With his shoulder-length dark hair and full beard, he might be mistaken for a graduate student who wandered into ChurchKey near Logan Circle to down a few drafts after banging out his thesis. But this youthful 39-year-old has a remarkably varied résumé: Before brewing caught his fancy, he worked as a photographer covering the war in Serbia; he spent nine years as an investment banker; and he made an unsuccessful attempt to start the Middle East’s first low-fare airline.
Within minutes we’re clinking glasses of 961 Lebanese Pale Ale, a marriage of European brewing tradition and Levantine cuisine. Hajjar supplements the hops with a melange of Middle Eastern herbs and spices: mint, sumac, anise, chamomile, sage and za’atar. The pale ale is delicate but flavorful, with a dry, herbal, savory flavor that would pair nicely with a skewer of well-seasoned chicken or lamb.
961 Lebanese Pale Ale is available in kegs and 11.2-ounce bottles. Hajjar’s American importer, St. Killian in Kingston, Mass., carries four other 961 varieties in bottles only, all solid interpretations of classic European styles. They are a clean-tasting golden lager; a red ale balancing citrusy American hops with lots of caramel malt; a Belgian-style witbier incorporating wheat from Lebanese farmers; and a roasty porter full of mocha flavors.
Many U.S. craft brewers like to talk about their baptism of fire in a highly competitive industry, but Hajjar literally was under siege when he hatched his grand plan. “I started in 2006,” he says. “Israel and Hezbollah were bombing . . . each other. The electricity was off; I was sitting on my balcony reading the first chapter of “Beer School” by Steve Hindy and Tom Potter. That’s when I thought, ‘Eureka!’ ”
Hajjar took inspiration from Hindy, a former Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press. Like Hajjar, Hindy had to dodge bombs and bullets; he was sitting in the grandstand behind Anwar Sadat in 1981 when the Egyptian leader was assassinated. Like Hajjar, Hindy was led by the region’s lack of decent beer first to take an interest in home-brewing, then to turn pro. (He’s now president of New York’s Brooklyn Brewery.)
“Pretty unremarkable” is how Hindy describes Middle Eastern beer in general. He remembers quaffing Stella, an Egyptian brand that had dubious quality-control standards: “I don’t think I ever got two bottles that ever had the same fill level.” The brewery, according to a persistent rumor, spiked the beer with formaldehyde to perk up the flavor. Hindy couldn’t verify that, but he said, “It did seem to have a kind of numbing effect after a few bottles.”
The quality of Stella improved markedly after 2002, when Heineken took over the brewery, Hindy says. Likewise, Heineken controls Almaza (Arabic for “diamond”), a Lebanese light lager with no particular regional character.