Meet the Palestinian brewmaster brothers who want to get the West Bank hooked on craft beer

By @nigelguywilson

Alaa Sayej pours a beer from the tank at Birzeit brewery(Nigel Wilson for IBT)

Khalid Sayej steps out the front door of the Birzeit Brewery and immediately lights a cigarette. Shaking his head, visibly flustered, he offers his hand and a shy smile.

“I’ve been swimming in beer,” he says, inspecting the damp around his ankles. Earlier this morning, a valve on one of the beer tanks had failed, releasing a thousand-litre wave of pilsner across the warehouse.

Today’s spillage aside, things are looking up for the Holy Land’s newest brewery. Run by three twentysomething brothers, the brewery’s Shepherds beer hit supermarket shelves in the West Bank in June. It’s already a staple at the hippest bars in Ramallah, the de-facto Palestinian capital, despite the traditional dip in alcohol sales during the holy month of Ramadan.

At 27, Alaa Sayej is the oldest of the brothers and CEO of the nascent brewery. Born and raised in the predominately Christian town of Birzeit, he says the idea to launch a beer in his hometown came to him in 2013, while he was studying for a master’s at UCLAN University in Preston.

“There were a lot of microbreweries in the area,” he says. “Those English style pumps, you get a lot of foam but I really liked that kind of beer. I tried many, many times to be a home brewer.”

The Middle East isn’t best known for its craft brewing scene and Alaa smiles as he recalls the surprise on the face of his landlord in Preston, when he told him he was going to open a brewery in Palestine.

Khalid walks with a crate of Shepherds Blonde at the Birzeit brewery(Nigel Wilson for IBT)

“When I went back for graduation, and I told them that I was opening a brewery, they couldn’t believe it,” he says. “My old landlord asked ‘Beer? Non-alcoholic beer, right?’ They had the perception that Palestine is a totally Muslim country.”

That perception is not entirely accurate, but it’s not far off the mark either. Pockets of Christian communities live among a predominately Muslim population in the West Bank.

Rough estimates put the total number of Christians at around 50,000, out of a total population of 2.8 million. Alaa says the process of opening a brewery has been riddled with delays because the idea of brewing and selling beer is so uncommon and even considered anathema to some public officials here.

“My application stayed in the Ministry of Commerce for around three months,” he says. “Many of the government workers are forbidden to work on something to do with alcohol. It takes time for the right person to deal with it.”

Ministries have made additional requests that set back the opening further, for example, citing concerns that the beer could be flammable. “They think it’s like a nuclear reactor inside or something,” Alaa says with a grin.

His chosen label design, a Palestinian shepherd with a staff, walking under the Bethlehem star, was initially rejected. A ministry official thought that the shepherd was supposed to be Jesus. “He looks more similar to Moses than Jesus,” Alaa jokes, with more than a hint of exasperation.

With governmental bureaucracy conquered for now, the Sayej brothers can focus fully on their main aim: to foster a more sophisticated beer culture in Palestine.

Imported lagers are ubiquitous in bars of the big cities and Christian towns here, with Taybeh, the first Palestinian craft beer, offering the only alternative until now.

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