No crying in to your beer: Lebanon's '961' launches in the US

Published January 17th, 2013 - 11:57 GMT
Lebanon’s craft beer brand, 961, started exporting to the U.S. last week
Lebanon’s craft beer brand, 961, started exporting to the U.S. last week

Lebanon’s craft beer brand, 961, started exporting to the U.S. last week, bringing Hamra hipsters’ favorite beverage to the world’s most crowded microbrew market.

Chief operating officer Ilyas Kanaan told The Daily Star that 5,000 cases, or 120,000 bottles, of 961 had arrived in the U.S. around Christmas and had been available in liquor stores and upscale grocery chains in Brooklyn, Chicago and multiple other cities on the East Coast for a little over a week. It is 961’s biggest international order yet, Kanaan said, and he expected the U.S. to remain the brand’s biggest export market in the long term.

The target U.S. market for 961, and most craft beer, is “urban types; the kind of beer drinkers who care what they eat.”

In other words, the type of people who shop at Whole Foods in Massachusetts, where 961 will now be sold, along with other microbrews, geared toward image-conscious, hipster-yuppie-hybrid-consumers.

Since 961 has only been for sale in the U.S. for a week, state-by-state sales figures are not available, but the early reception has been positive and 961 is planning to send another 5,000-case shipment in about a month.

A particularly sui generis variety of 961, brewed with Zaatar, Sumaac and four other Middle Easter herbs and spices, has been the most popular in the U.S. market.

Though 961 exports 60 percent of the 200,000 cases of beer it produces annually to countries across Europe and Asia, including Dubai, Hong Kong, Syria, France, and the U.K., the U.S. market is the largest, most competitive beer market in the world, with over 2,000 brands for sale.

Kanaan seems unconcerned about how 961 will fare in such an overcrowded, niche market. “In a market like that, getting a distributor interested in the process is feedback in itself,” he said.

961 will expand into other new export markets this year as well – Spain has filed an order for which the brewery lacks the capacity to fill right now – and is planning to double its production capacity at its plant in Lebanon to meet demand. Kanaan said 961 had just secured $1.5 million in financing from a Lebanese investor.

Meanwhile, U.S. beer experts believe there’s plenty of room for a Lebanese microbrew in the crowded artisanal market.

“It would appear to be the perfect time to debut a new import in the American marketplace,” said Tom Acitelli, author of the forthcoming craft-beer history book “The Audacity of Hops.” “[Consumers are] always on the lookout for new brands, especially novel ones like 961,” he added.

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