"We have no country but we have our own beer." Nadim Khoury, with his brother David, is the founder of the West Bank finest culinary success : Taybeh beer.
Everything starts in a period of euphoria. In 1993, after the Oslo agreements, investment flows to the benefit of the Palestinian Arabs. The Khoury family, exiled for 30 years in the US, decided to return to Taybeh (which means "delicious" in Arabic), one of the last Christian villages in the West Bank (territory occupied by Israel since 1967 according to the UN) , 30 kilometers north of Jerusalem.
On land of their ancestors, they build a brewery and begin to produce a unpasteurized blonde beer without filtering which taste is really better than all the neighboors beers. Today the boss is Madees, Nadim's daughter. She is the only female brewer in the entire Middle East ...
Taybeh annually produces 6,000 hectoliters of beer when an Alsatian unit of Kronenbourg produces 30,000... a day! The production is organic without being certified, hops and grains come mostly from abroad. Madees explains a very simple process: "21 days of fermentation, no preservatives and we drink".
The production unit is under a small shed. Taybeh responds primarily to the demand: beer is very freshly brewed in the consumer's glass.
Taybeh blond, first Palestinian food bestseller, is now available in a lot of places of Ramallah and Jerusalem. Madees explains that the logo represents the two tanks of the brewery... and the sun makes them hope for a better future in the West Bank hills.
Each year, the range is expanding: we can now unpin porter, amber, light... My desire now is this extra white, made from Palestinian wheat, spices (coriander) and orange zest. This is the first time that the ingredients are almost entirely Palestinian.
Also note, an encouraging alcohol-free beer. They worked a lot to produce it. Taybeh wanted to be sure that alcoholic grade is really 0.0% alcohol. The West Bank is Muslim, so the halal drink need to be blameless. True, the Khoury family could not cut itself from the Hebron or Nablus markets - conservative cities where the sale of alcohol is prohibited. But Madees tempers. "Alcohol-free beer is for Muslims but also for pregnant women, drivers or children! This is a much better refreshing drink than Coca-Cola."
An now? Perhaps a future IPA and seasonal beers. To be continued.
Elsewhere in the village, the Khoury family has made investments to get into the wine.
"The monks in Cremisan near Bethlehem, Palestine still make wine. But the 1967 war and the construction of the separation wall have nearly integrated them on the Israeli side, "says one in Taybeh. "So we made wine in Palestine because there was no longer wine in Palestine."
Canaan Khoury, Madees' brother, Harvard graduated, is in charge of the Taybeh Winery. The first vintage (2013) produced 25,000 bottles. Helped by an Italian oenologist who has set up a brand new winery the company is now hand back on track. During our visit in early summer, basements and some stainless steel French oak barrels were waiting for grapes.
The 6 mono-varietal wines are named after Nadim, the father. But Nadim in Arabic also means "the friend with whom you drink." Are available syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot for reds and sauvignon, zeini for whites.
Taybeh has its own vineyards and purchases grapes. For exempale near Hebron for white Zeini. Besides working this white indigenous grape variety, Zeini, is very interesting. The concern is that Palestinian farmers still watch over the grapes as if it was destined for be eaten. For example they are picked too green. Normal. Wine is not their culture. But everything comes into place gradually.
Tasting the different "Nadim" fills us with joy. Of course, it is not a question of grands crus (for now). But compared to the other wines of Palestine, the Cremisan monks' wines whose vineyard is disputed between Israel and Palestine, Nadim does not play in the same category.
The only indisputably 100% Palestinian wine transforms its first test. Reds are caressing more than they destroy esophagus (as Cremisan's do). The cuvée "Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon deserves special mention as it evokes some nice Mediterranean wines. And this a variety is not one of our favorites... More generally, the domain cab'-sav 'is a real success: I have drunk a dozen during a few weeks with amateurs or neophytes, I noticed that everyone loves it. The whites are more young but again, this is only the beginning.
Let's face it, a negative point. I felt that they want to immediately make a too good wine. Neither Rome nor the Burgundy climates greeted by Unesco, had been made in a day. In Taybeh, they want to focus on quality above all and I understand. So they are a bit too wise during the winemaking process. But me, the taster, would also like to know what is the real WB wine, what it can say to me. To do this, sometimes we would like grapes to be a little more free : that is to say, a a bit less of sulfur (SO2) - particularly with the whites. Time is on they side, I'm sure.
We can talk a lot about beer, wine, sulfur, all these stuffs ... But the most important thing is that the wine and berrs are good and that they are an excuse to talk about something else. Beer is a revealing of the conflict in Jerusalem. Drinking a beer in Israel or Palestine is a political choice. Taybeh tells the journey of a family, a Palestinian achievement and an extraordinarily complex daily work. Perhaps despite themselves, Taybeh became the symbol of a form of political resistance, Christian, popular or a "wine resistance" (delete as appropriate).
The problems that Taybeh faces are countless. There are those that are found for every artisan: certifications, the public service inertia, taxes ... We know it in France, imagine these kinds of problems in the West Bank. The transportation of imported materials is done by trucks from Israeli ports : as he pass the wall between Israel and the West Bank, Israeli army put pressure on the driver because he is Palestinian. Beer is not intended only to Christians. Also consume little practicing Muslims, feasting Israelis in Tel Aviv. Today Taybeh beer is synonymous with success in Israel and Palestine. But some Israeli distributors do not want to hear about it because it is a Palestinian product.
The issue of water deserves some further studies. Water is the main ingredient of beer and it remains necessarily a scarce resource in a desertic region. "But it is also controlled by the Israelis who did give 20% to the Palestinians and keep the rest. While the West Bank settlers have running water all the time, the Palestinians, are experiencing water shortages. So we get our water from a source named Samia, 3km away. "
Communication was also a obstacle. While France grinds the Evin law to know which direction to take, Jordanian law that is still the West Bank law prohibits to advertise alcohol. Okay... "Everything goes through word of mouth." To make known their products on a broader scale, Khoury copied the German Oktoberfest and gather 15,000 people at a single communal feast ... when the tourists are not afraid to come. And it works ! Taybeh is now known to Japan, the United States or Sweden, but it is not easy.
"Exporting is not impossible, but difficult" concludes Madees. "As we have no real borders with other countries, we are forced to go through Israel, by the Ashdod port or Haifa. And carry our beers there, a hundred kilometers, is to be exported to another country because our trade borders are 100% controlled by the Israelis. Besides the Taybeh-Ashdod route is twice as expensive as Ashdod-Göteborg route"
It's always when these is resignation that a stronger positive feeling takes over. "You could write a book only about our problems. It's not easy to live here, to work here, to make beer here... but it's not impossible." Life first, even on arid lands.