Four years ago, when 29-year-old Alaa Sayej was setting up a brewery in his hometown of Birzeit, north of Ramallah, he encountered a problem he didn’t foresee: Palestinian authorities insisted his logo looked too much like Jesus.
Officials from the Palestinian Authority found the image of a staff-holding shepherd dressed in somewhat biblical garb, surrounded by olive branches, hops, and barley too troublesome for the market. Look a little more closely and you can see a single star above the shepherd — a not-so-subtle allusion to the stars that guided shepherds to baby Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem, according to the biblical account.
“If they knew anything about religion, they would have known that Jesus would have been a baby in this image. Do you see a baby,” said Sayej, who learned to love beer while working as a banker in Manchester.
“He looks more like Moses with the staff,” Sayej laughed. After convincing the Palestinian authorities the figure was not Jesus, his biggest challenge actually came from the Israeli border control, that held up imports of machinery and supplies from Europe, he said.
The brewery began selling beer in 2015. The issues with the Palestinian Authority and Israel have been smoothed over, and Sayej’s beer is sold across the Palestinian territories, in Israel, Italy and Chile, the last being home to a large Palestinian diaspora.
Between Saturday and Sunday, some 7,000-8,000 Palestinians and tourists showed their love for the beer by traveling to the edge of a little village at the far eastern end of Bethlehem called Beit Sahour for the second annual Shepherds Beer Festival.
Thousands of mostly Palestinian youth who paid NIS 30 ($8) to get into the venue, stood shoulder to shoulder, pumped their fists, sang along with music, and hoisted their beer cups into the air upon demand.
First to take the stage was the band Hawa Dafi, which riled up the crowd with a funky fusion of Arabic, rock and jazz music, showcasing both saxophone and oud solos. With an equal share of female and male musicians, the band hails from the Druze town of Majdal Shams, which sits on the border between Israel and Syria.
Next to take the stage was the Arab-Israeli rapper Tamer Nafar, a lead member of the band Dam. The entranced crowd sang along with Nafar’s quickfire lyrics.
Arwa Salameh, 26, said she was “surprised by the very nice music” of Hawa Dafi, and added that Nafar’s songs are common in Palestinian clubs.
“This type of party is becoming more popular in Palestine. It’s nice,” she added.
Mid-interview, Charlie Asfur, 22, answered his phone. “Come to Shepherds, it’s poppin’; I swear to Allah.”
Asfur, a Chicago native who moved to Ramallah when he was 14-years-old, and back to the Windy City eight months ago, said, “Palestine is the chillest country you’ll ever find. Everyone drinks and everyone smokes hash,” he said, referring to hashish.
“Palestine is the freest country,” he said. Except that one must be very careful what one says in public about politics or religion, he added.
A former bartender, Asfur said he would recommend Shepherds Beer over the American lager Samuel Adams because “it’s made from the land.”
Shepherds Beer comes in three flavors: an amber ale, a stout, and a blonde. There is also a seasonal flavor and the Birzeit Brewery, which produces the Shepherds Beer line, is also working on a non-alcoholic ale called Dahab, meaning “gold” in Arabic.
Psychology major Khalil Abdullah, 26, who sported a well-groomed hipster beard, a fedora, and suspenders over a white t-shirt and jeans, rated the Shepherds Beer anywhere between a 7/10 and 10/10.
“I drink it everywhere I go because I like it,” he said, while puffing (vapping) away at an electronic cigarette.
Chris Zaknoun, 40, who consults for international organizations in the West Bank, said he thought Shepherds Beer was at an “international standard.”
Zaknoun was glad the beer was tasty, but more excited that young Palestinians had a chance to party.
“Every party that happens in Palestine gives the young people a chance to live differently for a moment. It allows them to decompress,” he said.
A proper college education
Sayej’s brewery was supported financially by his father, and his siblings are all key players in the business. His brother Khaled is the master brewer.
This family-owned brewery model has precedent in the West Bank.
In October, the Taybeh Brewery, named after the village where it is located, will be hosting its 12th annual Taybeh Octoberfest.
The Taybeh Brewery is run by the Khoury family, and the business is run primarily by two brothers.
Nadim Khoury, the brewmaster, told The Times of Israel last year that he learned the art while experimenting in college in the United States.
Alaa Sayej said he learned his trade also while studying, but in London.
“It was my hobby when I was in England. I was really fascinated by all the ales, and all the pubs in the country. So I started brewing in the dorms. After that, I thought, why not make it a business,” he said.
Kosher? ‘Why not’
Although the Palestinians are overwhelmingly Muslim and therefore shun alcohol, said Sayej, his beer still has a local audience.
“Perhaps the majority is Muslim, but it’s not that the majority is not drinking,” he said, adding it’s “like Jews with pork.”
Christians make up an estimated 1-2 percent of the West Bank’s 2.7 million Palestinians.
The Taybeh brewery once had a Kosher certificate — it’s no longer valid — and the beer can be found across Israel.
Sayej said he too is open to a kosher seal of approval.
“Why not? There is a big market in Israel,” he said.
He said he is glad to have anyone enjoy his “art.”
“When you drink beer, it doesn’t check your ID. If you love it, you drink it.”