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Farewell, Lebanon’s First Brewery
A derelict beer factory stirs social divides in Beirut.
BEIRUT — “You can’t be a real country,” celebrated political scientist Frank Zappa once wrote, “unless you have a beer and an airline.”
Lebanon achieved its independence in 1943 and founded its national airline in 1945. But anticipating Zappa’s dictum, the fledgling nation’s first brewery was founded more than a decade earlier. The Grande Brasserie du Levant opened its doors in the 1930s, serving for decades as the beating heart of the local beer brand Laziza.
A hulking white building, the Grand Brasserie looms over the Mar Mikhael neighborhood. It transformed Laziza into one of the most popular beers in the country during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s but was eventually forced to close after being hit with stray shells in 1990 during Lebanon’s civil war. Having remained unused for decades, it now faces demolition as investors plan to transform the space into a luxury apartment project dubbed Mar Mikhael Village. Plans for the new building reveal a gleaming glass and metal tower dotted with terrace gardens in place of the derelict factory.
I live down the street from the old brewery; at first glance the site may seem an unlikely place for a yuppie forward operating base. Its neighbors include a crumbling Masonic lodge, a car repair shop, and a barbed-wire-encircled center for Lebanon’s internal security forces. Yet, in uneasy coexistence with the neighborhood’s older landmarks, pockets of the area have become cool during the past few years. Along with the Masonic lodge and the rifle-wielding soldiers, Mar Mikhael Village’s neighbors include a garden cafe where patrons can buy a $5 cappuccino or $12 yogurt and granola. Young professionals and expatriates have flocked to the precinct’s boutique bars and gourmet hamburger purveyors, not to mention a surprisingly good barbecue joint. Longtime residents have watched the influx of newcomers with alarm, sometimes complaining about the loud music coming from the bars far past midnight.
The investors in the luxury apartments are betting that the bar and cafe patrons, not the area’s older residents, represent Mar Mikhael’s future. Not everyone, however, has been won over by that promise of gentrification. Local activists have mobilized against the project, accusing its developers of neglecting the interests of the area’s established owners and tenants.
“The residents had really different ideas on what [the new building] would be. Some thought it would be university dorms, some thought it would be a community center,” says Ghassan Salameh, an activist associated with the grassroots political movement Beirut Madinati. “Nobody tells them anything. They don’t know what’s happening on the street next to them.” Mar Mikhael has been a working-class, historically Armenian neighborhood, and he worries that the new projects will sweep away the neighborhood’s artisanal shops and price longtime residents out of an area in which their families have lived for generations.
Earlier this year, Salameh and other activists met with locals to discuss the project’s implications. His group held a news conference on the steps of the building to highlight their concerns, prompting Beirut’s governor to suspend the project until it received further permits for the demolition work. But Salameh isn’t convinced this temporary halt will resolve the underlying issues at stake.
“The idea is to create a discourse, to engage people on what is happening in their city,” he says. “It’s people’s right to have a say in the neighborhoods around them.”
Not everyone opposing Mar Mikhael Village feels a pang of nostalgia for Laziza beer. While the brewer often attempted to link its product with Beirut’s debauched side — one billboard shows a woman in a bikini bottom and an implausibly tight shirt rubbing up against a bottle as the waves of the Mediterranean crash around her — some beer aficionados challenge the idea that there was ever anything particularly Lebanese about Laziza.
Mazen Hajjar, founder of the local microbrewery 961 Beer, has been on a crusade to develop a Lebanese beer culture that rivals the country’s vibrant wine industry. He had a difficult time gaining a foothold in Lebanon, he says, because of the obstacle-laden and anti-competitive business environment. “I see snake oil salesmen,” he says, referring to competitors Laziza and Almaza. “They had an opportunity to educate people about beer, but they behaved like big, faceless conglomerates.”
For Hajjar, the significance of Mar Mikhael Village extends far beyond one building. Beirut has been transformed into a concrete jungle. It has virtually no public green space, and its last bit of open coastline is being gobbled up by property developers who operate with little concern for the environmental impact or the poorly enforced zoning regulations. The result, Hajjar says, affects more than architecture and infrastructure — it influences how citizens relate to one another. The lack of public squares and the haphazard style of development mean that the city’s basic structure reinforces religious, ethnic, and economic divisions.
“We don’t know how to deal with others, we don’t interact with strangers,” Hajjar says. “There are no public spaces for Lebanese to meet people outside their circles.”
I know what he means. The two Mar Mikhaels, after all, exist side by side but may as well be in different worlds given the cultural disconnects between them. If there were a place where both groups could come together and mingle — well, I’d raise a beer to that.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.
Photo credit: ANWAR AMRO (AFP/Getty Images), Capstone Investment Group