Zahra Tabatabai’s parents grew up in an Iran that would be unrecognizable today. “The pictures I see of my family in Iran in the sixties and seventies, they're in bikinis at the beach, drinking beer,” she says. Now, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women are legally required to wear hijabs and alcohol is banned. A few years ago, Zahra became interested in the long history of beer brewing in Iran — a tradition that included her own grandfather. She began brewing her own beer, experimenting with traditional Iranian ingredients like sumac, black lime, and barberries. Now she’s using her company, Back Home Beer, to change the narrative about Iranian people and culture. And one day, she hopes to bring her beer to Iran without fear. Nowruz Mobarak!
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Young And Free" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Private Detective" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Hennepin" by Black Label Productions
- "Lost And Found" by Casey Hjelmberg
- "Twenty 99" by Erick Anderson
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
- "Secret Handshake" by Hayley Briasco
Photo courtesy of Dan Pashman.
Zahra Tabatabai: The New Day IPA it's a symbolic beer for the Persian New Year, because Nowruz translates — Now means new and ruz means day.
Dan Pashman: Okay
Zahra Tabatabai: So new day.
Dan Pashman: And, Nowruz is coming up.
Zahra Tabatabai: It is.
Dan Pashman: This is a very silly idea, Zara, but I'm gonna put you on anyway. You ready?
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Are you familiar with Outback Steakhouse?
Zahra Tabatabai: [LAUGHS] I am very familiar with Outback Steakhouse.
Dan Pashman: Do know their slogan?
Zahra Tabatabai: God remind me.
Dan Pashman: "No rules. Just right."
Zahra Tabatabai: Okay. No rules. Just right. [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: I think that the slogan for your New Day IPA should be ...
Together: Nowruz. Just right.
Zahra Tabatabai: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Yes!
Zahra Tabatabai: I love it.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies it's for eaters, I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. And Happy Persian New Year to those who are celebrating Nowruz mobarak!
Dan Pashman: In honor of the holiday today we're talking with Iranian American beer brewer Zahra Tabatabai. She started Back Home Beer in New York a couple years ago, taking inspiration from her grandfather. Before Iran’s Islamic Revolution, he was part of a long tradition of beer brewing and drinking there that goes back centuries.
Dan Pashman: So for Zahra this project is personal, as I saw when I joined her recently on a delivery run in Brooklyn …
Zahra Tabatabai: Currently in the trunk is a combination of my son's clothing, Magnatiles, beer, a big jug of sumac back here.
Dan Pashman: That's like a good gallon of sumac.
Zahra Tabatabai: It's — yeah, it's a five pound thing of sumac.
Dan Pashman: Zahra's what we'd call a nanobrewer — that's smaller than a microbrewer. She brews her beer in a tank that she rents at an existing brewery, and makes many of the deliveries to stores and restaurants around New York in her Prius.
Zahra Tabatabai: This is my second Prius. The first Prius, I put so much weight into it that it was like a low riding Prius by the end of it.
Dan Pashman: Zahra and I drove to a nearby bar, a new customer for her. Usually she’d bring her 9-year-old son along, but today she’s got me. When we got to the bar, she pulled into a no parking zone and gave me the lowdown on her strategies for avoiding a ticket.
Zahra Tabatabai: This is what I do. I look down the block. If I don't see one of the parking meter at attendants, I know I'm in the clear for at least a few minutes.
Dan Pashman: And you, then you make a run for it.
Zahra Tabatabai: And then I make a run for it.
Dan Pashman: Right. Have you given any beer to a parking meter attendant to get out of a ticket?
Zahra Tabatabai: I never have, but I have used my son to wait in the car. I put him in the driver's seat and I rolled down the window and I said, if anybody comes here, tell them your mommy is working and that we cannot afford a parking ticket at this time. And so when I got back to the car, he was having a full on conversation with the parking attendant, saying, "See, that's my mommy. She's working and she's working really hard, and please don't give us a ticket." And she did not give us a ticket.
Dan Pashman: Amazing.
Zahra Tabatabai: So that was nice. He's going to appreciate it one day and he will understand.
Dan Pashman: He’s gonna be able to talk his way out of anything.
Zahra Tabatabai: A hundred percent. Exactly. I'm setting him up for success.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, that's right. These are life skills, kid.
