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Source: CBS

Dec 31, 2023

Meet the New York woman bringing Iranian-inspired beer to the United States


At a brewery in New York, Zahra Tabatabai is trying to bring beer back to its roots with a taste of who she is and where her family came from.

Before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, about a dozen Iranian factories produced beer, vodka and other liquors.

Tabatabai's grandfather even used to ferment homemade beer in his basement before he moved to the United States shortly after the revolution. One day in 2020, Tabatabai's grandmother reminisced that she missed the taste of the homemade brew. 

"It sparked the idea to try to brew a batch and we figured, 'Oh well, you know, it can't be that hard,'" Tabatabai said. "Um, it is. It's pretty hard." 

As the pandemic set in, Tabatabai experimented in her small Brooklyn kitchen. She said it started as a hobby while she worked as a freelance writer. She tried a range of ingredients, including sour cherries, barberries, dried black lime and sumac. 

"The stories that I heard from my grandfather was like, whatever they were growing in the garden (was) what he would use in the beer," Tabatabai said. 

Zahra Tabatabaei

A year later, she had perfected the recipe and rented a space on Staten Island to begin rolling out cans of "Back Home Beer," which is fruited with sour cherries and cured sumac. The sour cherries are a staple in Iranian cuisine, she said, often used to make jams and a "delicious and beautiful and bright" rice dish called albaloo polo.

During that year, Tabatabai learned more than just recipes: She taught herself about the history of fermentation and beer-making. American-made beer follows European traditions, but historians say evidence of beer-making dates back many millennia to China and Ancient Mesopotamia, which was located in modern-day Iraq and Iran. 

Liz Garabay, the founder of Chicago's Beer Culture Center, said that original brewers were also mainly women. 

"You will see a lot of hieroglyphs with women drinking and making beer," Garabay said. "It was everyday stuff. They've been doing it forever." 

When Islam arose in the region in the 7th century, it forbade the drinking of alcohol. Still, beer and wine making in the region continued to evolve. 

"I was disheartened to see that such a rich history (of) fermentation had almost been erased," Tabatabai said. "And so for me, it was important to make that connection again between alcohol and the Middle East." 

Only about 6% of breweries in the U.S. are majority or exclusively owned by women. Even fewer are run by women of color. Tabatabai said that there were things that happened while she was opening her brewery that she wonders would have happened if she were a man, like people assuming she's an assistant instead of an owner, or other breweries not taking her seriously. 

"I think that you really do have to be the change you want to see sometimes. And so in an industry like this that is dominated by white men, I came in. I didn't have any experience working in breweries or anything like that, and I really had to learn a lot," Tabatabai said. 

Now, Tabatabai sells six styles of beer in cans designed by female Iranian artists. She delivers to more than 250 bars, restaurants and markets in New York and Washington, D.C. 

Zahra Tabatabai's beer line. 

She also has a lot of support from inside Iran, where Iranians send her messages and photos asking for advice on brewing their own illicit beer at home. 

"They definitely brew at their own risk, and it's amazing the beer that they're making with such limited resources there," Tabatabai said.  

Online, a Kickstarter campaign recently raised more than $125,000. The dream, Tabatabai said, is establish her own brewery and tap room that feels like home for her customers and can be an opportunity to taste delicious beer and Persian street food. 

Her other goal, she said, is keep shaking up stereotypes while brewing. 

"Not only being a woman, but also having Middle Eastern descent or parents that immigrated here from Iran, I think both factors kind of play into how people see me," Tabatabai said. 

Eventually, she hopes to return to Iran with what she's learned. 

"Hopefully, one day, I can visit Iran and I can brew the beer there and we can live in a country that used to exist before the revolution," Tabatabai said. "And you could drink your beer freely, outside on the streets. I would love to. I would love to." 

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