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How Abu Dhabi’s first brewery is pouring beers in once-strict emirate

How Abu Dhabi’s first brewery is pouring beers in once-strict emirate
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Abu Dhabi’s first brewery taps demand for beer under emirate’s relaxed alcohol laws, but blazing the trail wasn’t easy

In 2018, Chad McGehee opened Side Hustle Brews and Spirits, an Abu Dhabi-branded brewery and distillery with funky camels on its cans and playful names familiar to anyone living in the United Arab Emirates.

The only problem was that it was illegal to produce alcohol in the country, so his company made its hoppy India pale ale in the United States and then imported it to the UAE for sale.

That has all changed as Abu Dhabi has overhauled its laws to allow for the microbreweries and craft breweries that have taken the rest of the world by storm, part of a wider reconsideration of alcohol policies in an Islamic nation increasingly drawing tourists.

Mitchell Dougherty, Side Hustle Brews and Spirits’ master brewer, at Craft, the company’s Abu Dhabi brew pub. Photo: AP

“The government had created a regulation around fermentation, but the steps of getting a permit, the steps of inspection, all of these things were not put on paper yet. So that had to be built out as we were going through this process,” McGehee says at his brew pub on Abu Dhabi’s Al Maryah Island.

Abu Dhabi has long been considered by those living in the UAE to be more buttoned-up than the rambunctious neighbouring emirate of Dubai, home to nightclubs, beach bars and pubs drawing tourists and residents to imbibe.

Dougherty lets barley run through his hands at Craft brew pub, in Abu Dhabi. Photo: AP

Among the seven emirates of the UAE, Sharjah outright bans the sale and consumption of alcohol, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran and Kuwait.

But beginning in 2020, Abu Dhabi changed its policies. It eliminated its licensing system for alcohol purchases for drinkers to boost sales and tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Eliminating the licences allowed Muslims to drink, and decriminalised alcohol possession for those without a licence.

“I think progression in this country is par for the course. They’re always moving things forward,” says Nadim Selbak, one of the partners at Craft, which is Side Hustle’s brew pub.

The UAE still maintains a strict no-tolerance policy on public intoxication and Islam considers alcohol consumption as haram, or forbidden.

The idea for me was like going back in time, when I started almost 20 years ago

Mitchell Dougherty, Side Hustle’s master brewer

But alcohol sales have long been a major driver of tax revenue and a moneymaker for the UAE. Dubai Duty Free, for instance, sold 6 million cans of beer last year, as well as 3.8 million bottles of liquor and 2.3 million bottles of whisky to thirsty travellers.

Despite that demand, there was no local equipment available to open a brewery in the UAE. McGehee ended up importing almost everything for the brewery, nearly all of it coming from the United States.

Abu Dhabi represents a completely untapped market for Side Hustle.

“The idea for me was like going back in time, when I started almost 20 years ago,” says Mitchell Dougherty, Side Hustle’s master brewer.

At any given point, Craft has 14 beers on tap. This year it has brewed 34 and aims to reach up to 100 by the end of 2024. Some of its beers use locally roasted coffee and fruit, while one, called Sandstorm, was brewed specifically to match the colour of the desert.

McGehee says his beers include ingredients from the Czech Republic, Britain, Japan and the United States, covering a variety of palates for the brewery’s international customers.

“If you look at Abu Dhabi, you have people from almost 200 countries,” he says. “They all have their own definition of what beer is, what craft beer is, or what lager is, or what IPA is, so we’re trying to cater to as many of them as possible.”

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