Few foreigners would expect the winding Palestinian road that goes past the Israeli army base and into the village of Taybeh to lead to a beer brewery.
Even fewer would expect to find a woman standing in front of the beer tanks, measuring out the hops and directing the export of crates of ales and lagers around the world.
Madees Khoury, the general manager at the Taybeh Brewing Company, is used to people’s surprise. She is, after all, believed to be the only female beer brewer in the Middle East.
“I like shocking people,” said Madees. “When I tell people that I make the beer, whether they are Arabs or foreigners, they say to me: you’re joking, right?”
Beer making is a family tradition for the Khourys, a Christian Palestinian family whose surname literally means “priest” in Arabic.
They hail from Taybeh, an ancient Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank, not far from where Jesus is said to have fasted for 40 days.
Two of its sons, Nadim and David Khoury, left the village after the 1967 war and started new lives in the US. But they returned home two decades later in the heady days that followed the 1993 Oslo agreements, hoping a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians was just around the corner.
As the diplomats tried to hammer out a final agreement, the Khoury brothers were busy opening the doors of the first microbrewery in the Middle East. “People thought: ‘How crazy is this family to open a microbrewery in Palestine, in the Middle East? They are doomed to fail,’” said Madees.
In the end the peace talks failed, but the beer business flourished. It has grown through wars and intifadas and is increasingly exporting to other countries, now including the UK.
Madees is in charge of most of the day-to-day operations at the brewery, including organising Taybeh’s annual Oktoberfest beer festival, which begins this weekend.
Stepping into her father’s shoes and into the male-dominated world of beer making has its challenges, many of them multiplied by the patriarchal culture of Palestinian society.
Sometimes male clients will refuse to speak to her and demand to talk to her father instead. “Arabs are very conservative, especially the men and especially the older men,” said Madees, whose accent is a fusion of her Palestinian and American upbringings.
Her strategy is to barrel through their opposition with hard work and knowledge of her craft. She wakes at 4am most days to shepherd her beer a little further through the process while always sticking true to the German beer purity laws of 1516 that Taybeh and other brewers adhere to.
In some ways, skeptical men are the least of her problems. “Society, religion, occupation,” she laughed as she counted the challenges out. “Everything is in the way of making beer.”
Palestinian society is more than 90 per cent Muslim, which drastically limits the market for alcohol. Taybeh says around half of its sales are in the West Bank but they are focused on the cities like Ramallah or Bethlehem where there are Christians who drink and thirsty foreigners who visit.
The Taybeh company tries to present itself as an example of Palestinian business success but Madees said the Palestinian Authority (PA), the semi-government in charge of parts of the West Bank, was wary of the beer brewery.
Its food safety inspectors come every year but sometimes refuse to enter the brewery because they don’t want to be associated with alcohol. “You would think the PA would champion a business like this but they don’t,” Madees said. “We’re not going to force anyone to drink it.”
The business has also suffered since Israel built the “separation barrier”, a wall the Israeli government says is necessary to stop suicide bombers but the International Court of Justice says is illegal.
Getting the beer to the Israeli port of Haifa for export takes about three days because of security checks, Madees said. Sitting on a hot truck for that long is bad for the beer but also expensive and means the company must find drivers on both the Israeli and Palestinian side.
Like many Palestinian villages, Taybeh struggles with its water supply. While Israeli settlements have water at all times, places like Taybeh get water once every 10 days and have to store it into tanks until the next supply. The stop-start water flow can disrupt the beer-making process.
But Madees, who smiles often and laughs a lot, is undaunted. She tells a story about her father trying to make his beer delivery during the Second Intifada while fighting was raging throughout the West Bank.
Israeli forces set up a checkpoint in the road and refused to allow him to pass. So he found a donkey and strapped the beer cases to it and sent the animal wandering past the checkpoint on its own.
“Palestinians can overcome any kind of difficult situation,” she said. “If there’s a checkpoint, we find another route. If there’s a there’s not water supply, we’ll store it in a beer tank. If we face challenges, we find a way to overcome it.”
Author: Raf Sanchez