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 license 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 license 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 alongside southern Louisiana-style food, with traditional bayou dishes such as jambalaya, shrimp and grits, Cajun po’boys and pistolettes. The 250-seat spot is being opened by the owners of Balmaghie Beverage Group and other investors. A soft opening this month will be followed in February by a planned grand opening.
Balmaghie’s chief executive officer, Chad McGehee, moved to the UAE about 14 years ago as an employee of IBM, and co-founded Balmaghie in 2018. He bonded with his now-business partners over their disappointment with the country’s paltry beer options.
“We started this company so that we can drink better here,” says McGehee, a native of southern Louisiana. “Regardless of the size of the market, we legitimately made this beer for us to drink, and then it just kept growing.”
The company opened beer-making facilities, as well as gin and whiskey distilleries, in Pennsylvania and worked on flavors they thought 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. Side Hustle also makes hard seltzers, which McGehee says are popular in the UAE even as the hard seltzer buzz fades in the US. Sales are expected to reach $500,000 this year, McGehee says.
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 Ramadan. Now, however, retail stores selling beer, wine and hard liquor are commonplace, and free-standing restaurants and pubs with alcohol licenses 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 on 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.
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 neighbors 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.