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A Modern Take on Iran’s Ancient Beer Heritage

The name Back Home Beer might elicit pastoral visions of American fields of grain. For some, it may reinforce the idea of craft beer as a farm-to-table product.

The founder of the Brooklyn-based brewery, Zahra Tabatabai, shares those sentiments, but she has a different home in mind. The former television executive created Back Home after she heard about recipes written by her grandfather, a brewer in prerevolutionary Iran.

The Iranian government has banned the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslims since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Violation of these laws is punishable by death.

However, Iran has a beer history that predates any European nation. There’s a distinctly Middle Eastern beer palate that Tabatabai hopes to satisfy with her brewery, scheduled to begin brewing later this spring. Cans are planned to be available to the public this summer.

Iran Esfahan Imam Mosque
Iran’s beer history predates any European nation / Alamy

The first-known documentation of a beverage fermented from malted barley, the foundation of beer, was in the Godin Tepe, a region in western Iran. This took place in the fourth millennium B.C.E., about 5,000 years before the Reinheitsgebot, the document that established German purity laws of beer production.

Students of ancient history may not find this surprising; the Godin Tepe is in the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of many cornerstones of Western civilization. While there were earlier variants of beer in Asia that used rice, “as far as we know, the Godin Tepe beer is still the earliest chemically confirmed instance in the ancient Near East, circa 3400-3000 B.C.E.,” of barley-based beer, says archeologist Patrick McGovern, scientific director at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and author of Ancient Brews Rediscovered and Re-Created (Norton, 2017).

“Beer is rooted within both Persian culture and its various robust… flavors,” says Behzad Jamshidi, executive director of Moosh in New York City.

He says that Persian culinary culture “utilizes one of the widest varieties of grains and legumes, and it has very deep cultural considerations. From sweet desserts made from wheat pudding, to stews mixed with a dozen various legumes, and aquafaba, the soaking water of chickpeas, being used as a health remedy, our culture has always been deeply curious with grains and how to utilize them.”

“Our culture has always been deeply curious with grains and how to utilize them.” —Behzad Jamshidi, Moosh

For Tabatabai, this ancient heritage is reflected in her own family tree. As she grew up, relatives would share stories about her grandfather, a brewer in Shiraz, a region in southern Iran.

“I had been hearing stories my entire life about how my grandfather was brewing beer and making wine in the garden, and of his recipes,” she says. “My grandmother was talking about his beer one day and reminiscing and was like, ‘Oh, I miss that taste.’ So, we got to talking.”

Zahra Tabatabai family
Zahra Tabatabai’s grandfather, bottom right, was a brewer in prerevolutionary Iran. Photo taken in Shiraz, 1976 / Courtesy Zahra Tabatabai

Inspired, Tabatabai began to research beer production. She watched YouTube videos, read books and began to brew on a small scale.

She mastered conventional styles, and then began to experiment with flavors native to the Middle East, like sumac. That’s when she had an epiphany.

“I came to realize that it’s not something that’s readily available in the market,” she says. “It’s a region that’s not necessarily well represented.”

Many people from the Middle and Near East don’t drink alcohol for religious reasons, but “the Iranian people themselves are pretty secular people,” says Tabatabai.

She sees opportunity to speak to her community.

“A lot of times, when you go to a Middle Eastern restaurant or Iranian restaurant, they’ve got like Heineken or Corona or things like that, which is fine, but it’s not necessarily going to complement the food so much,” she says.

Many typical Iranian dishes are bold, says Naz Deravian, author of Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories (Flatiron 2018).

“Iranian cuisine relies heavily on aromatic fresh herbs perfumed by heady spices, in particular saffron,” says Deravian. “The Iranian palate leans toward bright and sour notes.”

These flavors pair well with beer, says Jamshidi, but they also work within beer.

“Ingredients such as mineral-rich Persian blue salt from the Caspian Sea, to saffron from Khorasan, rosewater from Kermansha, sun-dried apricots, plums, cherries, quince, dates, pomegranates, persimmons—they are only the beginnings of what both heritage and the splendor of Iranian ingredients can lend to brewing,” he says.

Argo brewery Tehran
In 2020, Tehran’s historic Argo brewery was revived as a nonalcoholic operation / Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The focus on beer in Persian culinary traditions has excited Middle Eastern ex-pat communities on social media, says Tabatabai. Barzin Akhavan, an actor, posted an article from The Conversation to the brewery’s Twitter page on how women were the leaders in brewing until accusations of witchcraft rose.

Interactions like these highlight the diversity of beverage cultures in diasporic Iranian communities. Argo, one of the country’s biggest breweries during the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979), was revived as a nonalcoholic brewery in Tehran in 2020.

Today, there are homebrewing, distilling and winemaking scenes in Iran, but they maintain low profiles in an effort to steer clear of the authorities.

In New York City, Tabatabai’s Back Home is part of a brewing resurgence. In the last 10 years, the city has gone from having just three breweries to almost 40.

Tabatabai has received clearance and is in talks to contract-brew Back Home beers until she can open her facility to the public. In the meantime, she says that her beer has already received an important seal of approval. Her grandmother loved it.