The Cradle of Craft Beer
Craft Beer’s History and Current Role in the Middle East
by Zane Foley
The origin of craft beer is the origin of civilization itself, for when we take a look at the cradle of craft beer, we uncover an anthropology of the regions that made the birth of beer possible. More importantly, after thousands of years have passed in the birthplace of craft beer, the Middle East remains at a cultural and historical intersection with palpable cultural restraints and religious views shaping everything from the role of craft beer to modern day borders.
While it’s impossible to truly know when and where exactly the first sip of craft beer was enjoyed by a human being, anthropologists and archeologists agree – Mesopotamia or today’s Middle East – was the where; and sometime between 5,000 and 4,000 BCE – was the when.
Researchers discovered the first chemically confirmed barley beverage at Godin Tepe Sumeria, today’s modern day Iran, recorded in written history in the 5th millennium BCE. By 4,000 BCE, we find cultures throughout the Middle East praising gods of beers, such as Ninkasi, the Sumerian god of brewing, and Tenenit, the Egyptian goddess of beer. There even exists hieroglyphic depictions several thousands of years old of people gathering to enjoy beer together.
The Sumerians, who planted the seeds of modern agriculture (pun intended), would go on to help supply beer to the first major civilizations like the Babylonians, who later formed the first largest cities and familiarized the intoxicating effects of beer. Both the Sumerians and Babylonians are more so known for their contribution to the growth of brewing and beer consumption than what we would call the taste and pleasure of modern day craft beer.
However, by 3,000 BCE, the Babylonians crafted over 20 different types of beer as the ancient civilization began to see beer as a gift from the gods and a sign of wealth. The Code of Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian set of laws even decreed a daily ration of beer to its citizens. To put in some context of what it might have been like to drink an ancient craft beer, the Babylonians had no way of filtering their beer, which as a thick porridge-like drink, invented the straw to drink the barley beverage of the gods.
Throughout regions of Mesopotamia, we’re happy to report that women were the original brew masters; brewing right in their homes in preparation for meals, welcoming guests, and celebrating holidays. The Sumerians adorned these women as the priestesses of Ninkasi, and under Babylonian rule, even the laws kept under the Code of Hammurabi conjugated “tavern-keeper” in the feminine.
By 1,500 BCE, it would be the Egyptians and their goddess of beer, Tenenit, who worked constantly on advancing the taste of beer and its step-by-step process. Ancient Egyptians were excellent craftsmen and had complex societal rituals where craft beer played a significant role. Additionally, beer was often used as compensation for laborers working at places like the Giza plateau, who received three-beer rations a day. Workers on the Nile would accept beer as payment for their work, and archeologists have even found beer in ancient tombs accompanying Pharaohs into the afterlife.
But how did the first craft beer actually come to be? How was it that human beings first discovered the chemical of alcohol, something that would eventually leave the Middle East, into Europe and through the ages to go on and spark a multi-billion dollar global economy?
Anthropology and archeology confirm the discovery of alcohol began with humanity evolving from hunter-gatherers and into cultivating land dwellers who eventually farmed food and domesticated animals. Which, in turn, ultimately led humanity to suppress survival mode instincts and, instead, ponder and experiment with resources like water and grains. Simply but profoundly, a curious human who for the first time did not have to worry about being eaten by a predator or where their next meal was coming from, put grain in water and over the days watched it ferment into alcohol. In other words, when humanity had more reliable food sources and enough resources to make permanent homes, humans also began to enjoy life. Which ultimately, at no surprise to us, led to the first craft beer.
However, the cradle of craft beer today is home to modern day Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq – regions with complex cultural, geographical and religious restraints affecting the role of craft beer today. While there are several cultural factors affecting the role of craft beer in the Middle East, generally all of the major ones affecting craft beer stem or are intersected with religious views.
Alcohol consumption is forbidden in the Muslim religion drawing from the Quran’s Soura 5:90-91; where it is written, “intoxicants and games of change” are “abominations of Satan’s handiwork.” Austere Muslims interpret these verses to forbid the use of beer, wine, and other spirits. This religious view has led to alcohol being completely banned in some parts of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Kuwait.
That being said, non-Muslims are not prohibited to indulge in alcohol consumption and contrary to popular belief, a significant non-Muslim population still lives in these regions where several countries in the Middle East have their own craft beer economy.
Two great examples of these beer businesses are Palestine’s Taybeh Brewing Company and Jordan’s Carakale Brewing Company, where both breweries aim to change the narrative of craft beer in the Middle East and join places like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Morocco who serve alcohol in hotel bars and restaurants.
“We started a beer revolution in the Middle East that is in full force today,” writes Palestine’s Taybeh Brewing Company founders and brothers, Nadim and David Khoury. “We keep pushing boundaries, whether that’s in the brewhouse, with sustainability, or in our community.”
The two brothers, inspired by their father, Canaan Khoury, returned to Palestine in 1994 following the Oslo Peace Agreement and a blessing from the late president Yasser Arafat to build a brewery. The two brothers began turning their passion into a career, beginning with their first flagship beer, the Taybeh Golden, crafting a high quality premium Palestinian alternative to mass produced beers in the region.
By 2000, Taybeh launched the Taybeh Dark and Taybeh Light, which featured the Star of Bethlehem on the label, pronouncing the religious implications for non-Muslims to enjoy the beer. Over the next 22 years, the brewery is still owned by the Khoury family and exports their robust widened range of craft beers to all corners of Europe. While this craft beer brewery isn’t the only one in the Middle East, the Taybeh Brewing Company illustrates how in order for a craft beer to survive in the Middle East, it must become internationally recognized.
In Jordan, Carakale’s mission statement illustrates the complex cultural role craft beer has to navigate in order to flourish: “To create a Beer Culture in Jordan, and become the first internationally recognized Jordanian craft beer…”
While religion will most likely always play a significant role in the Middle East, there are also enduring geographical intersections for beer in the cradle of craft beer. For instance, Carakale Brewing Company, located in the Blue Canyon of Fuhays, Jordan, relies on imported ingredients from Europe and the US in order to provide their consumers with “the perfect concoction of flavor and aroma.”
With the majority of Arab countries being predominantly Muslim, the economy necessary to source ingredients locally is a challenge geographically and culturally for craft beer entrepreneurs who might want to start a brewery on their own. While nowhere on the planet is it easy to start a business from scratch and without adversity, Arab brew masters have to overcome immense palpable economic, cultural, and religious restraints to even get off the ground.
While this reality might beg the question of “What is the future of craft beer in the Middle East?” What we do know is that so long as people love beer, breweries will overcome the adversity to bring their passion to the people. And when we take a look at the cradle of craft beer, we see it took all of humanity to overcome the predators of the wild animal kingdom to just to find the time to craft beer in the first place. We hold faith in knowing that Beer is For Everyone and our friends in the Middle East are changing the narrative.