Zahra Tabatabai: Exactly!
Dan Pashman: All right. Should we make a delivery?
Zahra Tabatabai: Let's do it.
Dan Pashman: All right.
Zahra Tabatabai: I don't see any parking attendants in site.
Dan Pashman: All right, let's make a run for it.
Zahra Tabatabai: Let's do it.
Dan Pashman: Today, Iran is an Islamic country where alcohol is banned. The biggest news of the last several months there has been the ongoing protests for women's rights. The so-called morality police arrested a young woman for wearing a hijab improperly, and she died in custody. It spurred outrage across the country. Protesters are breaking curfew, women are cutting their hair in defiance, and the government has responded with mass arrests, and by killing some civilians.
Dan Pashman: But that's not the Iran that Zahra heard about when she was growing up in America. When her parents and grandparents talked about back home, they were talking about Iran before the 1979 revolution.
Zahra Tabatabai: The pictures I see of my family in Iran in the sixties and seventies, they're in bikinis at the beach, drinking beer. They're playing music. They're dancing. Their backyard was a beautiful garden, where they would grow different herbs and they would have people from the neighborhood come over. And it just felt like this community and the kids would run out and go to the bakery and get bread and come back and it was this beautiful, magical place.
Dan Pashman: Zahra's parents were born in Shiraz, in south-central Iran. They were Muslim, but secular. In the mid-70s they came to the U.S. to study at the University of Alabama. They always planned to go back once they had their degrees, but then the revolution happened. The new regime put in place new restrictions on secular life, including harsh laws impacting women’s rights. So Zahra’s parents stayed in the States, eventually settling outside Atlanta. And some of their parents and siblings came to America, too.
Zahra Tabatabai: When they couldn't go back, they wanted to make sure that we received the life that they wanted for us in their country. And so it was nice to be able to be close to family and have that community and grow up eating Iranian food and drinking tea and being around the language and growing up speaking Farsi. They left not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to after the revolution. And since when they've returned, it's completely a different place to them. It's not their home anymore, so they really do feel displaced. So it was very important for them to continue to tell the stories of life back home and show pictures and videos and memories about their life there.
Dan Pashman: Among those important memories from Iran, were stories about beer.
Zahra Tabatabai: They told us that there were breweries and that my grandfather was making beer and that he was storing it in the cellar downstairs and that he was using ingredients from the garden and he was picking sour cherries and letting it ferment in there. Or he was using sumac and it was all these stories about him making beer, making wine. My grandmother was cooking the food. Everybody was welcome to come to the house, eat in passing after dinner, like it was — they were the hosts of the neighborhood in Shiraz. I was very young when he passed away, so that's really all I have.
Dan Pashman: It sounds like you understood from a young age that beer was part of Iranian culture and part of your family's heritage.
Zahra Tabatabai: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I — that's the only thing I saw them drinking when they went to a wedding or we went to a party or a gathering, they only drank beer. And I figured, okay, well this is just — this is what they did in Iran. This is what they're doing now.
Dan Pashman: It was years before Zahra realized that most Americans’ perception of Iran was very different from the one she grew up with. In the news, Iran was a perennial bogeyman, with the assumption being that the Iranian government was speaking for most of its people. As Zahra got into high school and college …
Zahra Tabatabai: I definitely felt like I couldn't 100% be myself all the time because I didn't know how people would react to me even speaking about Iran. You know, when you hear about what's going on in the news and the wars and it is a scary thing when you're growing up. You never feel 100% yourself, like you can be 100% yourself.
Dan Pashman: When Zahra was in college she got into drinking beer, but she didn’t have any special interest in it. She’d have a beer with dinner, or in the summer with salted pistachios. After college she moved to New York and became a freelance writer. She had an entrepreneurial spirit but didn’t really know where to channel that other than her journalism. Then at age 30, she found herself pregnant and her whole sense of herself changed.
Zahra Tabatabai: I had never thought about having a family. It just was not in my plans at all. It just happened and I very quickly had to turn into mom mode because I was home with him and I felt isolated. I wasn't working. And I felt like I was disconnected from the entire world and myself for many years.
Dan Pashman: Zahra struggled with these feelings for a long time. Then, when her son was 5 or 6, Zahra went to Atlanta to see her grandmother.
