961 beer is a beer for just about everyone it seems, or at least that is what its founder and producer Mazen Hajjar is aiming to achieve.
"I’m trying to convert people, they usually say they’re not beer drinkers but that’s because they’re not drinking good beer.
A beer aficionado, he started brewing beer in his kitchen with friends during the June 2006 siege on Lebanon by Israel, citing that he and his friends of young thirty-something’s had tired of the limited variety of beer available in Lebanon.
Yet time was also on their hand and in a manner typical of the Lebanese who seem to be a people most creative and productive when things get tough, Hajjar’s kitchen was the birthplace of what essentially is the country’s first microbrewery. Today, 961 produces a number of very delicious beers in its own recently built brewery.
961 gets its name from Lebanon’s international calling code, reflecting not only the creativity of Hajjar’s project but it is in itself a statement of being a product of its place and time.
"961 is an exceptional beer, the only other alternative beer of quality, says Kamal Mouzawak, a restaurateur in Beirut who chose to include the brand as part of a select list of beverages which he serves at his restaurant Tawleh.
It was a question of "out with the old, in with the brew, states Hajjar. "I’m trying to change people’s perceptions and it’s difficult, we drink some of the crappiest beer in the Arab world, all we know is commercial brands. "
Hajjar explains that commercial beer is made for the masses. Its taste is fixed to accommodate a variety of palates and defined as "lowest common denominator beer. Corn placed in beer adds fermentable sugars without giving any body to the beer that increases the alcohol percentage but adds nothing to the taste.
Hajjar’s beers aim to take out what he defines as the "offensiveness of it.
"My philosophy is different. I make tasty beer, a variety to accommodate different tastes. It is craft beer, which he explains is about style, integrity, local production and ingredients when possible, and a beer that doesn’t chase after trends. He also prides himself on his beer being as pure in its production and taste as possible.
"Our approach in 961 is super clear in our procedures without a need to pasteurize beer which other brands do to ensure a longer shelf life . We adhere to a purity ethic; whatever’s added to beer is to add flavor, for instance orange peel and coriander for a zesty finish.
Hajjar lays out two beers for me to sample, a stout and traditional lager. The first sip of my stout reveals a strong note of coffee and I look over at Hajjar as he smiles mischievously.
"I’ve made beers with blackberries, pumpkin, cedar honey, a hybrid between champagne and beer. Half grape, half barley, fermented to 15 percent alcohol by volume and aged for one year. Beer is the new wine, this whole myth of fresh beer, well some are best fresh and some mature like fine wine.
I am quite taken by my stout; it has a definite taste of beer but it tastes fresh, and delicious. But of the two, it is the traditional lager that is surprisingly delicious.
A light gold color, the taste is sweet although it is intended, according to the label, to have a slight bitterness and a floral aroma. There’s a strong flavor of honey without any sense of it being overly sweet or the yeastiness so typical of generic beer brands.
"We want you to smell your beer because we have nothing to hide. The aroma is strong coffee with my stout, and something slightly fruity with my lager. Has Hajjar converted me to becoming a beer drinker? No, but I have a new found appreciation for fine beers.
"One of out five people can’t go back, two out of five like it, and two out of five hate [micro-brewed beers].
Currently, 961 produces four regular beers – the traditional lager, a red ale, a witbier, and a stout – in addition to seasonal beers. A homebrew and master’s edition series are currently being developed.
Although most of the ingredients currently used for the beer production are imported from abroad, Hajjar and his co-founders are committed to regional development, pioneering the planting of local hops, and with plans to grow barley locally.
But their social activism is inclusive of a variety of interests. "We’re giving back using social produce. We have a three part grain program, pure protein is given to farmers on the condition they don’t use anything artificial in their growth programs.
They support a local anti drunk driving program named Kon Hadi , and promote fundraising effort for Sukoon, an anti addiction center. They’re also supporters of the local art scene "on the principle of creating diversity in Lebanon. If [only] everybody had transparency and social responsibility. we believe in long term investment in society.
www.961beer.com961 beer can be found in most restaurants and bars in Beirut.