“I don’t think that any brewery in the world has ever had to take beer through checkpoints on a donkey."
All photos by the author.
It was the year 2000 and the Second Intifada was underway. It was nearly impossible for people to cross short distances between cities and villages in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, let alone deliver beer. Yet Palestine’s Taybeh Brewery successfully transported 50-kilogram kegs of beer across military checkpoints on donkeys while an increasingly violent and repressive occupation escalated around them.
Sipping on their white beer infused with local orange and coriander, Taybeh founder Nadim Khoury reminisces on a particularly challenging time in the history of a very durable family business.
“I don’t think that any brewery in the world has ever had to take beer through checkpoints on a donkey. We did it. Because there was a bar that said, ‘I want Taybeh.’ The roads were closed and no cars could pass.”
“This was only 18 years ago,” he proudly exclaims. His mustache bristles during a full-bodied chuckle that echoes throughout the brewery.
25 years ago, during a period of optimism following the Oslo peace accords, the Khoury family returned to their homeland from Boston to open the first microbrewery in the Middle East. Their goal was to invest in and boost the local economy by introducing new styles of hand-crafted, micro-brewed beers. In 1994, the brewery bottled its first batch of beer—500 liters in total.
Today, the company produces 600,000 liters of beer each year and exports to 12 countries— including Japan, Germany, and the US.
Business has never been easy in Palestine, but this hasn’t stopped the Khoury family.
“We were determined to show the whole world that Palestinians are normal and want the right to practice our daily needs—to have a beer, to go to school, to have running water,” Nadim asserts.
The brewery is located in Taybeh, the last all-Christian village in the West Bank. From its elevated site, crosses and stone churches overlook the rolling, olive-green hills of the Jordan valley all the way to the Dead Sea. This stands in stark contrast to the sprawling zones of concrete and barbed wire that comprise Israel’s military outposts and settlements, dotting the landscape along the journey from Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine.
The inequalities of water access on Israeli settlements, built on land captured in the 1967 war, can be extreme. Despite the population nearly doubling, Palestinians today survive on the amount of water allocated to them in the Interim Agreement of 1995. Contrary to the unfulfilled promise of a ‘temporary’ 5-year period before the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel continues to retain 87% of water for exclusive use, controlling every well and pipeline in the West Bank.
Since beer is almost 95% water, Taybeh brewery struggles under these restrictions.
Nadim’s son Canaan Khoury graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor in Engineering, before obtaining a degree from the Master Brewers program at the University of California at Davis. Canaan returned to Taybeh after his studies and now manages the technical side of the brewery.
“We have three settlements on Taybeh land and they have priority access to the water. We cannot schedule any brewing days because we never know when water will be available,” he explained to MUNCHIES.
Last summer, Palestinians in Taybeh watched settlements get an unlimited supply of water, while their taps ran as infrequently as once a month. The brewery had to purchase tanks of water to produce beer. Canaan says the cost was 7 times the amount what an Israeli company would have paid.
“It limits our potential for expansion, it limits our export market. We simply cannot produce more beer,” Canaan says.
The Khoury family are undeniably inventive. While regular breweries use 8-12 liters of water per liter of beer, Taybeh has figured out how to eke out beer from less than 4 liters, reusing the water multiple times in production.
But even if they can pull together enough water to fill their beer quotas, they face another obstacle to their export potential when transporting beer from the brewery.
Restricting movement is one of the main tools Israel employs to enforce the occupation. Within the West Bank itself, there are more than 500 physical objects, including earth mounds and checkpoints, that restrict Palestinian freedom of movement. Only very few allow commercial goods to pass.Despite the fact the Port of Haifa is only a 2-hour drive away, the beer has to be transported along a route that can take as long as three days.
“Because we’re under occupation, we can’t go through any road, we have to get permits, we have to go through commercial checkpoints, we have to pay extra fees for storage and security checks,” Canaan says.As a result, getting beer from the brewery to the port costs twice as much as getting it from the port to Italy does.
Most breweries load their shipping containers on site, and can fill those containers with 1200 cases of beer. In the early days, Taybeh did too.
That changed after the Second Intifada. Israel began building its separation wall. Procedures changed, and instead of their usual routine of packing shipping containers with 1200 cases of beer, the brewery was instead made to load pallets of beer onto open trucks, limiting their total per container to 720 cases.
Those 500 cases can frequently be the deciding factor in securing a deal. Recently, Canaan had an opportunity to export Taybeh to France. The importer wanted to fill the shipping container with as much beer as possible to keep their shipping costs low. “I couldn’t because the Israelis only let me have a pallet at a certain height. So I can’t maximize the container. I lost a deal because of that and I wasn’t able to sell the beer.”
Taybeh is a family enterprise; every Khoury can be seen along the production line on bottling day. Nadim watches over the machine responsible for filling, as beer bubbles run down the sides of unlabeled bottles. His 9-year-old granddaughter Hala, oversees the labelling machine with an air of confidence beyond her years. Canaan and his sister Madees place the never-ending stream of completed bottles into boxes.
This particular shipment was heading to the US. Over the clink of the beer-bottling machine, Canaan explained that the labels being used were different from the regular ones. Taybeh brewery sells their beer as a product of Palestine all over the world—including Israel. The only exception is the United States. Since they don’t recognize Palestine as a country, Taybeh was made to change the label to ‘a product of the West Bank.’
“We refrained from exporting to the US for the last 10 years because of that issue…but at the end of the day we think our beer should be present in the US,” Canaan says.
He believes the family product is helping to shape a positive view of Palestine. “With Taybeh, you are getting the name Palestine, and a high-quality product out there. You are changing the way people see Palestinians.”
Nadim’s daughter Madees Khoury is widely considered the first female brewer in the Middle East. In addition to brewing, she also manages import, export, and distribution for Taybeh. She says you can also see discrepancies in the treatment of Palestinian and Israeli companies with something as simple as getting bottles.
In February, Taybeh was expecting a bottle shipment from Eastern Europe. Israeli breweries also had an order on the same vessel. “We both had the same documents, same quality, same company. Everything was exactly the same. Yet, the Israeli breweries received their bottles roughly 2 months before we received ours,” Madees says. “Doing business in this country is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s more difficult, and every year it gets worse and worse.”
Canaan and Madees are children of the Intifada: the lost generation. Living in Taybeh, on average it took them 2 hours to get to school in Ramallah—normally a 20-minute drive.
“I’ve been through a lot on the way there, from getting tear gassed, shot at and beaten, to getting psychologically tortured by the soldiers and having to stand up on one foot, take off my shirt and so on,” Canaan recalls.
Despite the fact that it’s been increasingly difficult to do business in Palestine since the Second Intifada, Madees says “it made us stronger as Palestinians. Now whatever we face, we can handle it.”
It’s safe to say there’s been no shortage of obstacles in Taybeh’s history; every single element of the brewing process is compromised by the occupation. Yet, the Khoury’s continue to brew as a peaceful non-violent way of resistance.
Taybeh Beer is a symbol. It defies the tired war-torn-Palestinian narrative with a message of hope, resilience, and fierce determination.
Raising his glass, Nadim declares: “Someday we will have peace, and we will toast to it with Taybeh.”