Beer and Wine, Palestinian-Style

By Jason Shaltiel

With the first beer that Nadim Khoury brewed in his Boston dorm more than 25 years ago, he took a first step toward introducing his ale to the Palestinian territories, where such libations were scarce due to religious rules and teachings.

“I would bring it with me here in the summer,” Khoury, 56, explained, sitting in his winery at the Taybeh Golden Hotel, in the small West Bank village of Taybeh, his hometown and the only Christian village in the Palestinian territories, a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem. “Make beer for my family, and they would believe it’s magic.”

Taybeh Brewing Co.
Nadim Khoury. Credit: Taybeh Brewing Co.

Khoury, a Christian Palestinian, founded the West Bank’s first brewery and winery 21 years ago, and put “Drink Palestine” and “Taste the Revolution” on the labels.

According to Khoury family, 60% of its beer and wine is sold in Palestine, 30% in Israel and 10% through exports. This is despite that Muslim religious law bans alcohol and many Jews observe Kosher dietary rules.

Thus, a large part of sales comes from tourists who visit Israel and the West Bank, the family said.

“The population is 99% Muslim, 1% Christian and the amount of alcohol sold in Palestine cannot be drank by the 1% Christians,” said Khoury.

His son added, “It’s a misconception, or a generalization, to say that Muslims don’t drink.”

A visit to local hotels and restaurants support his claim. Many restaurants and bars in Ramallah serve alcohol, and Muslims are known to frequent those spots. Restaurants such as the Snowbar provide a comfortable outdoor setting for local families and visitors.

And many Israeli Jews do not observe Kosher rules and don’t care if they drink non-kosher products. Several bars on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv serve Taybeh beer.

Khoury’s road to Taybeh was not a smooth one. After graduating from Hellenic College in Boston with a business degree in 1983, Khoury decided to remain in the United States. But he returned to Taybeh frequently, at the urging of his father, who feared his son could lose his Palestinian ID card if he remained outside the country for more than seven years.

Khoury’s father ran a travel agency in Ramallah, and urged his son to open a brewery in his native town. But Khoury, married and comfortably settled in Boston, was hesitant to return to his homeland. He and his wife, Suhair Hard, had two children born in the U.S. and Khoury owned and operated two liquor stores. Meanwhile at home a deadly conflict was brewing between the Palestinian Arabs and Israelis. But that changed with the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, a major step in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

It was the first time that the governing bodies on each side granted recognition of each other and created the Palestinian Authority, a governing body in the Occupied West Bank and a permanent negotiating partner for Israel.

Khoury saw a chance for peace and relocated his family to Taybeh in 1994, and then established the Taybeh Brewing Company.

The entire Khoury family pitched in, from his 9-year-old daughter to his sister-in-law Maria. Working together, the family created the first brewery in Palestine. Ten family members currently help run the business.

From the ingredients used to brew beer to packaging materials, nearly everything had to be imported from Europe. Growing hops is virtually impossible in the region’s arid climate, so Khoury imported them from Bavaria and the Czech Republic. Glass bottles were imported from Portugal for several years, Khoury said, until the Israeli government said he would have to buy them locally.

Today Taybeh Brewing produces around 150,000 gallons of beer per year. (MillerCoors and Budweiser each sell about 150 million gallons a year.)

The Khoury family’s success has inspired some competitors. In the nearby town of Birzeit, the brothers Khalid and Alaa Sayejhave established Shephers brewing company.

Khoury’s daughter Madees, 30, now runs the brewery. “I loved working ever since I was a kid, like my dad,” Madees said, while cooling her head with a long fan.

Taybeh brews six different beers: golden, amber dark, light, white and non-alcoholic. Golden is a classic lager. The white beer, launched in 2013, is Taybeh’s only beer that includes ingredients from to the Holy Land. Wheat grown in the West Bank is used as a base ingredient; coriander and orange peels from nearby Palestinian villages are added for flavor.

A typical brewing day starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m. But in recent years the brewing has been disrupted because of a lack of water. The Khourys said the water shortage had become more apparent over the years as more Israeli settlements were established on the West Bank. The settlers “have priority access to the water,” Khoury said. “They have water every day, and we have water once a week.”

The Israeli government disputes that. Palestinian cities get water under water-sharing agreements established by the Oslo Accords “and it’s not affected by Israeli communities nearby,” said Shimon Mercer Wood, at the Israeli Consulate General in New York. “It seems unlikely that Taybeh would get less water because there is a settlement nearby.”

Work and brewing schedules are set to take into account days where no water is received, which are usually know in advance. On one recent day, the bottling line was processing 4,500 bottles an hour but had to shut because the main water pipe stopped pumping water.

But water is just one of many problems. Importing supplies is made more difficulty by Israel’s security measures. What used to be a short drive from the port of Jaffa can take days, because of added checkpoints and a goods-screening process for imports intended for non-Israelis.

Canaan Khoury said a British study found that Israeli companies pay about $700 in processing fees for each imported shipping container, while a Palestinian importing the same container would pay around $1,700.

While Wood would not confirm that figure, he did say Palestinian businesses pay extra to have their goods screened for security measures and Israeli taxpayers also contribute to the pool. “It is unfortunate that at the moment for security reasons we need to screen things coming in, and that comes at a cost,” Woods said.

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“We have a very sensitive business here,” said Khoury.

Despite the difficulties, the Khourys have expanded their business, opening their winery in 2013.

Canaan Khoury, 24, was born in Boston, moved to Taybeh with his family at age 3, eventually attended a Quaker high school in Ramallah and then studied mechanical engineering and material science at Harvard University.

He is more reserved than his father when talking about the business. “We have a very sensitive business here,” he said. “Anything that you might say, anything political can be used against you, whether it’s from Palestinians or Israelis, or any other group, so you have to be as apolitical as you can, I guess.”

Among the residents of Taybeh, it’s common to make wine at home, using their own grapes. The results are often high in sugar. “I wouldn’t say this is the best way to make wine, but that’s pretty much how I learnt,” Canaan said.

During its first year, the winery hired an Italian wine maker, Roberto Pagliarine, for guidance. Now, it sells four blends, three red and a white. The American Colony, a hotel in Jerusalem, offers the Khoury wine and named it wine of the month twice in the summer of 2015.

Word of mouth is crucial for the company. Tours of the brewery, winery and hotel are offered. Madees and Maria act as the guides and said that some days they return to the brewery hours after closing to allow visitors a chance to tour the facilities.

The Taybeh Golden Hotel, near the town center, took eight years to complete. Its lobby is brightly lighted with white marble floors and unstained walls, and original Palestinian art hangs on its walls. In September, the hotel hosted its 11th annual Oktoberfest. Thousands of Palestinians and tourists attended and local bands performed.

For the Khourys, their Palestinian identify has always been the focal point of their business. “We like to toast peace with our products. It’s very important,” Khoury said. “Inshalah,” (Arabic for God Willing), he said rising raising a glass of Taybeh wine.

“A toast, cheers.”