I'm the founder of The Brooklyn Brewery, but I owe my success in the beer business to an unlikely country, Saudi Arabia, where people have been publicly whipped and sometimes beheaded for producing and selling alcoholic beverages.
It's kind of a strange story. For the first 15 years of my working life, I was a journalist. In February 1979, I landed in Beirut to become a Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press. A few months later, I was sent to Iran to cover the US hostage crisis. I was expelled from Iran, and I went back in 1980 with the Iraqi Army, when they invaded. I covered the civil war in Lebanon and was abducted in south Lebanon in 1980, but that's another story.
I moved to Cairo in August 1981, and six weeks later, I was sitting behind Egyptian President Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated at a military parade on October 6.
This is where my homebrewing education began.
I was working on a series of stories about corruption and cronyism in the multi-billion dollar US Aid program in Egypt. One of my primary sources was Jim Hastings, the Inspector General of the US Agency for International Development, the agency responsible for administering aid. Hastings wrote some scathing reports about problems with the program.
I got to know him pretty well, and after one meeting at the US Embassy, he asked me what I thought of Stella Beer, Egypt's national brand, the only domestic beer available in the land of the pharaohs. Stella—which has no relation to the Belgian beer of the same name—came in 750 milliliter re-fillable bottles, which were badly scarred. They always looked dusty. No two were filled to the same volume. Stella was reputed to have formaldehyde in it to retard spoilage. Mummified beer. It smelled vaguely medicinal, or maybe like a tomb. And after hearing about the formaldehyde, I began to imagine my lips went numb within the first few sips.
"Well, Stella is kind of hit-and-miss," I said. "Some bottles are OK. Some are undrinkable. If you can get through the first bottle, it seems to taste better."
Hastings, a foreign service officer, had recently moved to Cairo after a three-year tour of Saudi Arabia. He asked if I would like to try some of the homebrew that he and some buddies at the embassy had produced. He called it sadiki, or friend, juice. At first, I declined, but he persisted, and I finally tried his beer. It was delicious.
Hastings said he and other foreign service officers attached to the US Embassy in Riyadh were able to get homebrewing ingredients in the diplomatic mail. Apart from work, and shopping, there's not a lot to do in Saudi Arabia. Hastings said he and his buddies spent a lot of time making beer in their kitchens: light beers, amber beers, porters and stouts. I was envious, but I had no access to malt extract or hops, the key ingredients in homebrewing.
After three years in Cairo, AP announced they wanted me to go to Manila, Philippines, because President Ferdinand Marcos was in political trouble. Once you're pegged a conflict reporter, they send you to conflicts. I was excited about my new posting, but my wife, Ellen Foote, declared that she had had enough of following me to trouble spots. We had our first child in Beirut and our second in Cairo. "I am not taking these kids to Manila," she declared. Ellen was actually my second wife. She was also my first wife. Long story. We had gotten remarried in Beirut in 1981.
We returned to New York in June 1984 and settled in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when I left the AP for Newsday's foreign desk. My colleagues at the AP gave me a very nice homebrewing kit as a parting gift. Newsday was a great place to work in 1984, but I was bored. I started homebrewing and dreaming of starting a brewery.
I read about the microbrewing movement that was gaining steam in the West. Eventually, my downstairs neighbor in Brooklyn, Tom Potter—a junior banker at Chemical Bank—and I both quit our jobs, raised $500,000 from family, colleagues, and friends, and started Brooklyn Brewery in March 1988.
Years later, at a World Beer Cup awards dinner in New York City, I was sitting at a table telling my story to Fritz Maytag, the godfather of the craft brewing movement who rescued the failing Anchor Brewery in San Francisco in 1965. I told Fritz I had since learned that the Saudi royal family did not ban alcoholic beverages until 1954 when American oil workers poured into the country to develop the oilfields. When they did this, the Arab-American Oil Co., ARAMCO, issued a pamphlet to its employees explaining how to brew beer at home.
A young man at our table said, "That is a true story, and I have a copy of the pamphlet." A few weeks later, he sent me a copy of the crudely mimeographed pamphlet. On the cover was a convoluted title that seemed (to me) to be an effort to conceal the contents of the pamphlet.
ON THE EBULLITION
SUGAR, WATER & A SUITABLE CATALYST
AN ACCEPTABLE ARAMCO
APPROPRIATE FOR CONSUMPTION
The introduction to the 31-page pamphlet included the following warning: "The present prohibition in Saudi Arabia is sternly enforced, especially by adherents of the Islam (Moslem) religion; hence, take care of this booklet and remember discreet handling is mandatory, particularly in Saudi Arabia."
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in February, 2015.