Zahra Tabatabai: And she made a comment in passing about how she missed the taste of my grandfather's beer. Said something like, I miss the taste of that beer. That's what I could use right now. And that sparked interest in me and. I thought, well, I've got free time. Let me figure this out. It can't be that hard. Let me check out some YouTube videos and I'm gonna make this beer. I'm gonna make it. I'm gonna send the bottles down. Let's see if we can make the taste that she's looking for.
Dan Pashman: At that point Zahra was thinking of making beer as a fun project, something for her that would give her a sense of purpose beyond motherhood. When she got back to New York, she took home brewing classes at a local shop in Brooklyn. She bought the equipment she needed, and she started doing more research about the history of beer, especially its connection to the Middle East. Archaeologists discovered some of the earliest evidence of beer brewing, from 5,000 years ago, in the mountains of present-day Iran.
Zahra Tabatabai: I uncovered a lot of things that were very surprising and interesting to me. And I was like, wow, this needs to be more well known in the world.
Dan Pashman: I was assuming like in subsequent years you've talked to your parents [Zahra Tabatabai: Yes.] and grandparents about that history. Like were they aware of it? Like, what do they say when you talk to 'em about it?
Zahra Tabatabai: They're like, oh yeah. And they think we invented everything. listen, so — they're like, of course we did. What? Where else could it have come from?
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Zahra Tabatabai: You know? So like, I mean ...
Dan Pashman: We came up with that right after we invented math.
Zahra Tabatabai: Right. Exactly.
Zahra Tabatabai: You know, batteries come from Shiraz? Like, I mean, they think we invented everything. So of course they're like, of course!
Dan Pashman: Zahra learned more about the history of beer in modern day Iran, too. In the 1960s there were at least four breweries there, some run by Armenians who weren't Muslim. Shiraz, where Zahra's parents are from, is known for its wine grapes. But the drink of choice in the country was vodka. Twenty distilleries were in operation across the country. A New York Times article from 1953 said, “Vodka is extremely important in Teheran life, being served in iced decanters with bowls of caviar beside splashing fountains under weeping willow trees in walled garden cafes.”
Dan Pashman: But that all changed with the 1979 revolution. Alcohol was completely banned. All the breweries and distilleries closed. A few were converted to non-alcoholic beer breweries, and today their so-called Islamic beer is becoming more popular.
Dan Pashman: But of course, people never stopped drinking alcohol. The website Iran Open Data says that in a recent survey of 2,000 Iranians, about half said they drink. They smuggle booze in, or make their own … even though the punishment for drinking alcohol can be lashes, fines, jail time, or even death for repeat offenses, death.
Dan Pashman: So Zahra was learning about this rich history of alcohol in Iran, thinking about the beer her grandfather used to brew, and starting to make her own. Eventually, she began asking herself a bigger question:
Zahra Tabatabai: Why isn't there any representation of Middle Eastern beer at all when it's only been outlawed in Iran for about 40 years?
Dan Pashman: That question stuck with Zahra as she tinkered with her beer at home, calling her grandma to learn more about what her grandfather's beer tasted like.
Zahra Tabatabai: I was trying to figure out what she liked. And it was a lot of back and forth about that, the taste and the memory and all of that.
Dan Pashman: Zahra’s first home brew batch was a kettle sour beer, but she did it with barberries, a common sour ingredient in Iranian food. It’s something her grandfather might have put in his beers.
Zahra Tabatabai: When I tried it, I'm like, wow, this is actually really good. It wasn't that hard.
Dan Pashman: Zahra also made a lager with black limes — which are limes that are preserved by being dried in the sun, so they shrivel up and turn black. They’re smoky and earthy and often used in stews. Zahra packed up her black lime lager, and her barberry sour, and booked a flight to Atlanta, so she could hand deliver this first batch of beer to her family and get their feedback.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we’ll find out what they thought — and spoiler alert, it wasn’t all positive. Then later, Zahra starts hearing from people taking great risks to brew their own beer illegally in Iran. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I'm Dan Pashman. Hey, while we’re talking about beer — remember last year we did an episode with Mandy Naglich, a champion home brewer and beer educator who was going for her master cicerone certification. You know, a cicerone’s like a sommelier, but for beer. Well, Mandy's got a new book coming out in June and it’s available for pre order now, right now. It’s less about beer and more about flavor overall, and it’s called How to Taste: A Guide to Discovering Flavor and Savoring Life. In this book, Mandy takes you behind closed doors into the fascinating world of professional tasters. She'll guide you to becoming an expert yourself. It’ll change the whole eating and drinking experience forever! So don’t wait til it comes out, pre-order How to Taste right now, from Amazon or bookshop.org or Barnes and Noble, or wherever you get your books. And while you’re at it, check out our episode with Mandy, it’s called "The Hardest Beer Test In The World". Okay, back to the show...
