Ancient Ales

The Past, Present, and Future of Middle Eastern Beer Brewing

A wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt from 2000 B.C. Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

When I was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press in 1980, I covered an Arab Summit meeting at the InterContinental Hotel in Amman, Jordan. We journalists gathered what news we could from the secretive proceedings, cobbled our stories together, and then spent our evenings around the bar, which was amply provisioned with the world’s best-known liquors and local and imported beer and wine. The Arab Summit was followed by an Islamic Summit, which was attended by the very same leaders. The InterContinental’s bar was shut down in observance of the Islamic ban on alcoholic beverages. I recall the hotel manager telling me that the whiskies, gins, vodkas, and other libations had been transferred to the delegates’ private suites. There was no drinking in public, but the liquor flowed in private.

Beer brewing, winemaking, and distilling all have long histories in the Middle East. In fact, liquor, beer, and wine are still available in most countries within the region, despite the Islamist revivals that have swept the area since the early 1980s. Heineken owns breweries in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon—it acquired the Egypt-based, century-old Al Ahram Beverages Company in 2006 and Lebanon’s Brasserie Almaza in 2002 (a brewery that has been in operation since 1933)—and its Middle East division boasts group operating profits of just under $8 million per year. In Lebanon, the main brands are Amstel and Laziza (which means “delicious” in Arabic).

Even in the countries that have banned alcohol outright (some of the Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia), non-alcoholic breweries abound. For example, Carlsberg, the world’s fourth-largest brewer, also owns a brewery in Saudi Arabia that produces Moussy, a non-alcoholic brew aimed at upscale and metropolitan consumers. It has a 38 percent market share of non-alcoholic brews in the nation. Not to be outdone by its rivals, in 2002 Heineken purchased the Al Ahram brewing company for control of Fayrouz—its signature malt beverage that claims the unique designation of being the world’s first, and so far

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