“Why do your beers taste like flowers?”
Most brewers would find this sort of question insulting, or evidence of some sort of flavor imbalance in their brews.
For Yazan Karadsheh, it sounded like a challenge. It demonstrated the vast divide between what he was brewing and the craft beer culture he needed to build in his home country, Jordan.
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Karadsheh founded Carakale, the first craft brewery in majority-Muslim Jordan, in 2013. He was 34 years old. Beyond inaugural bragging rights, Karadsheh hoped to kickstart craft beer culture in his native land. To do so, he had to tackle financing and regulatory bureaucracy.
He also found himself creating language for beer in Arabic, searching for willing and able brewers in a country that is 95 percent Muslim, and educating consumer palates exclusively familiar with imported macro lagers.
Now, as Carakale is extending its distribution across the United States, Karadsheh has another lofty goal. He wants to demystify taboos and stereotypes about Middle Eastern people and lifestyles through the power of beer.
The roots of Carakale go back to a Halliburton oil rig in Colorado, where Karadsheh was working in 2006. “It was a lot of ex-military people, plus meth heads who’d spend their paychecks all on drugs,” he tells VinePair while sitting in a nook in Allswell, a bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. Allswell stocks Carakale’s signature blonde ale and its gose, which is spiked with salt from the Dead Sea.
“It was very quick for me to find out that was not my path for life,” Karadsheh says.
After three months, Karadsheh quit the oil rig and found himself in the midst of Colorado’s vibrant craft beer scene. He took a job in a homebrew supply store and watched YouTube tutorials about brewing. After cleaning kegs and doing manual labor in a couple of microbreweries, he began to explore the idea of opening a craft brewery in Jordan.
When he moved back in 2008, however, he discovered a series of barriers.
“The criteria to start a brewery is you have to be Jordanian, be a Christian, be well off, and you have to have an interest in getting into the beer business,” Karadsheh says. “It’s basically looking for unicorns.” Karadsheh is among the country’s Christian minority. His parents helped provide funding, he says.
While grinding through three years of pre-opening paperwork and bureaucracy, Karadsheh tested launch beers in his parents’ backyard on a 2.5-barrel system, and scouted for potential brewery locations in Jordan’s industrial zones.
He convinced one property owner he needed space to build “a science project for a university that was based on a dairy equipment prototype,” he says. He got the go-ahead and set up Carakale in a town near the capital city of Amman. The brewery’s name riffs on the caracal, a wild cat prevalent in Jordan.
In November 2013, Carakale debuted with a blonde ale characterized by a pop of citrus on the nose, followed by creamier notes of honey and vanilla. In a Jordanian market dominated by the likes of Corona and Heineken, Carakale’s signature brew was an anomaly. Locally, the expectation is that “beer has to be yellow, fizzy, and drunk ice cold,” he says.
Dealing with Jordan’s distributors was also challenging. Karadsheh calls his brand “super counterculture.” He recalls being met with questions about his beers like, “Why are they 20 cents more expensive?” and “Why do they taste like flowers?” Karadsheh realized he’d need to create a new beer culture in Jordan to succeed.
Carakale moved distribution in-house, training employees in craft beer advocacy. This involved blazing more trails.
“It’s an educational process,” Karadsheh says, “You need vocabulary in Arabic to describe beer, whether it’s “hoppy” or saying a “craft brewery”… These terminologies did not exist [in Arabic] so we had to create that vocabulary.”
Embracing craft beer’s inherently independent and hands-on spirit worked. Carakale beers are now available in 500 outlets across Jordan, and the blonde ale accounts for 70 percent of the company’s sales. What Karadsheh says he’s most proud of, though, is visiting a nearby bar and overhearing Jordanians talk about different styles of beer, debating pale ales against imperial stouts. (Whether or not they are talking about Carakale is irrelevant.)
Establishing Carakale in Jordan involved overcoming existing beer stereotypes — and bringing the company’s brews to the United States requires its own tenacity. Carakale is currently available in 50 restaurants and bars in New York, D.C., and Arizona, plus at the United Nations Delegates’ Lounge.
In an invite sent out in August 2018 for Carakale’s first official New York City pop-up, held in conjunction with North Brooklyn Farms, he outlines the company’s mission statement: “We want to re-introduce the Middle East through our brand by educating, enlightening and demystifying the taboos that dominate the discourse of the region’s people and culture.”
Randa Eid, a performer in the experimental electro band Luna Fox, serves as Carakale’s director of creative and culture. She grew up Muslim-American in Northern Virginia and joined Carakale after meeting Karadsheh on a trip to the Jordan brewery.
“A lot of people who just watch the news only have one viewpoint of the Middle East — that’s it’s war and tragedy and conflict. Demystifying means opening up,” Eid says.
And so Carakale sponsors events like art shows and dance parties. Its 2018 pop-up with North Brooklyn Farms featured the Egyptian drag queen Ana Masreya and projected footage of dance scenes from Arabic movies set to a mix of Arabic and American pop music.
The aim is to counter what Eid calls “people not knowing there’s that type of freedom of expression in the Middle East,” she says. “People really like art and music and movies — what better way to tell our culture than do it over a beer?”
Countries with a predominantly Muslim population are often assumed to be in opposition to alcohol industries. Karadsheh says this isn’t an accurate portrayal of Jordan’s beer scene. “I think, with humans, if you tell them you can’t do something, they’ll want to do it more,” he says.
Jordan’s population skews heavily millennial, and Karadsheh believes “most of them want change. A lot of them are artists and counterculture-thinking folk who want to preserve some of our culture but change the old ways and move on to something different,” he says.
Embracing its Jordanian identity has been key to Carakale’s success. At one point, the brand’s logo was written on beer labels in English. Karadsheh changed it to Arabic lettering when he realized that piqued drinkers’ interest. And, according to a bartender at Allswell, customers often ask to try Carakale after seeing that it comes from Jordan.
Like all good craft breweries, Carakale is committed to incorporating local ingredients. Karadsheh has yet to successfully find a way to employ camel lactose in the brewing process, he says, but he finds the most popular beers at Carakale’s pop-up events are experimental brews that feature traditional Jordanian cuisine flavor profiles, like an imperial porter infused with cardamom-roasted Bedouin coffee beans, a saison spiked with za’atar, and a red ale brewed with date molasses.
“Some of the dates come from Saudi Arabia,” Karadsheh, ever the countercultural brewer, says with a mischievous glint in his eye. “If they knew we were using it for alcohol their heads would explode!”