Jamil Haddad, owner of Colonel brewery in his hometown of Batroun, a rocky stretch on the northern Lebanese coast with great fish and surfing, was 16 years old when he stole his parents’ car to make alcohol for the first time. He drove to Tripoli, the nearest city, and bought 1,000 empty bottles. It was days before Christmas and many of the people of his town served shots of liqueur to guests during the holidays. He made liqueur flavored with mint, banana, and Irish crème. He sold all the bottles within days for $5,000, which was $1,000 more than what he needed for surf gear, the real reason he was hawking bootleg liqueur.
In 2013, Haddad left a career in marketing for Adidas at the company’s Middle East headquarters in Dubai, returned home, sold his car and boat, and took out a loan to open Colonel. “All my life I wanted to live in Batroun, in my city here next to the sea,” he says. “To go to the sea at any second I want. This was my dream. And to make good beer in Batroun, it was the best thing for me ever.” Colonel is a few minutes from a surfer beach nicknamed “the Colonel spot” on a piece of land Haddad rented from the Catholic church, which owns a lot of land in Lebanon. The brewery and bars are built and furnished mostly with reused materials including 14,000 wood pallets and more than two million plastic bags.
Although beer is available across Lebanon, as the first brewpub in the region, Colonel is a new attraction. Some Lebanese drive two or three hours to hang out there. As another brewer describes it, Haddad is “promoting the cool side of beer.” He’s also part of a small but growing craft beer movement in the Middle East.
“I know that what I made here is not about beer,” Haddad says. “It’s more about the culture, the vibes, the attitude, the spirit. I wanted to make it different.”
Jamil Haddad of Colonel, the first brewpub in the Middle East, got his start making bootleg liqueur as a teenager. Photo: Andrew Bossome
After ten years in the Middle East I can definitively say that good beer is hard to find. Beer of the fizzy, yellow, and hopefully cold type is available to varying degrees in the region, depending on the country and city. Any liquor store or half decent hotel serves Heineken and Corona, or a local brand owned by an international parent company. For many people from the region, beer is the least sophisticated of drinks. It’s a soft drink with alcohol.
Craft brewers in the Middle East aren’t just trying to sell beers, but are seeking to disrupt the culture. The idea that a beer can be appreciated on its own challenges the traditional notion of eating and drinking. For many people, drinks come secondary to food. Arak, the traditional Anise-flavored alcohol of the Levant, is often drank as a compliment to food like grilled meats and tabouleh. Tea goes with falafel. Coffee comes after the meal. Beer is for chugging, not for tasting.
“We added our beer in restaurants that are serving traditional food,” says Alaa Sayej, the founder of Shepherds Beer in Birzeit, Palestine. “If you want to eat hummus, falafel, and fuul, you can drink Shepherds Beer instead of tea in Bethlehem. This is a huge step in the country.”