Perhaps to most Lebanese, beer is seen as the “grown-up’s soft drink” – a vaguely alcoholic, easily drinkable and neutral-tasting beverage. But one Lebanese entrepreneur is beginning to change that.
“Lebanon’s historical experiences with beer have been shaped by its colonial past and France is not a beer country,” explains Mazen Hajjar, founder and chief executive of 961 beer.
But now, with his increasingly popular 961 beer, and its sister product, Lebanese Brew, a pilsner, which is being officially launched this week, Hajjar is changing that.
In July 2006 Hajjar returned to Lebanon after a stint of working abroad. When war broke out the next month, he was convinced that he had to stay. We realized, he says, “right now, Lebanon needs its people more than ever.”
Hajjar opened a bar in which to sell the results of his experimentations with brewing, a process he had no previous experience with.
Named 961, after the country’s dialing code, the bar and its beers were fiercely “Lebanese” creations.
“When everyone was moving out of the country, we were moving in. It reflects our belief in Lebanon. We’re proud to be Lebanese.”
961 beers – including a lager, a red ale, a Witbier and a porter – are now exported to 16 countries.
The Lebanese Brew – or LB, the country’s Internet code – as the name suggests, is perhaps even more patriotic than its sisters.
Tagged “A Brave New Beer,” Hajjar says that “With LB we’re trying to bring beer back to its original home.
“The first human settlements were from the Sinai to Mesopotamia, and some believe that people first settled in one place in order to grow barley. Beer is the oldest beverage on earth, originating from 9,000 B.C.”
Lebanese Brew is designed on puritanical principles. A pilsner, it is aimed at perhaps a younger demographic than the 961 range, and as with its sisters, contains no added corn or rice, unlike many commercial beers. It is simply malt, hops, water and yeast.
Downstairs from the office, in Mazreat Yachoura, just outside of Beirut, sits the Gravity Brewing brewery, the parent company for both 961 and LB.
Fresh off the line, a chilled Lebanese Brew is clean and crisp. “You don’t always want an overly complex beer,” Hajjar says. LB is designed to be enjoyed with “light foods, salads, most Lebanese foods.” It’s a beer to sip on the beach, he adds.
Hajjar is visibly proud of what they have achieved at Gravity, and it is not hard to see why. Still classified a micro brewery, the facility is capable of producing 7 million bottles a year. Within a month they will be producing at capacity and exporting the first LB shipment, to the U.K.
After only a few years, 961 products are visibly encroaching on Almaza’s fridge space in Beirut’s best bars. And even before it’s official launch this week, Lebanese Brew is stocked in over 700 venues.
The company’s philosophy of national pride is pervasive and infectious. Hajjar is adamant that his beers are not in competition with Almaza, which he labels “a national icon.”
“We just want to give consumers choice, to create something different for the Lebanese market. We wanted to make a beer which we would drink.”
Although the hops for the beers are currently imported from Germany, a seasonal Harvest beverage has used domestically produced crops, from the Bekaa. In three years Hajjar hopes that both 961 and LB beers will use hops grown in Lebanon. Not only will this help provide more jobs in often deprived rural areas, but it will also reduce the air miles used to produce the beers.
From the outset, the company made a decision not to sponsor big name international artists visiting Lebanon, but chooses instead to be a patron for homegrown acts such as Mashrou’ Leila and We Run Beirut club nights. “These are our national products, and if we don’t support them we’re killing off what makes Lebanon unique,” he said.
This attitude also plays out at a local, environmental level. The company gives all spent grain to local farmers, free of charge, to feed their livestock, but only on the condition they do not add antibiotics, which can harm the ecosystem. As Hajjar explains, this is some of the best feed there is, completely natural, free of adulteration.
Next up, the company wants to tackle recycling, and at some stage hopefully produce a carbon neutral beer. But these are all happy byproducts, if you like. The beer is the star of the show.
Starting later this week, to celebrate the launch, LB is pioneering what Hajjar says is the first of its kind worldwide, the “Brave Beer Delivery Service.” This service will enable consumers to become a product “fan” on Facebook and then order a crate of 12 bottles of beer to be delivered directly to their door, chilled.
As Hajjar sees it, “have the courage to not be the part of the mass. Follow your convictions. Allow your taste buds to experience. What’s the worst that can happen?”
By Olivia Alabaster