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How to start a beer revolution in a country that doesn’t want one

Yazan Karadsheh learned to brew in the U.S. with the goal of bringing craft beer to his home country of Jordan. In founding his brewery, Carakale, he laid the groundwork for creating a beer culture, from scratch, in a land that was pretty ambivalent toward the whole idea.
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Yazan Karadsheh, owner of Carakale Brewing Co.

Yazan Karadsheh, owner of Carakale Brewing Co.

It was once said by the keen cultural observer Frank Zappa that you can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. Jordan, located right around the middle of what we call the Middle East, has an airline alright. But beer?

Yazan Karadsheh, born in Jordan but educated in the U.S., felt like his homeland lacked true, authentically made Jordanian beer. So he set out to make one. And in founding his brewery, Carakale, he laid the groundwork for creating a beer culture from scratch, in a land that was pretty ambivalent toward the whole idea. Here’s how he did it.

Step one: Learn to brew
Though he graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder—a great place to start a beer career—brewing wasn’t always Karadsheh’s goal. His degree in electrical engineering earned him a job at oil company Haliburton and a well-paying but hellish gig at an oil field in Rock Springs, Wyoming. (“I felt like I was in a Harry Potter movie, but on the bad side with all the villains,” Karadsheh says now.) He lasted three weeks before booking it back to Boulder.

However, Karadsheh wasn’t returning without a plan. Before he left for Haliburton, a seed had been planted at, of all places, Barnes & Noble. “This book about the beers of the world that just kind of fell in front of me,” Karadsheh says. “I was looking for Jordan, but I couldn’t find it. I was like, ‘What about the beer I grew up drinking?’” Turns out that beer was made in Amsterdam. “That was the day that the light bulb kind of clicked on: We don’t have a true Jordanian beer,” he says.

Karadsheh headed to a local homebrew supply shop and offered to work for free as long as they’d teach him how to make beer. What store owner would turn that offer down? He worked there six months (he did start getting paid eventually), all the while learning how to make beer, mead, kombucha, even organic soft drinks.

“Every day was awesome,” Karadsheh says. “I would go restock grains, and whatever I’m stocking I would always eat. Having 50 or 60 different types of malts to restock, you have this wide variety of flavors. I did the same thing restocking hops and different kinds of yeasts. Smelling them, learning their names and what they did to a beer. It was this amazing learning curve. My first all-grain batch was in the back of the owner’s pickup in front of the Flatirons. It was gorgeous.”

One day, a few months into Karadsheh’s stint at the shop, a guy walks into the store and just starts signing books. “I’m like, “Oh my god, what is this hippie doing?” Karadsheh recalls, laughing. “He just says, ‘It’s okay, I’m Charlie.’” The hippie, of course, was Charlie Papazian, and the books he was signing had his name on the cover. Not willing to miss an opportunity, Karadsheh told Papazian of his plan to start a brewery in Jordan, and the “Joy of Homebrewing” author suggested he look into the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis. “As soon as I was done with my shift that day, I went online and looked at the prerequisites for that program, and one of them was engineering,” Karadsheh says. “It was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I had the golden ticket.”

After six months in Davis learning the science of brewing, Karadsheh returned to Colorado to begin his beer career in earnest. First stop: the Flatirons location of brewpub chain C.B. & Potts, where Karadsheh worked as an apprentice, “basically cleaning out fermenters and scooping out grains from the mash tun.” Next: Upslope Brewing Co. in Boulder, where he built enough skill that when head brewer Danny Pages had to leave for a month to check on his brewery in Ushuaia, Argentina, he left Karadsheh in charge. “Outwardly I was like, ‘Sure!’ but inside I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to destroy this brewery?’” Karadsheh says. “This was my first time being alone with brewing, filtering, helping out with packaging. So it was kind of like getting thrown into a warzone. I got a ton of experience, but Danny did an amazing job training me before leaving, and I lived up to his expectations, which was good. I remember once milling outside in the middle of a snowstorm, which was awesome, and I remember once brewing while they were evacuating the area because of a forest fire, and the owner came in and said we might have to evacuate, and I’m like, ‘I’m not leaving until this brew is in the tank!’”

With some real-deal brewing experience under his belt, Karadsheh felt he was finally ready to start his own brewery. Before his exit, however, Upslope owner Matt Cutter gave Karadsheh the opportunity to write a recipe for the brewery. The dunkelweizen Karadsheh designed would be the first of his recipes brewed in a commercial brewery. In 2009, he left for Jordan. He got a call from Upslope a few months later—the beer had been entered into the Great American Beer Festival, where it won bronze. It was Upslope’s first GABF medal.

Step 2: Clear the hurdles—governmental and otherwise
Once in Jordan, Karadsheh quickly realized that dreaming about accomplishing something is much simpler than actually doing it. There was no road map for filling out an application to open a microbrewery in Jordan, and the religious leanings of most government workers proved its own challenge.

“I would go into government institutions and they’d tell me to go stand in a corner until they found somebody that would be able to talk to me, because what I’m doing has to do with alcohol, and that’s haram—forbidden,” Karadsheh recalls. “It was very challenging in the beginning.”

It took over a year to cut through the red tape enough to see daylight, and even then, it only happened by accident.

“After a year and a half of waiting for this right person to open the door, my dad’s friend is over, and he says, ‘I’m going to bring you this [brewing] license on a platter of gold,’” Karadsheh says. “I had never heard this expression in Arabic. The next day, just like that, like the flip of a switch, he got the license. I had finally found the right guy to open up the heavenly doors of brewing beer in Jordan.”