Dan Pashman: Zahra packed up her black lime lager and barberry sour and brought them home to her family in Atlanta …
Zahra Tabatabai: I was feeling excited. I'm like, this is gonna bring back some cool memories for them and see kind of what types of memories it stirred up and what kind of conversations and stories I would be hearing surrounding it. And so I flew down. I got the black lime lager and the barberry Sour. And they loved the Barberry Sour. They thought it was delicious. Anything with barberries, they're really big fans of, and the Black Lime lager, they did not like at all. They're like, this is terrible.
Zahra Tabatabai: But you know, this is — they're gonna be honest. So it was good. So they're like, it's just too limey. This doesn't taste right. They had a lot to say about that one.
Dan Pashman: The positive feedback Zahra got on the barberry sour gave her some confidence that the beer she was brewing was actually really good. She returned to New York and started more experiments. She scrapped the black lime beer for the moment, but tried using other Persian ingredients, like sour cherries, the tart spice sumac, and even a special kind of salt that comes from Iran. She also worked on refining her barberry sour. Soon she felt good enough about it to have beer experts try it. She brought it over to Circa Brewing in Brooklyn. She’d seen the head brewer, Drew Kostic, in a documentary called Brewmaster. And Zahra was like, why not see what he thinks?
Zahra Tabatabai: So I went over there. I just dropped in. I introduced myself and I'm like, "Hey, I made this beer. It's with barberries, you've probably never heard of that, but I'd love for you to try it." And he was so nice and supportive and he's like, "Let's give it a go." And we tried it right then and he's like, "This is delicious."
Dan Pashman: As I said to Zahra, I can understand why her beer would stand out to anyone in the industry.
Dan Pashman: For all the talk of all the microbreweries and craft breweries and craft beer culture and all of that. It's like, I don't know, it feels to me like 99% of those beers are all the same.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes. I hate to say that, but it's true. They are.
Dan Pashman: Like, I mean, how many more like double hopped IPAs does the world need?
Zahra Tabatabai: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with you.
Dan Pashman: And you came in, you're like, let's actually — let's mix it up in here a little bit.
Zahra Tabatabai: [LAUGHS] That's what I was trying trying do without offending anybody.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Zahra Tabatabai: Yeah. But I, I felt the same way. And it's funny because I remember this quote from a beer shop here, and he's like, "You know what? I'm sick of trying to sell the same exact beer that just has a different label on it."
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Zahra Tabatabai: You know? I think people are craving something new and different in beer.
Dan Pashman: And also like enough with this sort of feats of strength for like how mu how hoppy and bitter can your beer be.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Like as it sounds like, you know, dumb bros fighting over who can eat the spiciest wings.
Zahra Tabatabai: [LAUGHS] Exactly. They're out trying to out hop each other. It's ridiculous.
Dan Pashman: It's so stupid.
Zahra Tabatabai: It's so stupid. And your mouth just ends up being numb to everything, and it all ends up tasting the same anyway.
Dan Pashman: Drew’s stamp of approval gave Zahra another dose of confidence. She knew for sure now that she could make delicious beer that stood out. Add to that her interest in shining a light on the history of beer in the Middle East, and the role of middle eastern women in particular, and she realized it was time to take a big leap with her interest in beer — to take it from a hobby to a business.
Dan Pashman: But the first hurdle? Brewing bigger batches of beer. She wasn't going to take over the beer world brewing in her closet.
Zahra Tabatabai: The most financially conscious way to bring a beer to market is to do something that's called like ghost brewing, where essentially there are breweries. And they're not always using all of their tanks. So you go in and when they're not using one of their tanks, you brew and you hold your beer there for however many weeks and they package it there on site. So I was reaching out to breweries to find out if they'd be willing for me to contract brew. I got a lot of nos, a lot of confused people about what I was trying to do.
