961 Beer founder Mazen Hajjar.
When it comes to foreign beer being imported to the U.S., there's plenty of buzz about brewers from Denmark, Italy and even Spain and France, a nation better known for its love of grapes than grains. But the craft beer revolution is not confined to continental Europe. Lately, craft breweries have begun to crop up in Beijing, India and, perhaps most surprising of all, Beirut, Lebanon.
This month marks the stateside arrival of 961 Beer, Beirut's first craft brewery. The firm was founded in 2006 by Mazen Hajjar, a former investment banker who ran two airlines before catching the brewing bug. "I bought every book on beer on Amazon and taught myself to brew," says Hajjar, who took his greatest inspiration from Beer School by Brooklyn Brewery founders Steve Hindy and Tom Potter.
Hajjar began homebrewing, taking his inspiration from Britain's balanced brewing traditions. He tinkered with porters and English-inspired pale ales, conducting endless "research sessions" with friends and colleagues.
Then one day came a knock at the door. Several strangers appeared. Hajjar's pulse quickened. What had he done wrong? "I heard you make good beer," one of the men said. "Can we buy some?"
And so Hajjar started on his journey to open 961, named after the area code for Lebanon. Despite the challenges of getting grains and ingredients into the country ("Just try getting hops past Lebanese customs officials," he says, laughing), Hajjar persevered. He focused on making balanced, style-appropriate beers, hiring a former brewmaster from Chimay to help execute his vision.
His classic, well-executed beers include the fruity, malty Red Ale; crisp helles-style Lager; gently sweet Porter; and the Lebanese Pale Ale, which is subtly spiced with the likes of thyme, sumac, chamomile, sage, anise and mint. "We want to create modern beers with a strong Lebanese flavor he says of the pale ale, the first release in the Brewmaster's Select releases.
Despite the hurdles of converting a public accustomed to drinking bland lagers, the brewery's production has increased 10-fold since 2011, with word-of-mouth helping spur sales abroad and at home. "Lebanese cuisine and wine is known around the world," Hajjar says. "Why not beer too?"