Brewing Beer in the Middle East Is a Tough Business

As alcohol taxes rise along with water, gas, and electricity costs, mounting concerns weigh on Carakale’s young founder, Yazan Karadsheh.

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Sep 10 2014, 5:47pm

All photos by Elizabeth Whitman

The same faded red and white logo is deployed outside nearly every liquor store in Jordan. It brandishes the name of a Dutch company that has brewed here since 1958 and come to dominate—some say monopolize—the beer industry. But a newcomer recently stepped into this Amstel-ruled market, aiming to radically reshape the industry by introducing craft beer.

Beer drinkers have rejoiced, extolling the mere concept of a craft brew interrupting the country’s monotonous beer landscape. Yet the future of Jordan’s first microbrewery, Carakale, is far from assured, even though it has wildly exceeded expectations. As alcohol taxes rise along with water, gas, and electricity costs, mounting concerns weigh on Carakale’s young founder, Yazan Karadsheh.

Karadsheh is affable but earnest. His eyes carry traces of the weariness and satisfaction of his work, where his shifts last anywhere from 16 to 27 hours. “I’m not starting a microbrewery,” he told me adamantly. “I’m starting a craft industry.”

Self-described as in love with beer, Karadsheh got his start in Boulder, Colorado. He had earned a degree in electrical engineering and gone to work for Halliburton, but it was “hell on earth,” so he quit, landing an unpaid gig in a homebrew supply store in Boulder instead. He eventually enrolled in the Master Brewer’s program at UC Davis and gained more firsthand experience at a brewpub and then a microbrewery in Colorado.

It was the latter, Karadsheh said, that gave him the confidence to start a brewery in his home country, Jordan.

Building Carakale

Alcohol is sold in select establishments in Jordan, where drinking still carries a mild stigma. The population is 97 percent Muslim, and though plenty of locals do drink, society as a whole remains conservative. Only Christians can start alcohol-related businesses in the country.

Naturally, those norms and restrictions have held back the development of a robust local beer, wine, or alcohol culture. With locally produced beers limited to Amstel and two Jordanian companies, "a lot of people are hungry for a different beer," Karadsheh said.

Upon his moving back to Jordan in 2009, however, the government told Karadsheh he could not open a brewery. So he brewed in his parents' backyard and gave the beer to their friends, who urged him to go commercial. But without a license, he couldn't.

In the black hole that is Jordanian government bureaucracy, the key to accomplishing anything is wasta. The term, meaning "intermediary," refers to personal or family connections that work like a magic wand. Drop just the right names, and licenses can be granted or job offers extended. It wasn't until a family friend helped him obtain a license after a year and a half back in Jordan that Karadsheh finally began working on the brewery. "Having people in the right places helps to push things forward for you," Karadsheh admitted frankly. "But that's not how it should be."

The brewing license was merely the first headache of many. Every government institution had its requirements, from the Health Ministry to the fire department and municipal governments. In between paperwork, he worked on designing a full-sized brewery and, with a friend, perfectinga logo based on a tuft-eared, endangered wildcat—the indigenous caracal.

Paperwork wasn't the only painful part of becoming legal. “I’ve been told to go stand in the corner because this is haram [sinful],” Karadsheh recalled from his visits to government ministries. Other times, people he had employed in constructing the brewery would walk away mid-project. Gradually, Karadsheh painstakingly assembled a trustworthy team of about ten people. “We’re super tight,” he told me.

The Brewery

In a district about half an hour west of Amman, clacks and whirs fill the air as a conveyor belt crowded with brown glass bottles runs through a clear chamber. The bottles are filled with beer and capped before proceeding to the pasteurization house. They emerge on the other side and are fed through a labeler, which whips each bottle with pale yellow stickers—a picture of precision.

Tubes and hoses snake throughout the 4000-square-foot hangar, leading from spigots to small canisters and towering metal vats. In one corner, metal steps lead to a massive lautering tun, where a sweet and sticky liquid known as wort is strained from a mash of milled malt that has been steeped like tea in hot water. (Carakale gives local farmers the leftover mash as livestock feed.)

Visitors can watch this entire production through the interior glass panels of a tasting bar on the brewery’s second floor. But a door to the outside leads somewhere else entirely: a wide deck, where views fall over dry but sweeping hills punctuated by occasional patches of green. Sparse scrub and rows of short dark green trees pepper the slopes of a valley that descends to the Dead Sea.

Carakale currently brews about 40,000 bottles per month. It won't profit until it adds another 10,000 or so, but production has increased steadily. In January, it was putting out 12,000 bottles a month of its blond ale, which Karadsheh considers an appropriate introduction to the world of craft beer, with some "toast notes, sweet notes, and a slight bitterness." Since then, a stout and a special-edition whiskey ale, which Karadsheh intended to brew only once a year (though popular demand may change that), have rounded out Carakale's craft list. Planned for next season are English pale ale and an IPA.

Across from the bottling machine, a dugout contains miniature versions of all the other equipment throughout the brewery: vats and containers from when Karadsheh brewed at home. Now, the prototypes are used for R&D, but they also remind visitors and employees alike of Carakale's humble beginnings.

Going Global

"Right now, I'm thinking about how to make this flourish, and so export is my next tactic," Karadsheh told me. When Carakale first entered the market, in November 2013, the government taxed alcohol at more than $11 per gallon. The amount has nearly doubled since then, to about $20 a gallon, according to Karadsheh. Energy and water prices are also climbing. All of those increases are absorbed in the cost of the beer, and as a result, the beer market is shrinking.

"It’s extremely tough to be a start-up in our country right now,” Karadsheh explained. Despite his goal of creating a craft industry in Jordan, he's keen for the microbrewery to turn a profit. His father "spent a lot of money making his kid's dream materialize," Karadsheh told me. "I'm very lucky." But he's also itching for his brewery to become sustainable. "It's kind of like a toddler crawling on the ground. I feel like, 'That's enough.' It's supposed to be up on its feet by now."

"I can wait until the country wakes up and starts inhaling beer to a point where it's healthy for the market and [the microbrewery] to grow,” he said. “Or we can just export and get to that point next week, or in a couple of weeks." For now, he's targeting buyers from the UAE to China to "fast-forward" Carakale's progress.

For the Love of Beer

Making a killer brew requires rigorous training in key areas. "You want to be a cook, a scientist, and an artist," Karadsheh said. "And you have to be an engineer." Over the years, working in beer-supply stores and microbreweries, brewing in the kitchen, and earning engineering and brewing degrees were "perfect for what I need to do here.” Even before Carakale, his skill had proved itself, when the Upslope Dunkelweizen based on a recipe he developed won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009.

But something else, more fleeting than awards or even the product itself, also draws him to beer making.

"Brewing is the only time when I don't care what's happening politically," Karadsheh said. "I'm in the zone. Even on bad days, it's crazy, it's stressful, but somehow it's relaxing at the same time."

"People do yoga to meditate." The line sounds like a quip, but he’s oddly serious. "I brew beer.”

Follow Elizabeth Whitman on Twitter.

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