Dan Pashman: What exactly were they confused about?
Zahra Tabatabai: They were just like, you know, a lot of people who are brewing beer have worked in beer for a long time. They know all of their industry friends. So they're kind of like, who is this woman and she's Iranian, and what are these ingredients? We've never worked with barberries and we don't know how it's gonna work and what if our lions get infected? And just — oh, are you sure you can brew a 15 barrel batch? That's a lot. And that's our minimum. I'm not sure you're ready for that. Or yeah, I got all kinds of weird responses about everything.
Dan Pashman: Eventually Zahra found Flagship Brewing, about a half hour drive away on Staten Island, another part of New York City. And instead of giving her side eye, they wanted to work with her. In the fall of 2021, she was ready to brew her first batch of beer in a professional brewery.
Zahra Tabatabai: I was so nervous. I could not sleep the night before. You know, I'm going into a man's world. I was the only female there. I had been doing this in my apartment and now I'm in a full scale brewery trying to brew this beer.
Dan Pashman: For her first batch, Zahra made 30 barrels, which is about 8,000 cans of beer, the smallest amount the brewery would let her make. The process for the barberry sour was a little too complicated for the first run — so she went for two other varieties instead.
Zahra Tabatabai: Persian blue lager, which is made with blue salt that I sourced directly from Iran. That was the most close to my grandfather's recipe from what they remember. It was very just like a classic lager. My family puts a pinch of salt in their beer before they drink it. And so I had the idea to brew with this blue salt from Iran for that beet.
Dan Pashman: That was the beer that you made that caught my attention.
Zahra Tabatabai: Oh, really?
Dan Pashman: Like when you were first starting out. Cause there's a lot of culture's where adding a bit of salt to the beer is common.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I was at bar — I think it closed. It was called the Rusty Knot on the west side highway.
Zahra Tabatabai: Oh yeah.
Dan Pashman: And I ordered a Tecate and they opened up the can and they sprinkled salt in and squeezed a lime in over the top and I took on sip and was like this is incredible.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes.
Dan Pashman: I want this in all my beers.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yeah, yeah.
Dan Pashman: And then I saw your beer and I was like, "Oh my god. The beer with salt already added! This is genius!"
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes, exactly.
Dan Pashman: And I was reading the label and this is in common with your grandfather and a common thing in Iran. And I was like, this is so good. I can't wait to try this.
Zahra Tabatabai: Right.
Dan Pashman: So you set out with a Persian Blue lager, with a pinch of salt.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And what was the other one?
Zahra Tabatabai: And the other one was the sumac gose. And that was made with a cured sumac that’s sourced from Turkey. And it also sits on hundreds and hundreds of pounds of sour cherries, which sour cherries grow wild all over Iran. So we use it in rice, we use it in jams and both very familiar flavor profiles from when I was growing up in our food, and also from what I heard, my grandfather used in his beer.
Dan Pashman: In addition to deciding on her flavor beers should go in the cans, Zahra also had to figure out what the cans should look like. She wanted the design to reflect her culture, her history, and the inspiration behind the brand. She ended up with are aluminum cans with labels stuck on them, rather than being printed right on the can, which gives them kind of a home brew vibe, an homage to her grandfather. The logo is a beer mug shaped like the Azadi Tower, which means Freedom Tower. It’s a famous building in Tehran that's instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the region. And then there’s the Farsi calligraphy.
Zahra Tabatabai: I wanted to highlight the language because calligraphy, it would be something that people would see and they would immediately know, this is from the Middle East. The designer had the idea to do a poetry series on the first three cans and highlight different Persian poets like Rumi and Khayyam, cause that's a big part of our culture too. And that's — we worked together to kind of bring that to the labels. That was the most terrifying thing for me was coming out with the beer that was so Middle Eastern looking, because I'm like, it just opens me up to being attacked or, you know, bashed about what I'm trying to do things that I've heard growing up, like, oh, this is a terrorist beer. Beer is American. How could beer be coming from Iran? And so that was definitely a scary thing and I went back and forth about it. We had a lot of different design ideas, but ultimately I was like, you know what? If I'm gonna do this, I might as well just go all the way and see what happens.
Dan Pashman: Zahra was thrilled with how the cans looked. Then, she finally got to taste her beer brewed professionally, for the first time…
Zahra Tabatabai: It went really well. I mean, the beer turned out great.
