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961 Beer Comes Calling

by Tom Cannavan, 04/12

It was a huge privilege and fascinating experience to visit Lebanon in early 2012, mainly to tour their vineyards and wineries and meet some of the 40 or so winemakers plying their trade in this historic country where wine has been made since the arrival of the Phoenicians. But any trip to Lebanon will also take in their fabulous food culture, influenced through the ages by many settlers and rulers, and fusing French and Arab ingredients with delicious local produce.

361 bottles On a visit to a terrific restaurant in Beirut called café Tawlet, where each day a different cook from one of Lebanon's villages cooks exemplary local food, my attention was drawn to some striking bottled beers bearing the international dialling code for Lebanon, 961. It turned out these locally micro-brewed beers have garnered a big reputation, not just for their quality, but for the story behind them.

961 Beer began during the dark days of the July 2006 siege on Lebanon, as part of a bloody war with Israel that saw hundreds die on both sides. Tired with the lack of quality beer in Lebanon, Mazen Hajjar and his friends started to brew beer in his kitchen. The first batches were brewed in 20 litre kettles, at a time when blockades meant moving anything around, from supplies, to equipment, to beer was fraught with problems. Having left a high flying career finance to start his own airline at the age of 29, Mazen was no stranger to risk and enterprise, and so the idea of 961 was born.

When 961 Beer officially began brewing they were one of the world's smallest commercial breweries and the only microbrewery in the Middle East (as they still are). Although 961 Beer now brews nearly two million litres per year, they still insist upon making beer using "traditional techniques, quality ingredients and love."

I wish I'd had time and the opportunity to taste more than the two beers below. A Witbeer and Porter are also part of their regular range, plus seasonal beers and specials like a Lebanese Pale Ale. Of course the beers are not widely available outiside of Lebanon, but do crop up in specialist beer stores and, I suspect, Lebanese restaurants. It's certainly worth keeping a lookout for them.

the beers

961 Brewery, Lager (Lebanon)
Fairly deep golden colour with thin, off-white head. Quite a malty style of lager, quite yeasty too with a touch of clove. Lots of lemon in the mouth with a rich texture, a touch of sweetness to the mid-palate, but great bite and freshness in the finish. A very enjoyable rendition of the classic Bavarian lager style. 5.0% ABV, 33cl, No known UK stockists.
961 Brewery, Red Ale (Lebanon)
Described by 961 as being "somewhere between the American Red Ale and a classic English Amber Ale," this is brewed with Cascade and Amarillo hops. It has a little more body and a little more red fruits than the lager, and again a nicely maltly and a clean aromatic style. Lovely hints of spice. The palate has similarly ramped up the flavour and body a little, the alcohol more textural in the mouth with a really nice grassy note to the finish. Lovely beer. 5.9% ABV, 33cl, No known UK stockists.


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