As a Lebanese, I'm very much a creature of Beirut. I've long been desensitized to the human and vehicular congestion hindering mobility, the ubiquitous smog corking nostrils and pupils, the soundtrack of horns and unending construction interrupting thoughts, conversations, and concentration.
But all it takes is a one-hour drive to a city like Batroun on the country's northern coast to make me question the Lebanese normalization of frantic living. The natives of this quiet seaside town seem more than satisfied with their small strip of shore, its nationally famous lemonade, fish restaurants, and pacifying view. And as of last year they've added a microbrewery to their list of attributes to celebrate.
Colonel is only Lebanon's second craft brewery, opening eight years after 961 Beer introduced the one-pilsner nation to a world of multi-colored, aromatic ales, porters, Witbiers, and more. Colonel's founder, Jamil Haddad, is not one to rush. A former marketing executive at Adidas, the 31-year-old's "beach bum" demeanor and attitude belies his professional past
It was his devotion to windsurfing, a popular pastime among some Batroun residents, that spurred Haddad's foray into the alcohol-making business when he was just 16. Wanting to buy some new but costly gear, he decided to make and sell his own liquor. He sold 1,000 bottles of homemade booze, from Irish cream to mint- and banana-flavored liqueur.
"It's very easy to make compared to beer," he says. That explains why the process started to bore him three years in. His interest drifted to beer but, in a decade without Google, it wasn't easy learning how to homebrew.
Determined to figure out the craft of beer making, he invested in countless visits to microbreweries around the world and took beer-making courses in Europe. He started home-brewing a year into this undertaking, but it wasn't until June 2013 that he felt ready to quit his job in Beirut and move back to his native Batroun to set up shop.
Since he started brewing, Haddad earned the enthusiastic approval of the country's most popular food blog, No Garlic No Onions, and slowly drew international attention from the likes of The Economist and CNN.
Haddad greets me at Colonel's entrance with a matter-of-fact, "We start with beer?" Flustered, I acquiesce to a noon sampling of the brewery's five beers: a filtered and unfiltered lager, a light German beer, a red Irish, and a black Irish that are brewed using classic Czech technology.
He instructs me to begin with the light German and work my way towards the black Irish. A milder, more refreshing version of his Czech-type lager, it's the perfect daytime beer. The unfiltered, amber lager is more flavorful than its filtered sibling, packing what tastes to me like a subtle, fruity undertone. As someone who tends to steer clear of darker beers, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative airiness of the red and black Irishes, which didn't stain my palate with bitterness.
It's a risk trying to establish any sort of independent business in Lebanon. Owners have to contend with a deeply corrupt public sector and an inefficient bureaucracy. There are endless permit requirements, delayed decisions, and power outages that eat away at profits. A brewery also has to deal with importing ingredients from countries like Germany and the Czech Republic, because they aren't available locally.
But Haddad doesn't see any of these obstacles as particularly extraordinary. "In Lebanon, everything is difficult and everything is easy. It depends on your perspective," he says. "You can get things done at the last minute here. You can call people on any day at any time and get them to do things. If you go to Europe, you have to book appointments months in advance," he explains. "OK, we have corruption, but you have that everywhere. At the end of the day I managed to open a brewery in a year. I couldn't have done that anywhere else."
And it takes guts to penetrate a Lebanese beer industry dominated by Heineken-owned pilsner Almaza, which was the only Lebanese brew available before 961. While the latter introduced some variety into the market, its founder, Mazen Hajjar, says that craft beer continues to be a niche product.
But Haddad's experience with Colonel has given him a more positive outlook. His indoor bar, which can fit around a hundred people, is packed daily. His beer garden, which can occupy up to 1,000, is always fully booked in advance for the weekend. Customers range from people in their 20s to their 70s; Batroun natives and people from Beirut; hipsters, business executives, and expats. All of them converge here regularly for a taste of his offerings.
The only beer distributed outside the brewery is his filtered lager, which he supplies to around 50 bars. "We don't sell to everyone who wants our beer. If we like a bar's style, if it has a similar spirit, we supply it."
It's just a feeling, he says, laughing at his own vagueness. He refuses to supply stores. "I want to be able to control the quality of my product: what temperature it's stored at, how long it sits on a shelf. I don't want to see it next to vegetables. I'm working at full capacity and am already out of stock. I don't need to sell to supermarkets."
Lebanese bar and restaurant owners who carry craft beer agree that the Lebanese palate is definitely more receptive to it today than a few years ago. But despite Colonel's success, they echo Hajjar's sentiments about the difficulty of surpassing the popularity of a national treasure like Almaza, no matter how much "better" 961 and Colonel might taste.
Craft beer is still only carried by a handful of bars in the country, ones like beloved eateries and watering holes Mezyan and Dar Bistro in Beirut. They're frequented by journalists, artists, activists, students, tourists, and other occupants of the country's alternative and creative scenes.
Mezyan's founding partner Mansour Aziz says he stocks 961 and Colonel because of the beers' superior quality and his policy of supporting local businesses. There is a growing interest in these beers, he says, but they are, to his dismay, not more in demand than Almaza. "The primary reason is lack of knowledge and exposure. Our customers say they're used to Almaza or Corona. Or some want something 'tasteless' to quench their thirst."
Mezyan experimented with taking Almaza off the menu for a few months. They received so many complaints they were forced to reintroduce it.
But Aziz believes that if establishments that serve craft beer make an effort to actively educate customers about it, demand will increase. "We put an effort in promoting it, giving customers free tasters, explaining what makes a good beer and what makes a mediocre one." Appreciation is growing, he says, albeit slowly.
Dima Abulhusn, co-owner of Dar Bistro, also serves craft beer to support the local industry. She says that the 961 lager on their menu is as in-demand as commercial offerings like Almaza. "Demand for craft beer has grown exponentially in the last few years," she says, "maybe because there's something very authentic about any product that is 'homegrown.'"
While it might be restricted to a handful of bars and enjoyed by a modest community of consumers, craft beer has most certainly arrived in Lebanon.
Haddad says he's trying to cultivate a beer culture, promoting his brewery as a social space, creating occasions and excuses for people to experience craft beer, from overnight camping music festivals to what will hopefully become an annual Lebanese craft beer festival. For now, though, he's happy enough watching a crowd of strangers sip his beers over pulled pork sandwiches on a sunny Sunday in Batroun.