You know fall is near when thousands of visitors converge on the Oktoberfest in Taybeh, near Ramallah in the West Bank.
The annual two-day event is not your typical beer carnival, says Palestinian brewer Nadim Khoury.
“It’s a German Oktoberfest, but it’s a Palestinian-style Oktoberfest. We believe that it’s a peaceful resistance to occupation, we want to show the whole world that Palestinians are normal; they like to enjoy life, and beer brings people together,” he said.
On Friday afternoon Nadim Khoury was all smiles, mingling with the crowd while holding a cup of the Golden, the flagship beer that he made history with back in1994, he said, when he co-founded Taybeh Brewing Company with his brother, at the encouragement of their father.
It was the first microbrewery in the Middle East. Nadim says that, despite their great success, they operate under harsh conditions. “We face many challenges; many stem from the Israeli occupation and the harsh restrictions it imposes on our exports and imports of ingredients we need for our operation,” he said.
The brewery’s founding father is still involved in the business, but he’s slowly passing the baton to his two children.
Much of the daily operations of the family-run micro-brewery is the responsibility of Nadim’s daughter, Madees. The 36-year-old said that she decided to return to Taybeh after graduating in 2007 from university in Boston in the United States, to help run the family business.
“I grew up in the business since I was nine years old, just being in the way. Folding cartons and being in the way and watching my family work really hard and making an amazing product and getting it all over the place and making the name,” she said.
Madees prides herself on being the first, and perhaps the only, female brewer in the Middle East. She says the festival is a great boon for the tiny village, tucked in the sleepy hills of the West Bank about six miles northeast of Ramallah.
“It’s just not your typical Oktoberfest. It’s more like an open day for the village of Taybeh. The whole idea is not just to come here and drink beer; it’s more to visit the old city, visit the old churches, visit the town. We have the women’s organization selling their homemade products, we have the local restaurants making food,” she said.
The festival attracts visitors from all over the world, and for the Khoury family the brewery and festival are an opportunity to showcase their beer, village and Palestine.
“The idea is to not just promote Taybeh, but also show a different side of Palestine. People see on the news bad stuff. We want people to see good stuff. The Palestinian people live like anyone around the world. We drink, we dance, we eat, we are having a good time. We are enjoying life, and this is what we are trying to show,” Madees said.
Madees says her goal is to turn her family brewery into a global beer brand, and they must overcome many hurdles.
“But our biggest challenge is the occupation, it’s disruptive. We don’t have our own water, we don’t have enough water, 95% of beer is water and we can’t produce as much as we are able to because of the lack of water,” she explained.
Peter Krause, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, told The Media Line that this is his second time at the event. He was last here in 2009 when he studied Arabic in Ramallah.
Thirteen years later he’s back with his wife, Jessie. It’s her first time.
“I’ll be honest, I think many people, I teach my students … many of them would assume Palestinians are majority Muslim and a lot of people maybe don’t drink; obviously it’s a Christian village, they make beer here,” he said.
“We came here because we wanted to support Taybeh brewery, we think it’s a great business and we love the Oktoberfest and seeing all of the people. I’ll be honest I’ve had beer in Lebanon, in Israel. I think this is the best beer in the Middle East. They ship it to Boston, and we buy it there sometimes,” Krause said.
American winner of the beer holding competition, Ben Bianco, attended with his wife, Anastasia Bianco, who performed at the festival. But he says that, despite her amazing singing talent, he was the one who stole the show.
“I won! I won a full case of beer. I killed it. It was incredible. It was easy!” Bianco said. With his wife standing next to him, Bianco kept a straight face while joking about the grueling workout he had to go through to win a case of beer.
“I’ve been looking forward to this Oktoberfest all year and have practicing for this beer holding competition. I started by holding small cups of water in my kitchen,” he said. The competition, also known as Steinholding, is a traditional Bavarian contest of strength, where drinkers hold out a full one-liter beer stein for as long as they can. The last person holding their glass, or beer stein, in a good form, is the winner.
Taybeh is one of nine Christian towns and villages in the West Bank, giving it a limited local market.
To help draw tourists to their village, the beer dynasty family opened an 80-room hotel in the village, run by Nadim’s sister, Buthainah, and launched a small boutique winery, run by his son, Canaan.
The brewery helps boost the local economy. Some 45 people are expected to be called back to work at the local hotel, and the winery, after being laid off for two years because of COVID-19. There also are 20 workers at the brewery.
“I focus mostly on making different beers, I’m running the winery and I help run the operations of the brewery,” Canaan said.
“We grow our own vineyard here in Taybeh, but also we support Palestinian farmers from nearby towns. We buy from Birzeit, Aboud, Hebron, Jerusalem,” he added.
The 31-year-old Harvard graduate said he studied engineering because, as he said, it’s “the closest thing to beer making.” Canaan then spent a year at the University of California, Davis studying beer making, and he finished his education with an MBA from Stanford University.
Consuming beer for Canaan isn’t just about drinking – it’s an experience. He wants people to focus on why they are drinking beer, what are they smelling, and what are they feeling when they consume this beverage.
Like most family businesses, Canaan said that he doesn’t have a “specific position. We are all jacks-of-all-trades.”
But he has been busy creating new flavored beers.
“We’re trying to infuse local flavors and ingredients in our production and, so, we are doing that with beer that has za’atar, anis, and sage; we have an Arabic coffee, we have cardamom in it as well,” Canaan said.
He says the purpose is to “showcase the local flavors and try to tell the story behind every beer.”
Expanding their business and market share hasn’t been easy for the Khoury family. Nadim says the brewery is flourishing, and they put a lot of emphasis on using the finest products out there. As a result, he says, Taybeh brewery products can be found in major markets around the world.
“We are in 18 countries; we started in Palestine, now we are selling in San Francisco, Boston, Denmark, Japan, Canada, all over the world,” he said, adding that “next week we’ll send the first shipment to the United Arab Emirates. For the first time.”
Nadim isn’t worried about the future of the family brewery,
“We are continuing the legacy with the kids now, which I’m very happy about. It’s a blessing from God, when the children take over the father’s business,” he said.
The story is written by Mohammad Al-Kassim and reprinted with permission from The Media Line