Madees Khoury is a young professional leading the first micro-brewery of the Middle East. During her career, she has already had to face various social and political challenges, but has nevertheless persisted and learned from all of them. prisma had the opportunity to talk to her after an exhausting day of brewing and hear her story.
Growing up with the brewery
Madees Khoury was born in the United States, not in Palestine. Her father and her uncle were considering opening a brewery in the States when the Oslo accords between Palestine and Israel were passed in 1994. The accords brought with them a hopeful future for Palestinians. Many people decided to move back, invest in the country and raise their children in Palestine. That’s when her grandfather suggested Madees and her family to move back too and open their brewery in the Palestinian town of Taybeh, located about a half an hour drive from Jerusalem. Her grandfather wanted his two sons to be close to him and Madees to get to know her culture. Her father and uncle challenged him and told him if he could get them the permits and the license to open a brewery in Palestine they’d move back. Her grandfather bought the land, built the building and told them «Yallah» meaning «let’s go». That was the start of the Taybeh Brewing Company.
The company was founded when Madees was only 9 years old. She grew up at the brewery, running around and even helping out every once in a while. «I loved it, it was fun», she remembers as she talks about how all members of the family pitched in to help the company grow. «Arabs and Palestinians are very family-oriented. Family is one of their core values», she adds. She later returned to the US for college to study business. During that time, she went to Palestine every summer to work with her family. Through first-hand experience with her father she was able to learn the craft of brewing beer. During college she also did an internship at a brewery in Boston for a semester and later even took a brewing seminar in China conducted by German experts. After graduation she booked a one-way ticket home to her family and she’s been there ever since.
A rocky road
However, the past decades haven’t been smooth sailing for neither Madees Khoury, nor the Taybeh Brewing Company.
«I consider 1994 to 2000 the golden times. Life was beginning in Palestine», says Madees. She tells us about the open borders between Israel and Palestine, the possibility of driving around with her family and the promise of a prosperous future for the country. In 2000, the second Intifada, a violent clash between Israelis and Palestinians, began. Business went down to 10% of its capacity as life changed dramatically for the local population. Madees was in high-school at the time. Where she would usually only need 15 minutes to get to school, the uprising would cause it to take over an hour, if she was able to get home at all. «It was a very difficult time.», she says.
As violent confrontations began to calm down in 2005, airports, restaurants and bars opened up again and business slowly started to recover. But life after the Initfada was not as before, circumstances had changed drastically: There was the wall that had been built between Israel and the Palestinian territories which could only be passed through check-points. To get the goods through them is a hassle every time,according to Madees. Special permits are needed, travelling on certain roads leading to check–point is not allowed for Palestinians and, from time to time, checkpoints would just close, for example because of rain. Even though Jerusalem is only a 20 minute drive away from Taybeh it takes all day to get there. As a result, exporting goods abroad is not an easy task while living under occupation.
Just as things started to look up again in 2010, Madees remembers it being almost like in 2000 again, the Arab Spring emerged: ever since, the war in Syria has been affecting the whole Middle East.. Every couple of years, there is a war in Gaza, a region in the Southern part of the country, which again affects the economic situation and the mobility in the whole country. Under these circumstances business is always fluctuating.
In that sense, the COVID-19 pandemic is not an unusual situation for Palestinians. They are accustomed to uncertainty and lockdowns. «Three weeks is nothing, us Palestinians are used to it. Nothing new» was the general sentiment across the Palestinian population when lockdowns were first announced back in March.
Today, water is one of the biggest problems while brewing beer under occupation. Water, a crucial ingredient when it comes to brewing beer, simply isn’t always available to Palestinians to the same extent as it is to Israeli citizens. In the summertime, the shortage can be felt the strongest. The logic behind it is simple: When it gets hot they want to brew more beer so people have a chance to cool off. If they have orders to export they package and send the beer abroad. Last summer was a busy time, and after exporting their stock they ended up not having enough beer for the local market. Their shelves were empty for three whole days. Madees describes the situation as a disaster. «Imagine going to a brewery and not finding beer. You’d think the locals would be more understanding, but they were also very thirsty.» Now they try to avoid exporting in the summer and fill up tanks with water as soon as one gets empty.
