Middle East. In fact, there are others.]