A COMMERCIAL beer brewery will open in Abu Dhabi this month, becoming the first company to legally make alcohol in the region.
The emirate has granted a licence to the restaurant Craft by Side Hustle to sell beer on tap that’s been brewed on premises. You can already buy Side Hustle’s imported beer and spirits in UAE liquor stores, but all packaged products will still have to be manufactured abroad under the new regulations.
The brewery is the first to open under a little-noticed rule change published in Abu Dhabi in 2021, which allowed licence holders to ferment alcoholic beverages for consumption on site. It’s the latest in a series of moves loosening socially conservative laws in the United Arab Emirates and the surrounding Gulf region, as countries open up their economies and focus on industries other than oil.
Craft by Side Hustle will serve its own beers – which will cost around 45 dirhams (R226) each – alongside southern Louisiana-style food, with traditional bayou dishes such as jambalaya, shrimp and grits, Cajun po’boys and pistolettes. A soft opening this month will be followed in February by a planned grand opening.
The brewpub is an outgrowth of Balmaghie Beverage Group Inc, a company formed in 2018 by Chad McGehee and other partners living in the Emirates. They bonded over their disappointment with the paltry beer options in the country, where the market is tightly controlled by several importers and where it can be difficult for smaller beverage companies to break through.
Under the brand name Side Hustle, Balmaghie began manufacturing in the US with an eye toward importing into the UAE and other countries.
Side Hustle began making beer, gin, whiskey and hard seltzer in Pennsylvania and worked on flavours that would appeal to expats in the Gulf: pale ales, Czech and German-style pilsners, stouts and lagers. The company began selling beer in the UAE in 2019, and spirits more recently. Sales are expected to reach $500 000 this year, McGehee says.
“We started this company so that we can drink better here,” says McGehee, a native of southern Louisiana who moved to the UAE about 14 years ago as an employee of IBM.
“Regardless of the size of the market, we legitimately made this beer for us to drink, and then it just kept growing.”
Craft, a 250-seat spot, is being opened by McGehee and others, including local investors Peter Samaha, Nadim Selbak and Adam Davis.
The brand’s identity is explicitly linked with the UAE, McGehee says: Side Hustle’s camel mascot appears on its cans and bottles, which are also sold in the US and other countries.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the company held a craft beer festival in Abu Dhabi called Hustle Fest, featuring dozens of beers from US brewers.
In the UAE, most laws governing alcohol are set by each emirate, not at the federal level. Within recent memory in the relatively liberal emirate of Dubai, alcohol could only be served legally at a few bars and restaurants, usually as part of a hotel. It was banned in daytime hours during the holy month of Ramadaan.
Now, however, retail stores selling beer, wine and hard liquor are commonplace, and free-standing restaurants and pubs with alcohol licences exist throughout Dubai.
Still, the production of alcohol is a big step for the Gulf, a region where several countries still ban alcohol outright, including sales, consumption and possession. But as the countries’ economies and tourism sectors grow, so does the demand for a lifestyle that expats are used to in their home countries – or in outposts like Singapore or Hong Kong.
Saudi Arabia, which has major ambitions to become a global tourist destination, still doesn’t allow alcohol but is widely expected to make some concessions to attract visitors as it finances the construction of major luxury resorts and builds yacht clubs.
The UAE has also recently chipped away at other strict Islam-based laws, from restrictions around fertility treatments and IVF to casino gaming.
Although Dubai is the glitzier destination and attracts more tourists, other emirates have taken the lead in loosening some laws: Ras Al Khaimah, to Dubai’s north, looks poised to be the first emirate to allow gambling, while the permission of alcohol fermentation is beginning in Abu Dhabi, to the south of the country.
Craft breweries have opened in places in the Middle East such as Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and craft beer is imported into the UAE. But locally brewed beers are still a very small part of the market, although the number of bars and pubs continues to increase.
In 2022, there were 1 421 bars, pubs or nightclubs in the country, up from 1 139 in 2020, according to Euromonitor International, a market research provider.
The Craft microbrewery will be located on Abu Dhabi’s Al Maryah Island, one of the many natural islands that make up the heart of the emirate. It’s part of a luxury retail, dining and entertainment complex called The Galleria.
Craft’s neighbours will include international high-end chain restaurants Zuma, Em Sherif Cafe and Coya, and Michelin-starred 99 Sushi Bar. Five-star hotels Four Seasons and Rosewood are also located on the island.
The brewpub is opening in an expansive location, sprawling through several dining areas. One space has a direct view of the beer brewing equipment, such as a mash tun and tubs. Menus above the bars show what brews are available that day.
Craft will also serve cocktails, some made from Side Hustle spirits. The brewery has the capacity to make about 25 000 pints a month. Brew time for most beers will be about three weeks. Hops and other ingredients will be imported, for now.
The goal is to make 75 different kinds of beer over the next year, though only five or 10 might be available at any given time.