How to run a brewery in a place where no one drinks alcohol: Where Taybeh beer is made

Here's a question: how do you go about running a microbrewery in a part of the world where no one drinks alcohol? How do you have a successful business when no one is allowed to consume your product?

Madees Khoury shuffles a few beer bottles around while she considers that conundrum. "Well," she says, "99 per cent of Palestinians are Muslim. But 50 per cent of our sales are within Palestine. So…"

So, the obvious insinuation here is that there's a more nuance to Palestinians than you might have first thought. According to Madees, who's one of the master brewers at Taybeh Beer, there are three types of people in Palestine: hardliners who don't touch alcohol at all; those who drink behind closed doors; and those in more liberal cities such as Ramallah, with its popular bar and restaurant scene, who drink in the same way as most people in the Western world do, openly and joyfully.

That's part of what has made Taybeh such a success. This is the first and still one of the most popular micro-breweries in the entire Middle East, a family-run company that exports its delicious, boozy product to countries as far away as Japan, Denmark and Italy. It will soon be available in the US as well.

That's a surprise. It's also a surprise that one of the master brewers at Taybeh is Madees: friendly, unassuming, 30 years old, and a woman. Probably not what you were expecting. Madees studied brewing techniques while living in Boston, in the US, and has now been welcomed into the family business as a brewer and a manager.

So not only is this a highly successful micro-brewery being run in a country where no one drinks, but it's also a highly successful micro-brewery being run by a woman in a country where women aren't allowed to do anything. Clearly, there's more to this place than there appears.

It's only a short drive from Jerusalem to the town of Taybeh, a small Christian settlement in the Palestinian hills, but it's a journey that takes you through the full gamut of Israeli-Palestinian difficulties. Beginning in buzzing hub of the Israeli capital, you drive past the walls and armed checkpoints that mark the border with Palestine, alongside a few Israeli settlements in the West Bank deemed illegal by the international community, and eventually up a hill and into the quiet streets of Taybeh.

This is one of the last all-Christian communities in the West Bank, a place of Biblical significance that is home to 1500 people, one brewery, one wine producer, and Palestine's only annual Oktoberfest celebration.

When I arrive, Madees is showing a tour group through the brewery – which is really just a large shed around the corner from a church – talking passionately about the golden ale, the amber ale, the dark and the white. She walks them past the huge steel vats, explaining the process from brewing to bottling.

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The tourists all have the same look about them as I probably do, one of mild surprise that this is all taking place, that this brewery is here, and that it's being run by the smiling, charming Madees.

But then, it's surprises like this that make travel so great. Particularly in places like Israel and Palestine. This, after all, is how you discover the truth about the world, how you sort the skewed stories and the stereotypes and propaganda from what is actually out there.

It might seem an odd choice to spend your holiday in a part of the world that's only ever mentioned in the "serious" section of the news, but when you think about it, why wouldn't you want to travel here? Why wouldn't you want to see this place you've heard about for so long? Why wouldn't you want to meet the people who make up all those statistics and feature in all those news reports?

Travel is amazing because it connects you on a personal level to the rest of the world. It makes you care. It makes you understand. Now, whenever I see Israel or Palestine on the news, it won't be a surreal tale of someone else's problems from far away – it will be a story about people like my tour guide, Mahdi. It will be about the women who run the Slow Food Movement in the city of Nablus. It will be about Fadi, who sells shawarmas from a shop in Ramallah.

Most of all, however, it will be a story about Madees Khoury, who confounds expectations just by making nice beer. And right now, she's offering me a sample. As you'd now expect, it's extremely good.

Ben Groundwater travelled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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