Michael Pizzi

Jordan's craft brewery brings beer back to its birthplace

Yazan Karadsheh, the founder of Carakale brewery, is on a mission to create a craft beer culture in Jordan

FUHAIS, Jordan — Yazan Karadsheh begins every tour of the sprawling warehouse that houses Carakale brewery with a little history lesson. Though the modern Middle East is not exactly known for its drinking culture, the location he has chosen to brew his craft ales — a plot of land carved into the rolling hills of the Jordan Valley — is not so far from where mankind’s obsession with beer was born.

“It started with civilization itself,” says Karadsheh, the 30-year-old owner of Carakale, Jordan’s first craft brewery, to a group of American visitors one recent afternoon. Beer's invention by the Sumerians over 5,000 years ago, he says, has been linked to the dawn of agriculture and the development of a numerical system, both of which allowed its large-scale production. Later, the pharaohs of Egypt had references to beer inscribed on the walls of their tombs and pyramids.

Wearing jeans and a bright blue polo shirt, Karadsheh narrates this history with a glass of his signature whiskey ale in one hand, the massive silver tankards where it was brewed towering behind him. Raised in Jordan, he says he was first “hazed and infused” into the culture of craft beer while an electrical engineering student at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. Leafing through a world beer atlas in a Barnes and Noble bookstore one day, he noticed that the beer he grew up drinking and always thought of as local — the mass-produced lager Amstel, which has had a franchise factory in Jordan — was, in fact, Dutch. “That was the day I found out Jordan didn't have a real beer,” he says. “A light bulb sparked in my head.”

Carakale's black banner, featuring an endangered caracal with the Jordanian royal crown atop its head, hangs over the brewery floor in Fuhais, Jordan.
Michael Pizzi

After a brief stint working for Halliburton in the oil fields of Wyoming, Karadsheh returned to Boulder where he landed a job at a home-brewing supply store. One of his customers, who happened to be craft brewing pioneer Charlie Papazian, suggested he apply for the master brewing program at the University of California-Davis. After completing the 18-week program, he earned his stripes working at Boulder’s Upslope Brewery, where he helped develop a Dunkelweizen recipe that won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009.

All the while, that light bulb continued to flicker in his head. One day, his father and soon-to-be funder, Marwan, called to ask if Karadsheh was ready to return home and start a brewery of his own. “I asked him if he was ready to spend some cash,” Karadsheh said. With his father’s support, Karadsheh returned to Jordan in 2009 to found Carakale, naming his brewery after the endangered desert lynx — or caracal — that is indigenous to Jordan.

The idea raised eyebrows from the beginning. Drinking, while commonplace among Karadsheh's Christian minority community, is still somewhat stigmatized in Jordan. Carakale's first choice for a location, just outside the capital city of Amman, fell through after the conservative owner found out he intended to build a brewery there. It took three years to find and develop another location, down a winding mountain road from the Christian town of Fuhais.

The remote locale, overlooking a valley dotted with olive trees, meant he had to build all the infrastructure himself, an investment of $3 million in the 10 million-liter facility. “We built everything you see here,” Karadsheh said from the pristine taproom upstairs, gesturing out towards the warehouse floor below. “The utilities and roads, the water and electrical line, we had to do it all ourselves.”

The biggest frustration was local politics, he said. It took two years to get a permit, which only came through because a family friend worked his connections to help Karadsheh navigate the red tape. In the meantime, he perfected his recipes in his parents' backyard, constructing a 2.5-barrel-volume system from scratch and blasting music late into the night as he taste-tested batches. Finally, in November 2013, Carakale sold its first bottle. "It took us about 6,000 bottles until we got everything right," Karadsheh says.

Even today, with Carakale churning out around 40,000 bottles per month, brewing in the Middle East is “guerrilla style,” Karadsheh says. With few local suppliers, Carakale sources his malt from Germany and hops from the U.K. and Washington state. To figure out how to control his water temperature, a key component of the fermentation process, he asked pet stores in Amman how they kept their fish tanks regulated. The lack of beer know-how among his distributors and vendors has forced Karadsheh to pasteurize his beers, since he can’t always rely on them to have cold transport or storage. “Craft brewers in the U.S. don’t have to deal with any of this,” he says.

From left to right, Carakale's Blonde Ale, Winter Ale, Pale Ale and Whiskey Ale set atop the bar in the brewery's upstairs taproom.
Michael Pizzi

Karadsheh has also had to temper his ambitions. After decades of consuming nothing but light, watered-down lager, that's what most Jordanians prefer. “People here think of beer as yellow, fizzy, ultra-filtered and ice-cold,” he explains. “Anything other than that is outside their comfort zone.” He softened the bitterness in his blonde ale, so it would be a mild and citrus-y “transition beer” from the lager Jordanians are used to. But he admits that Jordanian consumers have yet to embrace some of the other four varieties he has rolled out so far — most recently, a malty, unfiltered winter ale. “When I came back from the states I had this American craft brewer in me,” he says. “I was too aggressive, so I had to tame myself down."

Bartenders at the six bars where Carakale is on tap say the beers have a devoted following among American and European expats, but that most locals still prefer more familiar brews. At Café de Paris, a dimly-lit bar lofted above a supermarket in the Jabal al-Weibdeh neighborhood of Amman, bartender Peter Qaldas says he loves Carakale and tries to promote it to customers but that a lot more beer still flows through the Amstel tap each night. As if on cue, a Jordanian couple approaches the bar and orders a pitcher of what they call “the normal beer” — Amstel. “You can’t compare 25 years to two,” Qaldas says.

Back at Carakale, Karadsheh's committed benefactor, Marwan, stops by the taproom to gush about what his son and $3 million have built. “Now we just need the business,” he says. The younger Karadsheh knows expats alone won’t help the brewery stay afloat — he needs to ramp up sales soon.  With the brewery operating well under its 10-million-liter annual capacity, he is considering exporting to the U.S. or the U.K. “That’s my survival instinct,” he says.

Karadsheh already has some pioneering craft brewers rooting for him to succeed. Steve Hindy, the founder of Brooklyn Brewery, is among them. As a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Beirut and Cairo in the 1970s, Hindy first got hooked on home-brewed beer made by diplomats and other Westerners living in those cities, and he brought his passion home to New York. Today, Brooklyn Brewery is one of the biggest craft breweries in the world, exporting what was once a hometown brew as far away as Australia and Brazil.

"Plenty of people drink beer in the Middle East, its not like most Americans think where alcohol is banned everywhere and no one drinks," Hindy said. "But it was hard for me starting in Brooklyn 27 years ago, with this whole new idea no one had ever heard of and a beer that had way more flavor. I’m very happy to hear that someone in Jordan is brewing. … There’s not a lot of good news coming out of the Middle East these days.” 

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