Dan Pashman: So Zahra got her first taste, but we got to pause the story here because I need my first taste. Okay? At this point, she and I have been talking about beer for a solid hour, and I sure am thirsty. Even though it's not quite noon, she breaks out the sumac gose.
Zahra Tabatabai: It's brewed with cured sumac. So the sumac is packed and dried in salt. Normally a gose has additional salt in the beer. I didn't add anything additional because I really wanted the salinity to come from the sumac itself. And then it's got sour cherries in there, which are typically eaten with salt also, if they're eaten fresh off a tree. I think you'll love it.
Dan Pashman: I can't wait. All right, let's crack it open.
Zahra Tabatabai: Okay. All right.
Dan Pashman: [OPENS A CAN OF BEER] that sound never gets old,
Zahra Tabatabai: All right.
Dan Pashman: Ah, that sounds never not gets old.
Zahra Tabatabai: It does not get old.
Dan Pashman: It's a aluminum can and the label is like a light pink.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes.
Dan Pashman: To go with the tart cherries inside. And the beer itself is like a deep rose color.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes. It's a beautiful color.
Dan Pashman: Oh my God, it's so good.
Zahra Tabatabai: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: You know what I love about it? Is that it's tart cherry, but it's not ridiculous.
Zahra Tabatabai: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: That's what I — like [Zahra Tabatabai: Exactly.] some of these sour beers, like it's not a contest to see how sour you can be.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes.
Dan Pashman: This is delicious.
Zahra Tabatabai: Thank you.
Dan Pashman: When Zahra’s beers first hit the market in late 2021, they were an immediate hit. Everything about these beers stood out. Beer shops were buying, but also restaurants were more interested than she expected. Maybe because of the interesting flavors she was using and the emphasis on drinkability instead of shocking your palate with hops and bitterness. The demand was high enough that she brewed another batch right away.
Dan Pashman: As her business grew so did her platform, and she began using it to talk about the political situation in Iran. She got a lot of support from other Iranian Americans. And then, Zahra started getting attention from somewhere else, that she didn’t see coming…
Zahra Tabatabai: Especially early on when I first started this and I got my social media up, I had a lot of people from Iran that were messaging me with pictures and showing me their home brew setup or their beer. Look at this beer and the stout I made and I made it with this and asking me for advice. And it was a really cool thing that I did not expect to happen.
Dan Pashman: We asked Zahra if she could put us in touch with one of these Iranian home brewers. She told us most of them were too scared, because of the punishments there for making alcohol. But there was one who was willing to speak with us.
Hooman: Hi my name is Hooman, because of some limitations in Iran, I can't say my full name.
Dan Pashman: Hooman started off making wine. Sometimes he drank Turkish beer in Iran, but he only started to get more into beer when he went abroad.
Hooman: I went to Malaysia and Singapore and in a German restaurant they came with beer that the color was brown and the taste was really different. That took my attention and after I came back to Iran I thought maybe one day I could make that beer for myself.
Dan Pashman: Hooman eventually found a website, written in Farsi, that had instructions for brewing beer. It took some searching but he was able to round up the ingredients he needed. And once he did, he got to work.
Hooman: My first batch after I think one or two months, the result wasn't very good but for my first try, it was pleasant for me, you know?
Dan Pashman: As Hooman kept practicing, he got better. His favorite style to make is Hefeweizen, but with some tweaks.
Hooman: I tried to manipulate the recipe for having more body and 1 or 2% more alcohol so that my hefeweizen is a kind of little different than the original recipe.
Dan Pashman: Hooman knows making alcohol in Iran is a risk. As we said, repeat offenses can be punishable by death. But he tells us …
Hooman: I really like brewing, you know? It's so amazing for me to make my own beer. And I really enjoy the taste and experience. I get together with my close friends and taste them and really enjoy them. You know living under danger in Iran is really something common for us, you know? There are people who are human activists or journalists living in real danger. Danger of brewing is nothing compared to them. So that's a yes, there are limitations and punishment for brewing in Iran. But we found our way of living in this situation.
