He's got some bottle

It's not easy brewing beer in the occupied West Bank. But, despite Israeli blockades and Islamic militants, one Palestinian entrepreneur has managed to create a truly exceptional lager, now on sale in Britain

If you had wanted to set up a brewery producing high-quality Pilsner to the specifications of the German Beer Purity Laws of 1516, the occupied Palestinian West Bank would be just about the last place you would think of trying.

If you had wanted to set up a brewery producing high-quality Pilsner to the specifications of the German Beer Purity Laws of 1516, the occupied Palestinian West Bank would be just about the last place you would think of trying.

Given the difficulties of transporting anything thanks to the Intifada and the Israeli checkpoints, not to mention the fact that the majority of the local market is made up of tee- total Muslims, it seems a crazy proposition. But Nadim Khoury, the dapper, American-accented proprietor of the Taybeh Brewery, doesn't seem crazy. He just happens to believe that his national pride is best expressed by making Palestine's first-ever beer.

"When we started, there was a peace process and we knew that tourism would be one of Palestine's best hopes for development. But any people visiting who would want to drink local beers would only be offered Israeli-made beer. I had studied in the US and got interested in beer when the micro-brewery phenomenon took off there in the early 1990s. I even did a brewing engineering course, and when I decided I wanted to come back and help my country, I knew it would be to create the first-ever Palestinian brewery."

Khoury is Christian, as is his home village of Taybeh, up in the West Bank hills north of Ramallah. But he still needed to get the support of the late President Arafat to forestall any criticism by Palestine's many Islamic militants. "We couldn't get any bank loans to get started, because the banks were scared of the idea of making alcohol on Palestinian soil. But the President was very supportive. He knew that we would be helping to break our dependency on Israeli goods," he says.

In addition to Arafat's approval, Khoury made the unusual decision for a Palestinian businessman of seeking endorsement from a Jewish settlement near his village. He had the rabbi from the Ofra settlement certify his beer as kosher so that he could sell it to the Israeli market. Before the start of the Intifada, 70 per cent of his sales were in Israeli bars and clubs.

However, the difficulties are not only religious and political. Apart from the local supply of spring water, Khoury has to import everything else he needs. His brew house is next to his family home in the village, and had to be kitted out from around the world. His mashing tanks are French, his fermenting vats are US and his filling line is from Germany.

But at least all of this equipment arrived before the start of the current strife. His hops come from Bavaria and the Czech Republic, the yeast from London and malted barley from Belgium and France. To maintain production, he needs to deal with the barrier, the checkpoints and the curfews that Israel has imposed on the West Bank. His costs have risen dramatically and supplies that take two weeks to get from Europe to Israel can then take another three months to finally reach him in the West Bank. Despite these difficulties, Khoury is convinced that getting the finest ingredients for his beer is his best chance of survival. His main product, Taybeh Golden, has just become available in the UK and he is hopeful that its high quality and unusual provenance will open a new market for him.

Khoury admits , "I was a bit optimistic at first and produced bottle-fermenting cloudy beers. I was also interested in trying fruit beers and all of the things that you increasingly find coming from the micro-breweries in the US. But the local market in the Middle East was too used to what I call 'mouthwash beers' - all chemical tasting and mass-produced."

"Most mass-produced beer," he continues, "has 10 chemicals in it, from foam stabilizers to colour regulators and preservatives that give it a longer shelf-life. We follow the German Beer Purity Laws of 1516 and only put in the four natural products: hops, water, barley and yeast. Absolutely nothing else - no corn or rice to bulk it out. Even very few German breweries make beer like this anymore, but the only way a small business can compete is by being distinctive."

That distinctive recipe has made Taybeh appeal to a following of European drinkers and the beer has been brewed under licence in Germany since 1997. This is the version which has been available for the past few months in the UK through the Alternative Beer Company, a small business set up by Rowan Davis, a peace campaigner who plans to give a share of her profits to Palestinian and Israeli charities.

Davis has mostly been supplying the beer to bars, restaurants and clubs around London but is now in the process of bringing her first batch of Taybeh direct from the West Bank to the UK. "The specialist bars and stockists are more interested in the original than the beer brewed under licence," she says. "But it's going to prove a big challenge getting shipments out of the West Bank. The hardest part is getting it through checkpoints from Nadim's brewery to the Israeli port. Even little things are more complex than they should be. Under British law, the labels on the bottles we bring in have to have the importer's name on, but even arranging to get a few boxes of these labels to the West Bank has taken weeks longer than it should."

Davis has so far been successful in getting her beer stocked by the simple method of sending out samples - because the beer really is very good. Taybeh Golden tends to be the tipple of choice for diplomats and reporters covering the dispute in Jerusalem. It has a slightly dark golden colour and its barley has been more malted than most lager, so giving it a mildly caramel and nutty taste. It is a little reminiscent of the Boston Lager produced by the Samuel Adams brewery, which is hardly surprising as Nadim once lived in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The brewery could do with the extra sales to the UK. Since the start of the Intifada, production has had to be cut by three-quarters as tourism to the region has dwindled and Israeli stockists have stopped selling it. In areas like Nablus and the Gaza Strip, the sale of alcohol, while still strictly legal, has ceased, as Hamas and other Islamic groups have grown stronger.

"It was just as well we didn't take out any loans," says Nadim, whose family has invested $1.5m [£800,000] in the business. "The banks would have come and taken the equipment. As it is we can survive by just covering our costs. It is sad, but what can we do? We need to have our own port - we need to have our own country - to be able to make our business work. But when we do, Palestine will have its own beer."

For more information, see www.taybehbeer.net. Taybeh Golden, £1.85/330ml, from The Alternative Beer Company, www.alternativebeer.co.uk

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