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Lebanese Craft Beer Brings Taste of Beirut to Chicago

 The first shipment of 961 Beer headed to the East Coast of the U.S. on Nov. 6.
The first shipment of 961 Beer headed to the East Coast of the U.S. on Nov. 6.
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RIVER NORTH — When he was snapping photos amid gunfire as a war photographer in Bosnia, Lebanese-born Mazen Hajjar didn't imagine that peace was possible — or that his future career as a brewmaster could help make it happen.

"Beer is a social lubricator," said the founder of 961 Beer, Lebanon's only independent brew. "[By] positioning ourselves as a unique craft beer coming out of the Middle East, we can try to help bridge some of the cultural gaps between the East and West.

"I realize that sounds sometimes tacky and tree-hugging hippie, but we really need more of these cross-cultural things."

Hajjar's journey to bring the spices and flavors of Beirut to the world will hit a high note Tuesday night, when 961 Beer — named for the country code required to call Lebanon — is served on tap for the first time at Reza's Restaurant in River North at 6 p.m.

The Lebanon resident grew up in Great Britain and has lived and traveled around the world, but said Chicago has a special place in his heart. He has relatives who reside in the city and noted he's visited at least 20 times.

"I grew up watching the Bears when the Fridge was here, the Bulls before Jordan ever joined them," he said. "Chicago for me feels like a second home."

Hajjar is an unlikely champion of the craft brew movement in the Middle East. After leaving journalism, he became an investment banker and then an entrepreneur, founding two airlines before his mid-30s.

As with others, Hajjar said his life-altering revelation to tap into the beer market came suddenly.

"I woke up in the [United Arab] Emirates and said, 'This is not what I want to do. I don't care about the money,'" he said. "I came home and started the beer."

His efforts were jump started by the 2006 conflict between Lebanon and Israel, when he "was sitting on my balcony, and bombs were flying by, and in this book I'd been reading, 'Beer School,' the biography of how Brooklyn Brewery started off, it began, 'I woke up to bombs exploding outside the Alexander Hotel in East Beirut,'" Hajjar recounted.

"And I thought, 'Oh my God,' so I called everyone and said 'I'm home brewing.'"

With his friends and neighbors trapped inside as the violence escalated in Beirut, Hajjar had a captive audience and hosted tastings for his home brew experiments every Sunday. When the demand outgrew the size of his kitchen, he launched his own brewery.

Fast forward five years, and Hajjar's idol, Brooklyn Brewery founder Steve Hindy, has become his mentor. Hindy connected Hajjar with Phil Birnbaum, general manager of beer distributor River North Sales and Service, who was so enamored with the Lebanese Pale Ale that he founded an importing company just to put 961 on Chicago shelves.

"He's got such an interesting story, and stories, as much as liquid, sell beer," Birnbaum said. "The unlikeliness of having a diehard, really interesting craft brewer in Lebanon was a compelling story and one we thought would resound with Chicago consumers right off the bat."

By the end of this week, the "rollout week" for 961 in Chicago, Birnbaum expects to see the brand on bar taps and in liquor stores across the city, he told DNAinfo.com Chicago Tuesday, after he left a meeting with Binny's Beverage Depot.

Ilyas Kanaan, an early investor and the company's chief operating officer, attributes much of 961's success to the lack of competition in the Middle East region. The only beer mass produced in Lebanon, Almaza, was acquired by Heineken about six years ago, he said, "so it's no longer Lebanese."

But 961 Beer is inherently Lebanese, both in its reliance on local spices — "anise and sage and chammomile and suma," Kanaan said — and its unique geographic position as it relates to beer-brewing history.

"We're trying to bring the beer culture back home. Beer originated in our part of the world, around 9,000 B.C. That was our greatest contribution to human civilization," Hajjar said.

"If I could travel back in time, I'd love to go see the caveman that did it and thank him."

While the 961 brand is growing — already flowing in Canada, France, Australia and other parts of the U.S., and recently scoring a top honors at the Hong Kong International Beer Awards — Hajjar said the company's especially excited to join the community of independent brewers in Chicago.

"The beer world is really fantastic," he said. "The wine world is kind of competitive and snobby, whereas the beer world is just a lot of cool people trying to help each other out."

Hajjar said he hopes Chicagoans will fall in love with 961 Beer at Reza's, and encourage the brand to expand its distribution across the city.

"As geeky as we get, we create beers for people," he said, "and if people don't like what we're doing, then there's no point."

The 961 launch party kicks off at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Reza's Restaurant, 432 West Ontario St.