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Taybeh: The West Bank’s Best Kept Secret

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By Annie Rohrhoff on September 23, 2011

In Jerusalem, where the politics of conflict permeate daily life, even your beer order makes a statement.

As I perused the menu of Israeli beers at Mike’s Place, a popular tourist hangout in West Jerusalem, I asked the bartender for his recommendation.

“The Middle East is not known for its beer,” he admitted, “but you should try this one.”

He poured me a glass of lager and pointed to the indecipherable Hebrew characters on the tap: “It’s called Maccabee,” he said.

“I really like the Palestinian beer, Taybeh — have you tried it?” I asked, taking my first sip of the Maccabee.

“Taybeh is an Israeli beer,” another barfly called out. “We own that land. Palestine is nothing, not even a state. That beer is Israeli.” The men around me nodded in agreement.

Although the Palestinians may not have their own state, they do have their own beer. Taybeh, which means “delicious” in Arabic, is the only alcoholic beer brewed in Palestine.

On the company’s website, Taybeh’s owners explain: “Taybeh beer is hand-crafted in small batches in German traditional style using a top fermenting yeast and cold lagering. This process creates a distinctively flavored beer with a clean, crisp taste.” But while Taybeh’s production follows German tenets, its roots are undeniably Palestinian. Nadim Khoury, the founder of Taybeh, began its production in 1995. The Khourys are Palestinian Christians with a long history in the region, and like many Palestinian business owners, they believe that economic independence is the key to political independence. As the Palestinians submit their formal request for statehood to the United Nations, a brighter future of economic development will be on the Khoury family’s mind.

The Khoury family seeks a link between political and economic independence because current instability undercuts business efficiency. Taybeh beer is manufactured in the West Bank near the city of Ramallah, approximately 20 miles north of Jerusalem. Political restrictions hamper the brewery’s ability to competitively produce and export its product.

According to Taybeh’s owners, the brewery can only access running water twice a week, while a nearby Jewish settlement enjoys water privileges seven days a week. Management further contends that the occupation of the West Bank impedes the company’s ability to export its product. Simply transporting the beer into Israel proper requires the use of two separate trucks, unloading from a truck with Palestinian plates to reload into a truck with Israeli plates at the checkpoint, a lengthy process that can affect the natural ingredients in the beer.

While the beer cannot be exported from the conflict-torn region, the beer is also produced in a limited quantity in Japan and Germany, where it is licensed to export to the United Kingdom and Belgium. Taybeh made its debut at Germany’s famous Oktoberfest in 2005 and was recently recognized by Mutineer Magazine for its high-quality product.

Because current restrictions by the Israeli government prevent the company from exporting its product, Taybeh must face the daunting task of making profits in the immediate, Muslim-dominated locale. The Taybeh Brewery is also prohibited from advertising its product in the conservative West Bank region, a further detriment to its sales. Regional political instability and a quest for Palestinian statehood are not the only factors prohibiting Taybeh’s growth.

Taybeh has undergone some criticism from the local religious Muslim community, but others see the company as a ray of hope. According to Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the Chairman of PASSIA, a Palestinian think-tank based in East Jerusalem, “It is the cry inside of these young people. Palestinians are working in the diaspora, mainly in the United States, with this passion of coming back home and building a house.” Taybeh is an example of a Palestinian business that, absent regulations, could be successful and could help Palestinian entrepreneurs actualize themselves and return from the diaspora.

“Don’t look at it purely from alcoholic product in deeply rooted Islamic society by a Christian Palestinian family challenging society,” Dr. Hadi said in support the Palestinian family’s business venture. “It has never been like this. It’s business. It’s passion. It’s empowerment of the society.” Even though there are restrictions slowing Taybeh’s growth, many Palestinians believe in free enterprise by Palestinian owned and operated businesses.

Mike’s Place, it turns out, does not carry Taybeh because it works closely with two large distributors, and the unique Palestinian brew is independently operated. Taybeh is not sold at a majority of bars in the Jewish-populated West Jerusalem, arguably its most convenient market. Whether that be for reasons of distribution or politics, the Khoury family has something to look forward to as the Palestinians make their official quest for statehood at the United Nations (a vote is scheduled for next week).

In an effort to bring a few legally purchased bottles of the delicious beer back to the United States, I searched the Arab-populated East Jerusalem for the product. “We do not sell this, it is haraam,” a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem informed me. Haraam, an Arabic word which translates to “forbidden,” is used to describe activities that are prohibited by Islamic law, such as the consumption of alcohol.

After canvassing the neighborhood I had come to know so well during my stay in Jerusalem, whispers from shopkeepers led me in the direction of a corner store that sold alcohol to visiting tourists. With four bottles of Taybeh carefully wrapped in my suitcase, I hoped the Khoury’s would soon be able to export their product to more enthusiastic consumer markets.

I am even more hopeful that the Palestinian quest for statehood will lead to a day when drinking a Taybeh in West Jerusalem will be anything but contentious.

Annie Rohrhoff is a graduate student at George Mason’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution and recently spent five weeks studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while living in Israel and the West Bank.

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