By Josh Noel, Tribune Newspapers
February 24, 2013
As awash as the Western world is in craft beer, it's easy to forget that much of the globe has no such bounty. It can be a struggle in many countries to find anything beyond a bunch of similar-tasting light lagers.
Mazen Hajjar felt that was the case six years ago, which led him to learn to home-brew in Beirut.
"Our first batches were terrible, but they got better and better, and soon I had people knocking on my door in the middle of the night trying to buy my home-brew," Hajjar said.
That hobby has blossomed into 961 Beer, his brewery with growing international distribution that includes Chicago and much of the East Coast.
961 Beer — named for Lebanon's country dialing code — came from his frustration at the state of Lebanese beer, which amounted to a handful of usual suspects — Heineken, Bud and Corona — as well as a couple of light regional lagers, like Efes and Almaza.
"It drove me crazy," Hajjar said. "Lebanese food is famous worldwide. Lebanese wine is famous worldwide. You don't hear about beer, in general, in Lebanon."
So he did what any frustrated, thirsty person would do: He bought and read "every book I could find on Amazon" about beer-making and had brewing equipment shipped from the U.S.
The result is a roster of mostly approachable beers: the 961 lager, red ale, wit beer and porter are all relatively easy and balanced drinking. Even the porter — a crisp blend of chocolate, smoke and coffee — is light for its style.
"What I try to do is make well-balanced beer, but nothing that smacks you in the face crazy," Hajjar said.
More rewarding to seasoned beer drinkers will be the ambitious brews that reflect Hajjar's Lebanese heritage. His Lebanese Pale Ale, for instance, is brewed with thyme, sumac, camomile, sage, anise and mint. It bears little resemblance to American pale ales; the 961 version is more of an herbed or spice beer that pairs easily with food.
The brewery is at work on an imperial cardamom coffee stout that is a nod to the Lebanese practice of drinking cardamom-spiked coffee. Other unique concepts will follow, Hajjar said.
"I want Lebanese flavor in my beer, and to reflect our culinary traditions," he said.
The result is beer reflecting a corner of the world that has finally taken its first step into the craft beer revolution.
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