The pink boots of female beer workers
As we can see, brewing beer in Palestine bears its own challenges. Being the first woman to do so even more. Madees Khoury knows all about that. «Women in the beer industry all over the world have it very difficult, even though it was women who first created beer», she explains. When she first got started, some customers would often dismiss her and ask to talk to her father or uncle instead. Over time she’s gotten used to it. Nowadays the industry is changing slowly but surely as the younger generation is opening bars and restaurants. «They’re more accepting and take me seriously», Madees notes.
But Madees Khoury isn’t the only one facing these kinds of problems. A group called the Pink Boots Society connects women from all over the world that are somehow involved in the beer industry. Through the network she has been able to attend discussions, seminars and hear the stories of other women in the field. «It gets exhausting so it’s nice to have that support and be part of a network where we can talk about our issues and exchange ideas». Madees Khoury is even working on her very own projects that she hopes will empower women in the future.
The power of beer
What keeps her going through all these ups and downs? «Beer», Madees jokes before getting serious, «What actually keeps us going is when people come to visit our brewery, when they want to hear our story and what we’ve been through.» After all the work and frustration, it’s the love and support of people from all over the world, sometimes even Palestinians who don’t drink beer but are nevertheless proud to have a local brewer, that gives her the motivation to continue.
To her, beer is an international beverage, it brings people together. Drinking beer and getting drunk is not what Madees Khoury and the Taybeh Brewing Company are promoting. It’s sitting down in a nice atmosphere, drinking a high-quality product, enjoying the company, the product and exchanging ideas. She believes that even when they export abroad it makes people want
to get to know the country, it’s showing people a different side of Palestine and Palestinians. It’s not just beer to her, « It’s an image of Palestine».
That image of Palestine started out in 1994 as only one type of beer, the brewery’s flagship golden beer. Over the years more and more flavors were introduced. Today the first micro-brewery of the Middle East produces seven types of all-natural beer, five of which follow the German purity law of 1416. From dark beer, which is Madees Khoury’s favorite, to non-alcoholic, each beer is very different from the other flavors. “The golden” still remains a classic, but the Palestinian population even managed to surprise the beer brewing family itself. While Palestinians love sweet foods and drinks («They’ll put four tablespoons of sugar in a small cup of tea», Madees remarks laughing), they surprisingly loved the bitter India Pale Ale. That goes to show that experimenting can pay off. And experiment they did. For the past three years they’ve been brewing special brews from local ingredients such as Zatar, a spice mainly made of thyme, which is popular in the region, or Arabic coffee, and selling those at the yearly local Oktoberfest. But wait – Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest – a little bit of Germany in Palestine
Every year the brewery hosts its very own iteration of the Oktoberfest. Then the town, usually home to a mere 1400 people, flourishes as 10’000 visitors arrive from all corners of the world to participate in the festivities.
The idea started back in 2005 when Madees Khoury’s uncle was the mayor of Taybeh. Her father had always wanted to have an Oktoberfest in the town so together they decided to create not just a beer festival, but an open day for the village. It’s an entire weekend where the streets are filled with activities like rock climbing or games. Live music, whether that is more traditional music, Palestinian hip hop or anything in between, can be enjoyed while eating a pretzel or falafel from a nearby stand. Visitors get the chance to visit the old city and churches, eat at the restaurants and then come to the brewery. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, where you’re from, or what your political beliefs are. You don’t even have to drink. People come together to enjoy the atmosphere and the music. That’s their goal every year when planning the Oktoberfest. «It’s to show the international community that Palestinians are like everyone else. We know how to party», Madees explains.
Unfortunately, this year’s Oktoberfest had to be postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. Still, Madees Khoury is hopeful about the future. In April the Taybeh Brewing Company was supposed to open a brew pub in Taybeh, where people could come and sit at the tank and drink. This brew pub was supposed to be made for the funky beers so they can try to make something different and people can try it. In the next couple of years, the brewery plans to open a brew pub not only for their standard beer flavors, but as a place to test new and funky flavors of beer and create a place where people can meet and enjoy quality time with their friends and family. It’s part of their plan to introduce a new culture in Palestine. A culture where people meet at pubs, drink together, listen to music together. That pub was supposed to open in April of 2020, but this too had to be postponed due to COVID-19. Nevertheless, this year also brought an important milestone. «One of my goals for the past 13 years was to sell beer in an Arab country and I’m proud to say that 2 months ago we sent our first shipment to Jordan. Finally, we made that happen», Madees tells us excitedly.
Madees herself wants to be even more involved in the business of beer moving forward. She plans on visiting other breweries around the worlds and tasting their beer. «Drinking beer, that’s my goal», she concludes.