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A beer pioneer launches Jordan's first microbrewery

Yazan Karadsheh is wary of unannounced visitors. When a car without an appointment arrives in the outer yard of his factory, seven guard dogs surround it, barking furiously.

Karadsheh trudges out with three of his employees to check the source of the commotion, then calls off the canines to allow a visitor to make his way gingerly to what looks like a nondescript warehouse.

"It took two years just to get permission to build this place," he says as he opens a door labeled "Tasting Room." What lies beyond is stunning: a softly lighted, polished wooden space with two sets of bay windows, one overlooking a green-sloped valley, the other the austere metallic gray of the production floor.

Jordan, a Muslim country where alcohol use is tolerated but hardly embraced, isn't exactly the likeliest place to find a dedicated beer connoisseur. But Karadsheh is on a mission: to revolutionize tastes and customs in hostile terrain that just happens to be his homeland.

At the end of last year, he launched the country's first microbrewery, Carakale. On the long road to its first official brew, he battled everyone from foot-dragging bureaucrats to devout laborers who wanted nothing to do with his forbidden product.

The 29-year-old is in his element behind the bar, dispensing his brew with care, making sure the head is just so.

"This is where it all starts, this is my cave, my brain center, I come here, I have music on," he notes, mixing English and Arabic.

Karadsheh sniffs the amber-colored liquid and scans the contents with a discerning eye.

"This is what I call my whiskey ale," he says, sipping from the glass stein. "It has ripe banana scents on the nose. You'll get more body to it and more sweetness, a bit spicy, slight licorice notes, butterscotch, toffee."

A quick clink of the tankards, and he begins his story.

::

His path to becoming Jordan's pioneer microbrewer began at the University of Colorado, where Karadsheh dabbled with home-brewing kits while pursuing an engineering degree.

Stumbling upon a book on beers of the world, he learned that Jordan had no brew of its own. (Beer is produced here under license to the Dutch brewer Amstel.)

After graduation, he joined Halliburton, the energy and services conglomerate, and was dispatched to the mining town of Rock Springs, Wyo.

"I hated it," he recalls, describing a drab existence working in an oil field. Six weeks later, he says, he quit and got a job at What's Brewin', a home-brew store in Colorado. While there, he learned of the UC Davis Master Brewers Program. In 2006, he enrolled in the 18-week program, which offers students a formal qualification in brewing science. The prerequisite? Karadsheh smiles, his eyes taking in the beer's color in his glass. "An engineering degree."

"I started studying beer, going through the different parts, bioengineering, chemistry, heat exchangers, all the details you need to know to make your own brewery, the science, a bit of the history, the art of beer making, working with small craft stores," he says, naming mentors with whom he apprenticed, many of them medal winners at the Great American Beer Festival. He was honored himself in 2009.

"Yeah," he says, "I'm probably the first Arab to get a bronze at the festival."

Upon graduation, he returned to Colorado and found work at the Upslope Brewery in Boulder. An epiphany struck at an unlikely moment while he was showing a client around.

"The glycol pump exploded," he recalled, referring to a cooling mechanism. "Then the packaging line fell apart, and I had to give him the tour while running around and repairing everything, and that's the day I really felt on the right path."

By the end of the day, he had collapsed with exhaustion, but he knew one thing: "This is what I want to do the rest of my life."

But could he pull it off it in Jordan?

::

First came the "dark ages," he says — two years when he couldn't get government permission to set up shop. "I built a brewery in my parents' backyard because I refused to drink the local beer. No rubbish."

One day four years ago, a family friend with connections tried his beer and promised to help him secure the necessary permits "on a silver platter." He didn't believe it because he'd heard similar promises before.

"The next day, a fax came with the license approved, and I thought, 'What do I do now?'"

When Karadsheh discovered this luxuriant slice of the Shaab valley, a predominantly Christian area outside Amman, the capital, he knew he had found the right place — it reminded him of Colorado.

But his issues were just beginning in a region where there are few such specialty producers (those that do exist include Taybeh Brewery in the West Bank city of Ramallah and 961 Beer in Beirut). Islam bans alcohol, and Muslims are forbidden even to benefit from its sale.

Although Karadsheh says he's never been threatened for making his brews, he's had his share of problems with devout workers.

"One contractor, he started laying down tiles, but midway through said, 'This is haram [forbidden],' and I had to get another," recalls Karadsheh, a member of Jordan's Christian minority. "This other guy who sold me the reverse-osmosis machine" — used to filter out the impurities in Jordan's brackish water — "refused to assemble it for me. He dumped the equipment on the floor, gave me the blueprints and left."

Three years later, he produces 40,000 bottles per month. Bottles of his signature blond ale, Carakale (named after a mountain cat indigenous to Jordan), have made their way to restaurants and bars throughout Amman, generally upscale establishments patronized by both Muslims and Christians.

"This beer that you're trying, it took me 27 hours to do that batch," he says. "I had to play my guitar in the brew house to keep myself awake" — rowdy songs by Green Day and Incubus.

The next day, farmers came to pick up the spent grain, now infused with alcohol. "Their goats went nuts, they loved it."

In the future, he envisions more use of Jordan's native flora. "I have a top-secret plan for it. I'm going to crop off wild yeast from our nature and re-create beers from it." He stops. "That's a long, long way from now."

The biggest obstacle, Karadsheh says, is transforming tastes and routines in a market long accustomed to watered-down, light beers.

"I went from Mt. Everest down to the Dead Sea with the Jordanian tastes," he explains half-jokingly, referring to the lowest point on Earth, a scant 23 miles away.

Why not focus on the international market?

"Why should I just export?" replies the defiant brew master. "What I want to do is to make a difference in my home country, and I'm pouring all of me into that.... Then I'll go into the world."

Bulos is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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