Zahra Tabatabai: They want their freedoms back. It was really ripped away from so many people. I think that for a lot of them, it's an outlet for them. It also, you know, brings out a bit of — it makes me feel a little guilty too. You know, how come I'm able to do this so freely and openly and they're doing this with very limited resources and at a very high risk? And they would say things like, I wish that I can try your beer one day. And I'm like, I hope for the same thing. You know? So we just kind of have this in our minds that it will happen one day and that we will be able to share a beer one day in Iran soon.
Dan Pashman: Would you go to Iran now?
Zahra Tabatabai: I would be scared at this point. They're cracking down. They have facial recognition. And they're questioning people and they're putting people in jail, and especially people who are affiliated with the uprisings here and the protests here, which I am pretty publicly open about. So at this point, I would not go back to Iran until it was a free country again.
Dan Pashman: How have the recent protests affected the way you think about life there and what's going on there?
Zahra Tabatabai: They truly have started to give me hope about a different life and future in Iran, that I never really thought was a possibility. They have had uprisings here and there in Iran over the past 45 years, but never to this extent. And there is a lot more organization inside and outside of Iran. So it has certainly made me feel more hopeful. And you know, the revolution in ‘79 took a few years. So I never thought that this was gonna happen overnight. This is something that they have been building and securing for 45 years. So it's gonna take time, but I do believe that it will happen. And I think a lot of my family and a lot of people inside of Iran are more hopeful for a free future, um, more so than they've ever been in the past.
Dan Pashman: Today, Back Home Beer is available in about 200 restaurants and stores in New York and D.C. Zahra’s working on expanding to other states, or being able to ship nationwide, but that's a challenge, because there are a lot of rules about shipping alcohol. She wants to open her own brewery and a taproom, serving Iranian street food, but still needs to raise more money for that. As she works toward that goal, she’ll continue to tell the story she set out to tell.
Dan Pashman: You talked about when you were in high school and college realizing the rest of the country didn't view Iran and Iranian culture the same way you had growing up.
Zahra Tabatabai: Right.
Dan Pashman: How has working on this beer affected those feelings?
Zahra Tabatabai: For me, it's so important to show that we are strong Iranian women because so much of what people see and what I felt growing up was that, okay, the women are so oppressed, they're not educated, they can't go to school, or they think they can't drive or they don't have freedoms and they just sit at home and they have to listen to their husbands. But I'm trying to say, no, we are educated and we have fire and we are creative and we are strong. And I didn't necessarily feel all of those things growing up. But I really now feel confident and I hope that people can see that.
Dan Pashman: Now that you've kind of gotten this up and running and it's going overall so well, what does your grandmother think?
Zahra Tabatabai: She's excited. The whole family is just so thrilled that the legacy of my grandfather is being continued, that I'm trying to change the narrative about what has been Iran for the last 40 years and move it towards the Iran that they know. They feel nostalgic and a connection to this beer because it does bring up so many memories of their life back home. And so they're thrilled.
Dan Pashman: How does your grandmother compare it to your grandfather's beer?
Zahra Tabatabai: She thinks that the lager is the most similar and everything else she just loves. She says it's all very familiar to her. She's so happy she made that comment to me in passing and she's like, I did this this.
Zahra Tabatabai: This was me.
Zahra Tabatabai: Like you know? So she's taking a lot of credit which is fine.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Zahra Tabatabai: But yeah, it's good for the whole family.
Dan Pashman: That’s Zahra Tabatabai of Back Home Beer. Her New Day IPA is out now, just in time for Nowruz. Remember, Back Home Beers New Day IPA. Nowruz, just right. It’s got apples and sumac and wheat in it, to represent the Nowruz table, and Zahra has big plans for her new year celebrations …
Dan Pashman: And will there be beer there?
Zahra Tabatabai: There will be plenty of beer there, of course, at every meal.
Dan Pashman: Breakfast too.
Zahra Tabatabai: Yes! All of it. I mean, I have it for breakfast, so I feel like everyone should.
Dan Pashman: Go to backhomebeer.com to find out where you can buy all of Zahra’s beers near you, if you’re in the New York and Washington D.C. areas. I also want to say thanks to Professor Rudi Matthee for his help with this episode. He wrote a book about alcohol in the Muslim world that’s out soon.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I’m heading to the Bronx to talk with the guys from Ghetto Gastro. We stop into some of their favorite food spots and talk about what it means to be a culinary collective.
Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that one, check out last week’s episode, about a young woman who thinks she might be heading towards disordered eating.