BATROUN, Lebanon: “We are beer lovers here,” says Jamil al-Haddad, his hands playing with a mock-up bottle for the lager he is creating.
“In Batroun, if you go and visit someone in his home, he will not invite you to drink coffee, he will offer you a beer. We have the highest consumption of beer here in all of Lebanon.”It’s an unverifiable and dubious fact, but the passion with which Haddad says it makes all of that irrelevant. For him, Batroun is about to become the epicenter of an invigorated beer culture and the birthplace of the country’s soon-to-be newest brew: Colonel.
“So this is part of why I started to think, I’m from Batroun and I need to brew beer. Khallas, this is how it started,” he says.
Slightly sunburnt and full of raw energy and barely contained excitement about the months to come, the 30-year-old is the man behind not one, but four thoroughly ambitious projects: a microbrewery, a restaurant, a bar and a bed and breakfast.
Pinning it all together is Colonel beer (pronounced the French way, co-lo-nel). Coming to a supermarket near you this summer, Colonel is the product of more than a decade of brewing experience, countless trips to Europe, a handful of courses at foreign microbreweries and a portable home-brewing kit brought back from London.
“I was 17 when I started to make liqueur at home, Irish cream, banana, strawberry. I started in order to make a bit more money so I could buy myself windsurf boards,” he says, gesturing to three large boards stacked up on shelves in his tiny office. “I began while I was in the boy scouts, and then I made it at home.”
Despite taking a hiatus after he moved to Beirut and started working, his love for making his own grog never faded. At 24, he traveled to London and had his first close-up look at how beer is made during a tour of the award-winning Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. It was the spark of an obsession that has gripped him until this day.
He threw himself into his passion, taking courses and landing work stints at breweries across Europe.
“Eventually, I came back to Lebanon from London at the age of 27 with my own home brewery kit that I bought in the U.K.” Haddad explains. “I started brewing at home in Beirut and inviting my friends round to have barbecues and beer tastings. I brewed bitter, lager, red ale, everything.
“It took me six months to make good beer, before that, I threw out everything I made. When I finally got it right it was on New Year’s Eve three years ago, I stayed at home and made English bitter. It tasted incredible.”
But trying to make beer and hold down a travel-intensive marketing role at shoe brand Adidas proved too much, and last June he decided to quit his job, pack up, leave Beirut and move back in with his parents in Batroun, a laid-back coastal town that boasts the closest thing to a hippie vibe in Lebanon. The plan was to brew a bit of beer in his garage and have more time to windsurf, but it quickly turned into something bigger.
Stepping out of his office, he points to a spidery, metallic structure being constructed on the centrally located plot of land he bought just between a main road in Batroun and the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a long way off from the digitally created pictures he has of a stylish microbrewery, restaurant and bar all housed under one roof, and for the moment, visitors must imagine the vertical walls of plants, glass panels and stylish light installations.
“We started building at the beginning of February, and we are planning to have it finished in a few weeks,” he says.
He rubs his beard thoughtfully before adding, “There is a lot of work to do.”
He picks up a chewed-up looking strip of multicolored plastic and smiles. “This is what we are using along with recycled palettes for the building. It’s called Eco-Board, and it will allow us to recycle over 1 million plastic bags.”
Designed by Ziad Abichaker, the environmental and industrial engineer behind waste processing company Cedar Environmental, the durable material is totally eco-friendly, a core aim of the Colonel project.
Walking around, he points at various empty spaces and conjures up an image of their eventual purpose.
“This will be an outdoor area for barbecues, beer festivals and other cool summer events, and this,” he points to an area nearest the sea, “will be for three two-person bungalows.”
His vision is a place where visitors can relax, and further, be inspired to start up their own projects, somewhere “they can feel that people can still make a difference to the country.”
People will be able to tour the brewery – which will be visible from the restaurant and bar – learn about how the beer is made and then enjoy local Batroun food such as kibbeh samak and octopus along with a freshly poured glass of the brown stuff.
“In the bar, we will do black Irish beer, red ale, lager beer and light beer – less calories and less alcohol. The lager is for commercial sale, and everything else will only be available on site.”
The obvious similarity is with 961, Lebanon’s flagship craft beer that does several different flavors and is still the only local alternative to Almaza.
But far from being daunted by taking on the popular brand, Haddad is grateful.
“I think that 961 did me a big favor, because they were second [after Almaza]. They proved to the people here that we can have another beer,” he smiles broadly and looks down at the Colonel bottle in his hands. “There is also competition, but this makes for better beer. And that’s something I’m all for.”