Looking back and moving forward
Zahra Tabatabai of Back Home Brewing is reimagining her family legacy through beer.
For Zahra Tabatabai, founder and owner of Brooklyn-based Back Home Beer, “back home” means family. It means legacy. It means breaking down preconceived notions of what Middle Eastern beer was, is, and can be.
“A lot of people say, ‘how can you make a Muslim beer?’,” she says. “This is actually not Muslim beer. This is beer made by Iranian women.”
Her Persian-inspired portfolio of brews prominently features flavors from the Middle East, despite the fact that making and drinking alcohol has been illegal for Muslim Iranian citizens since 1979. But Iran’s rich brewing history pre-dates the Islamic Revolution and remains one of the oldest civilizations involved in fermenting beverages. “A lot of the earliest evidence of beer was found in Iran,” she explains. “I think a lot of people would be surprised to find that out.”
Tabatabai wasn’t always a brewer. For years, she worked as a news and sports writer before taking some time off from her career when she became pregnant with her son. It was during that time she decided to dabble in a family tradition: homebrewing.
“My grandfather was actually brewing in Southern Iran, in Shiraz, in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she says, recounting stories about his creations passed down to her by her grandmother. The accounts tugged at Tabatabai, fueling a desire to pursue what was his passion in order to reconnect with the tastes of her familial home. “I got interested in trying different ingredients in beer that I didn’t see on the market. But really, [it was] to make some beer for my grandmother to try,” she explains. “So I would make some bottles and mail it down to her, and she’d call me and tell me what she thought about it.”
Pursuing the unique alchemy of fermentation was in her blood. Tabatabai’s mother also concocted her own batches of kombucha long before bubbly booch hit mainstream American shelves. “We were always into fermentation as a family,” she laughs. What began as a seedling hobby to share among family and friends quickly sprouted into something concrete: an opportunity to take her ancestral legacy to the masses.
Tabatabai shifted from her small-batch homebrew setup to begin contract brewing on a 15-barrel system, but hopes to have her own space (one that also includes offering Persian street food for guided pairings) by summer 2022, based on consumer reception. She’s also relying on customer feedback to help guide Back Home’s future offerings. “We’re going to have a core rotation of five or six beers,” she says, which will allow for opportunities to experiment and perfect a variety of recipes.
Naming ingredients like sumac, sour cherry, and a rare Persian blue salt, which is only harvested in Iran and remains one of the only edible blue salts on Earth, Tabatabai believes her beers can introduce a brand-new experience to even the most seasoned craft beer drinker. Gose is one of the only beer styles that specifically uses salt as part of its recipe, but the practice of adding a pinch of salt to beer (especially lagers) is a throwback to earlier generations of drinkers. “My dad does it, my uncles all do it, all the people in my family add salt,” says Tabatabai. “That’s really an homage to my grandfather, because that’s how he always drank his beer.”
Weaving her contemporary beers into a long tapestry of Middle Eastern brewing tradition means Tabatabai’s family isn’t just inspiring her creations through stories and support—they’re helping shape them in real time. She describes sharing bottles with cousins, aunts, uncles, parents: anyone with a lifetime of taste memory tied to their homeland. “A lot of [my family] were living in Iran before the revolution, and they kind of give me really honest feedback about what they remember and [saying] ‘This is what I’m thinking, this is what I’d do differently’... especially the women in my family,” she laughs.
Relying on the palate recollections of others is a necessary challenge, for now. Thanks to Iran’s brutal regime currently in power, Tabatabai remains barred from the country. “I haven’t been back in about 15 years because it’s not really safe for me to travel there anymore,” she says. She’s not legally restricted from visiting, but the risk of arrest even due to a perception of being anti-government (not to mention the severe punishments for making or imbibing alcohol, including the death penalty) is enough for her to not take any chances.
Despite the barriers keeping her from her family’s homeland, most of Tabatabai’s family now resides outside of Iran, giving her the ability to tap directly into generations of knowledge and experience. When it comes to who she leans on for opinions and inspiration, she says it’s mostly her female relatives who provide feedback. “A lot of them are amazing cooks and chefs. They’re always cooking with different herbs, spices, fruits, and nuts. They have a lot of recommendations for me,” she says. “I go to them.”
Receiving unequivocal support from women has instilled a drive in Tabatabai to pass that along to future generations of aspiring brewers. “I do think there is a need for women in beer to have a place,” she says, especially women from the Middle East. “I think when most people talk about beer or consider beer, they would not consider Middle Eastern women as being involved in this… there’s definitely a disconnect between beer and the region and women. It’s a hard thing to bring together, but I’m trying my best to do it.”
Some of the deliberate steps she’s taking to ensure authenticity are specifically seeking out women and other people from Iran as future hires, once Back Home begins to expand. Right now, other than some occasional help scaling up recipes, it’s just Tabatabai and a graphic designer, a woman based in Iran. “She’s doing this even though it’s risky for her,” she says with a note of concern. “[But] she said ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a part of this.’”
As Back Home grows, she hopes they’ll become an inspiration for others attempting to redefine what beer can be by creating new, safe spaces for people who fall outside the realm of the stereotypical craft consumer. “Sometimes I feel like when you go into these breweries… they are intended for white dudes to come in and drink. I don’t know that I’ve always felt comfortable sitting in a brewery drinking a beer with a group of my friends,” she says. She also hopes to shine a more mainstream light on the abundant flavors from Iran in a completely new way.
“I really just want to be able to educate people about the region and any misconceptions that they might have about Iranians, or people from the Middle East in general living in the United States,” Tabatabai says. “That’s really the goal here for me: to create a space that’s inclusive, be able to educate people about beer and the region, and also just be able to come out with some interesting and unique flavors that are really inspired by the Middle East.”
Prohibitchin' is made possible by a sponsorship from Hopsbauer, a woman-owned hops brokerage company based in San Diego. Hopsbauer brings the best hops from around the world to craft breweries. Find out more by visiting Hopsbauer.com, and thanks to Liz Bauer for her generous support!