Karadsheh was naive enough to think that piece of paper was it, but it was just the beginning. Dozens of approvals followed—beginning, preliminary, medium, final and post-final approvals from Jordanian internal security, the ministry of health, the fire departments, the municipal government. And all the while, he had to design and build his brewery, which had its own set of obstacles. The owner of a choice plot of land near an airport backed out of the deal when he discovered Karadsheh was building a brewery, saying selling would be against his ethics. The man who sold Karadsheh his water filtration system delivered the device, but said he wouldn’t build it. (Karadsheh took three months to install the system himself; picture him emerging from a mass of stainless steel, his face covered in soot after constructing his carbon filter by hand.) Karadsheh—and the three blacksmiths and a mechanical engineer he now has on staff—literally had to build a brewery to build a brewery.

Step 3: Create a beer culture
The Jordanian beer scene is basically monopolized by one brewery: General Investment Co., makers of Petra, Philadelphia, Maxi and Vita, all lagers and malt liquors in varying shades of yellow. Before Karadsheh came home, it was the only brewery in the country, and had been for more than 40 years. Imports such as Heineken, Corona, Beck’s, Efes and even the occasional Guinness and Leffe snuck in, but the scene was ruled by mainstream, cut-with-water lagers, and most Jordanians knew beer as something yellow, filtered, super-carbonated and ice-cold.

Jordan is also a majority Muslim country. Alcohol isn’t outlawed, but it is frowned upon, with the majority of those who indulge doing so in secret. Bars exist, as do liquor stores, and you won’t get arrested for drinking, as you might in a stricter country like Saudi Arabia. But the majority of people who do indulge are expats and embassy workers. That’s the market Karadsheh was entering when bottles of his first beer, Carakale Blonde Ale, began hitting Jordanian liquor stores in November 2013.

“The Blonde is about opening peoples’ minds and brains to the craft beer world,” Karadsheh says. “Even still, to a lot of people in Jordan, this beer seems too intense. It’s this little bridge that I wanted to create between the mainstream and the world of craft beer.”

Getting bottles on shelves was one thing, but getting Carakale beer on draft was another thing entirely. When you want to sell kegs in Jordan, it’s not as simple as just selling a keg. Unlike in the U.S., bars don’t own or maintain their taps; breweries do. In order to get your beer on at a given watering hole, a brewery needs to visit the bar, build the draft station for them—as in, drill a hole in the wall, construct a faucet and connect the gas lines—maintain it, clean it, troubleshoot it. “They’ll call you in the middle of the night saying, ‘The second tap with the pale ale is foaming up,’ and you’ll have to send people there, hopefully the same night, to fix it,” Karadsheh says. (Land of Kings and Queens, indeed.)

But it was a necessary next step, and before he took it, Karadsheh reached out to the owner of General Investment Co. for advice in pushing into the draft market. Big mistake. “All of a sudden, all these contracts start popping up at bars saying they’re not allowed to have another local tap in the bar,” Karadsheh says. “Our shipment of materials came in, and we wanted to start building these stations, and suddenly every bar owner was like, ‘Sorry, we signed a contract. You have to wait until next year.’”

Another stumbling block, but some good came of this one: Several local bar owners came forward to let Karadsheh know that they wouldn’t sign the contract. He also had success selling to embassies, with staff who are more accustomed to flavorful beer.

“The American embassy has been especially welcoming,” Karadsheh says. “When we installed our draft station in the American embassy, people there stopped drinking the Amstel draft. After a time, they just turned off the machine, and eventually they just called the brewer and had them remove the tap entirely.”

So the bottles were out and the taps were built. The final stage of beer culture creation was in educating drinkers in what beer is all about—and that’s a process, Karadsheh says, that continues to this day.

“We have to constantly train people. Why does this beer taste the way it does? Why is this so aromatic? Is that bad? Is that good? Why is this kristalweizen so different from this pale ale? Even the vocabulary; how do you say to people who have no idea what these words mean in the context of beer that a beer is medium-bodied or full-bodied or hoppy or estery? How do you say all these words in Arabic? How do you even say the word ‘brewery?’ We had to actually create these words.”

Step 4: Keep it up
While Karadsheh continues to elevate beer culture in his homeland, he also hopes to soon introduce the rest of the world to true Jordanian brew. He’s getting married this year to an American, which is just one reason he wanted to start bringing his beers into the U.S. He’s been working on this for two years, creating his own importation company, acquiring label approvals and working through the vagaries of the three tier system in order to bring his beers to the States. Along with the flagships, he says, he plans to present beers with a Jordanian twist—a Baltic porter with date molasses, for instance, or a coffee beer with cardamom—to stand out in the American market.

“It’s like a full circle. I started learning beer here, and now I’m going to sell it here,” he says.

Until then, however, Karadsheh will continue to help Carakale succeed at home. The brewery, which produced 250,000 liters (roughly 2,100 barrels) of beer in 2016, has doubled in production each year since its opening and continues to grow.

Karadsheh admits he hasn’t made much progress changing the minds of the government bureaucrats who still oppose his brewery on principle. (Even today, his hop shipments often languish at the Jordanian narcotics department for months because the Arabic phrase for hops, hashish el dinar, contains the word hashish, a term also used to describe cannabis.)

The citizens, however?

“With us growing in the country, we’re meeting a lot of people who are really, honestly happy and very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Karadsheh says. “They want to help us, with no agenda. A lot of Jordanians, when their friends come to the country, they say, ‘This is our beer. Try it.’

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