When one finds themselves running for safety from incoming rocket explosions and mortar attacks, your first thought is not usually “I should start a brewery.” Yet this seems to be precisely the experience of Mazen Hajjar, founder of Lebanon’s 961 Brewery, during the July 2006 Lebanon War.
Hajjar, who was recently interviewed by the Washington Post’s Greg Kitsock, describes the scene: “The electricity was off; I was sitting on my balcony reading the first chapter of Beer School by Steve Hindy and Tom Potter. That’s when I thought, ‘Eureka!'” Now several years later, this eureka moment has been transformed into a fledgling brewery that has exported its beer to 14 countries, including 12 U.S. states.
I was curious about Hajjar’s brews as my own experience with Middle-Eastern beer – Almaza (Lebanese pilsner) and Efes (Turkish pilsner) – was not impressive.* Yet 961’s five brews (Lebanese pale ale, golden lager, red ale, witbier, and porter) appeared to be a departure from the standard Mid-East pilsners which had so disappointed.
So off I went to track the five down, which was much easier than expected; a quick stop at Total Wine and I was set. I enjoyed all five over the course of this past weekend, jotting down a few notes after my first or second sip. Here, in the order I drank them, are my thoughts on each:
- Lebanese Pale Ale: earthy and bitter, slightly hoppy, with a dry and malty finish; 961’s flagship beer and the most interesting of their varieties.
- Red Ale: medium bodied, lightly sweet and mellow; an excellent ale.
- Lager: dry and light-medium bodied; crisp, but not overly so.
- Witbier: light and sweet, champagne colored; lighter than other wits, but lacking complexity as well.
- Porter: evenly bitter and medium bodied and goes down easily; a good representation of the porter style of beer. If you’ve never had a porter, this would be a great introduction.
In terms of variety alone, 961 is ahead of other regional brewers by leaps and bounds. In terms of quality too, they have several wonderful brews that should find success in the crowded international market of beer. Their Red Ale and Lager are both fine tasting beers and their Lebanese Pale Ale, while an acquired taste, will likely begin appearing on the menus of kabob houses and Mid-East cuisine restaurants alike.
I was surprised by the quality, but also somewhat disappointed. The witbier lacked body and complexity as compared to others I’ve tried. Yet here I’ll give 961 a pass on this point, as I was most excited about the wit as that style is one of my favorites and likely set my expectations too high.
961 is a welcome addition to the otherwise ordinary choices from that region. One can hope they are the first of many to come.
* Admittedly, I do have fond memories of drinking Efes while smoking hookah during my time in Iraq, however strictly speaking, it is fairly unremarkable brew. That said, it was perfectly fine at the time – pickings were slim and any beer was better than none.