In Jordan, a Nascent Drinks Culture Blooms in the Desert
“There’s not much beer over there sir, you’d better take two,” the cabin crew member quipped as he brought the drinks trolley to a stop next to me on my flight from London to Jordan’s capital city of Amman.
Unlike many of my trips, this holiday to Jordan wasn’t about its beer. Floating weightlessly in the Dead Sea, wallowing in thermal springs, wandering between the nomadic Bedouin camps in the seemingly-endless Wadi Rum desert, and marvelling at the wondrous ancient city of Petra were all on the to-do list. At best, I thought there’d be one or two overpriced pints of ice-cold Amstel in hotel bars to wash away the lingering taste of sand dunes. At worst, I’d stick to dissolving my teeth with Bedouin sweet tea and my insides with Jordanian coffee (imagine Turkish coffee’s sludgier, more cardamom-rich big brother.)
Jordan, nestled peacefully between its often higher profile and more newsworthy neighbours, Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia, has a population of approximately 9.7 million, with over 90% identifying as Muslim. As a result, alcohol has never been part of its mainstream cultural fibre. However, as I began to learn from conversations with locals during the early days of my trip, an impressive level of tolerance and a desire to embrace the unfamiliar is ingrained into the Jordanian psyche.
As well as being a popular base for thousands of international non-governmental organisation (NGO) employees and global expats working across various industries, Jordan is home to some of the world’s oldest Christian communities. An estimated 250,000 Jordanians identify as Eastern Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. The country’s non-Muslim population is exceptionally well integrated, with Christians being afforded a great deal of freedom and opportunity (the Jordan parliament is even mandated to allocate a minimum of 7% of seats to Christian politicians.)
When you scrape a little beneath the surface, Jordan is a much more diverse country than first meets the eye. This mindset of tolerance and inclusion has contributed to something fascinating that’s been unfolding in recent years: the beginning of an artisan drinks movement is bubbling away under Jordan’s ostensibly dry surface.
A couple of millennia have passed since Jordan was seen as a winemaking powerhouse (as proved by the scores of Nabatean-era industrial-scale wine presses unearthed in various excavation sites around the ancient city of Petra), but in the past couple of decades, a handful of enterprising Jordanians have rekindled their love for viniculture.
This passion for wine has been brought to life amongst the warren-like, dusty, whitewashed streets of Amman, where a shop-cum-bar, The Winemaker (run by the Zumot family, who produce a surprisingly broad range of wines under their Saint George brand,) is clearly thriving. This indie tasting room not only provides a snapshot of a blossoming biodynamic and low-intervention local wine culture, but shimmers with a fun, booze-tinged, international energy more reminiscent of a hostel tavern, than a wine bar.
What really excited me, however, was an online whisper about somewhere named Carakale, a place calling itself “the only microbrewery in Jordan.” Other than the regional Heineken outpost—churning out Amstel pale lager at industrial scale to quench the thirsts of punters at international chain hotel bars throughout the Gulf States—there’s no way I imagined anyone to be brewing commercially in Jordan.
On the penultimate day of the trip, while travelling back to Amman following some gloriously peaceful time in the desert covering Jordan’s southernmost tip, I decided to chance it. I had Carakale’s address, the world’s friendliest taxi driver (whose five words of English bettered my two of Arabic,) and a couple of spare hours before I checked into the final hotel of our visit.
During one of the many customary stops along the way for coffee at roadside stalls (cue the by-then-familiar “sugar dance,” with my protestations falling on the deaf ears of my driver, Hanni, as he shovelled spoon upon spoon of sugar into my gritty, unfiltered cup,) I took my chance to change our course. A forty-minute detour from the capital seemed doable, so a revised fee was set and off we headed to the “restaurant,” (I wasn’t brave enough to attempt translating ‘microbrewery’ into Arabic,) with the agreement that Hanni would wait outside for an hour while I “ate dinner.”
The outskirts of Amman, where city seeps into countryside, are rugged and rolling. Hanni’s shiny black sedan raced up steep mountainside stretches of highway, passing deep Wadis—the local term for deep valleys or ravines—occasional villages and Bedouin shepherds herding unfathomable numbers of goats.
At the end of a winding track, more skate park halfpipe than road, we came to a small industrial estate. We could have easily been cruising into North London, were it not for the sweeping panorama of the Blue Canyon valley below. Hanni—as confused as ever with the location of my “restaurant”—faithfully followed his SatNav and pulled into a nondescript car park. Spray painted on the side of a grey industrial unit, I spotted the beautifully intricate Carakale crest.
All seemed quiet. I cracked the nearest door I could find, which opened out into a surprisingly huge brewing facility and bottling line loudly whirring away, full of life. A brewer saw me loitering at the half-open door, smiled and shouted in flawless English, “the taproom’s round the corner, dude.”
I nodded, awkwardly waved my thanks above the noise, and walked around the side of the building, seeing for the first time the true grandeur of the canyon unfolding down below. A flight of stairs took me up to Carakale’s small rectangular taproom. Huge windows spanned each of the room’s longer walls, one looking down into the working brewery, the other gazing out over a small terrace into the valley and what seemed to be an infinite horizon above us. At the bar sat a mixture of locals and expats, chatting mostly in English, interspersed with lively, melodic Arabic. It felt familiar to this East London drinker, but also markedly different.
Carakale’s beers were full of surprises. I started with a throwback-to-2016 Black IPA, equally full of pineapple juiciness as it was smokey, dark malt. A honey-driven blonde ale played the role of their flagship, while an imperial porter brewed with local dates and coffee really stood out (even more so, as the bartender explained how it was brewed primarily for export to Carakale’s burgeoning American fanbase.)
The biggest surprise, however, came in the form of a pun-tastic Gose named Dead Sea-rious. It’s made with salt crystals from the nearby Dead Sea, along with coriander seeds and a clever addition of pithy pink grapefruit, sourced from a nearby valley. Its salinity and cut of citrus seemed to take on almost isotonic proportions in the desert heat; a thirst-slayer in its purest form. Even more surprising, was that Dead Sea-rious was a collaboration brew with American craft beer heavyweights, Arizona Wilderness, whose brewers had recently visited Amman for a brew day. The world of beer gets smaller by the day, it seems.
If Jordan’s attitude of open-mindedness and tolerance has indeed contributed to the existence and rise of Carakale, then they seemed keen to pay something back. It was refreshing to see the brewery ensuring that their teetotal fellow Jordanians feel included at the taproom, with pints of their non-alcoholic ginger ale and low-alcohol grapefruit radler flying off the bar at a similar rate to the heavier stuff.
I left feeling excited to have witnessed early steps of a country’s beer culture, and hoping that I’d bump into that naysaying cabin crew member on my return flight. There’s more to Jordan than first meets the eye, you know.
Illustration by Grace Helmer