961 is the code for Lebanese beer

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Sorry, this Quaker state boy couldn’t let that pun slip by, even if – as it happens – we’re talking about beer made not in central Pennsylvania, but in the Middle East.

Still, I say, baloney!

Beer from the Muslim world is a non sequitur, as alien as two all-beef patties on a sesame-seed bun would be in the kitchen of my vegan colleague Vance Lehmkuhl. It just ain’t gonna happen, right?

Not when Islamic militants last year began blowing up liquor stores in southern Lebanon. Not when the Quran bans the consumption of alcohol.

And, yet, here I was earlier this month with Mazen Hajjar, enjoying a Lebanese Pale Ale in the quiet back room at Manayunk’s Old Eagle Pub. It’s a refreshing ale flavored with traditional Lebanese herbs and spices (thyme, sumac, chamomile, sage, anise and mint) that Hajjar made in Beirut at his up-and-coming 961 Beer Co.

“You’ve got to remember,” Hajjar said when I marveled at its flavor, “beer was invented in our part of the world.”

True enough. And, as Hajjar noted, Beirut is one of the more liberal cities in the Middle East.

“I was born a Muslim, and I’m married to a Christian,” he said. “As a Lebanese, it’s a nonissue. We don’t talk about these issues.”

Even in Manayunk, apparently. When I pressed for more details about his religion, he pulled back and repeated, “It’s a nonissue.”

OK, then – I’d rather talk about beer any day.

For example, about the 961 name: It’s the area code for Beirut, he explained.

The city of about 1.3 million is like South Jersey, circa 1981, without the big hair. Lots of buck-a-bottle Heineken and Corona, with payoffs to bar owners for tap placement. There’s one large brewery, Almaza, which makes typical pale Euro lager.

“So, when you bring a porter to market,” he said, “they all ask, ‘Did you burn the beer?’ ”

Starting a small brewery in a non-beer environment actually makes perfect sense. People all over the world recognize quality and flavor – the only real task is to convince them that beer can taste good, too.

The challenge, however, was slightly more daunting when Hajjar and his friends launched their business in 2006. At the time, their country was under siege, and Israel was dropping bombs on the local airport.

Hajjar said he was inspired to take the big step while reading Beer School: Bottling Success at the Brooklyn Brewery, the memoir of Brooklyn Brewing founder Steve Hindy. The book opens with Hindy, a former Associated Press correspondent, describing the shelling of the Beirut hotel where he was staying during the 1984 Lebanese civil war.

“Nothing like a mortar blast to make you forget you have a hangover,” Hindy wrote.

Beirut is mostly quiet today, however, and the challenges that Hajjar faces are far more mundane than open warfare.

For example, hops. How do you get your hands on specialty varieties such as the aromatic Amarillo hops that spice his 961 Red Ale, when even U.S. microbrewers sometimes encounter shortages.

“You have to ship them halfway across the world, pay taxes, then ship the beer back out. It gets expensive,” he said. “So I figured . . . we grow marijuana in Beirut, we’ve got to be able to grow hops.”

He planted his own and eventually brewed what was almost certainly the Arab world’s first-ever dry-hopped German-style lager.

“It really was completely mad and crazy,” he said.

I like Hajjar’s attitude, and it’s served him well as 961 Beer has grown from a stovetop operation to producing 300,000 cases a year. Now he’s expanding with bottle and draft exports to the U.S.’s East Coast.

The varieties, including a light-bodied Belgian-style Witbier and a very clean, Helles-style Lager, are an ideal complement to Mediterranean food.

And I’m not talking baloney.


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