The beer with a Levant slant

961 BEER - Mazen Hajjar makes his 961 Beer in Beirut and exports it worldwide. Output is modest, at 200,000 cases last year.

“I’m the lunatic who makes beer in Lebanon!” announces Mazen Hajjar as he rises to extend his hand.

That’s Lebanon in the Middle East — not Pennsylvania. Hajjar’s brewery, 961 Beer (named after the international dialing code for Lebanon), is a five-minute drive from Beirut.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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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.

There are a few oases in that bleak beerscape. Israel has sprouted between 20 and 30 microbreweries and brewpubs, beginning with the Dancing Camel in Tel Aviv in 2006. Taybeh Brewing in Palestinian territory predates the Dancing Camel by a decade, brewing golden, amber and dark lagers, plus a non-alcoholic brew for observant Muslims.

961 Beer, however, might be the only Middle Eastern microbrewery that exports worldwide, from Spain to Hong Kong to Australia. Hajjar’s output is modest: 200,000 cases last year, or about 14,500 barrels. But Hajjar ships to 14 countries and 12 American states; you can find it in the District, Maryland and Virginia. His business strategy might reflect his cosmopolitan outlook: “My uncle lived in Chicago for 40 years. My wife grew up in New York. I proposed in Sweden and we got married in Seattle.”

His visit to Washington is part of a brand-promotion tour that includes stops in New York and Philadelphia. “I love coming here. I feel like it’s my second home,” he says. “I feel like a rock star, but without the groupies and drugs.”

Hajjar buys malt from Germany and hops from Europe and the United States. It might not be the most efficient or environmentally friendly way to make beer, importing almost all of his brewing materials and sending his beer abroad in throwaway bottles and one-way disposable barrels called KeyKegs. But Hajjar says he has a goal “one day to be a zero-emission, carbon-neutral brewery.”

He admits that goal is a long way off. In the meantime, he contributes a slice of his profits to the reforestation of Lebanon. (A small drawing of a cedar graces his labels.) He uses local ingredients when possible. He planted an experimental hop plot and used the crop to make a Harvest Lager for the German Embassy in Beirut to celebrate German Reunification Day last Oct. 4. Upcoming releases include a barley wine refermented in cedar with raisins, and a Lebanese-style stout flavored with coffee and cardamom.

Can he keep the pipeline filled? At the time of our meeting, Hajjar seemed concerned about meeting demand, citing that 961 Beer is growing at a clip of 300 percent to 400 percent annually.

Kitsock is the editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.

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