Israel is making some pretty good beers these days. From being virtually a beer desert, the country is beginning to develop a craft beer culture.
Among the new wave of boutique breweries is the impressive Alexander Brewery. This is a start-up, engineered by beer enthusiast and former pilot Ori Sagy. The brewery may be small and reasonably new, but it has already won some very impressive international prizes in some of the world’s most prestigious competitions. Gold at the European Star Competition was followed recently by another gold medal at the prestigious World Beer Cup in Denver, Colorado.
It could be that the little Alexander Brewery is putting Israeli beer on the world beer map.
Alexander Brewery is situated in Emek Hefer, between Hadera and Netanya. It is named after the nearby Nahal Alexander, which is either a river or a stream, depending on how complimentary you want to be. It flows from the Samarian Hills to the Mediterranean Sea, through the Hefer Valley. It is named after Alexander Yannai, once king of Judea.
Nahal Alexander is home to the country’s largest habitation of soft-shelled turtles. They can grow to a large size. So the turtle featured on the brewery’s logo is both local and appropriate. The wings are a nod to Sagy’s previous career.
Ori Sagy is someone who reads, talks and dreams about beer. He studies it, visits breweries and drinks beer in other countries whenever he can.
He is a permanent student of beer and has so far been unable to quell the passion. There is nothing about beer that he does not like. He started as a home brewer like so many others.
When his beers won first place in Israel’s Home Brew competition, it sparked a fuse for him.
His passion for beer reminds me of a little boy who wants to fly planes and ends up a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.
The original passion is toned down by all the constraints and regulations. The focus is of the hardened professional, but inside the controlled exterior of the pilot is still the little boy that loved planes.
Fast forward to his second career as what he calls a biran, or brew master, of his own brewery. This is someone whose whole persona radiates cool and quiet confidence; but when he starts to talk about beer, he can’t help himself. His eyes sparkle, and within the calm exterior he is bubbling with enthusiasm, like the beer he ferments.
He prepared himself well. He studied brewing technology and business administration at the Siebel Institute in Chicago.
He runs a tight ship, which is why he has attracted some pretty serious partners. Yoram Yarzin is one of them.
Yarzin is one of Israel’s leading restaurateurs and a pioneer in the business. He was also one of the first to import beer. I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy is ahead of the game” when I saw the Corona on sale in Ad Haetzem, his iconic restaurant in Herzliya Pituah. This was well before mainstream imports began. Aviem Sella, a serious whisky connoisseur and a veteran of the Israel Air Force, is another partner.
Someone once preached to me, “Brands are bland.” There is a lot of truth in this when it comes to beer. The global brands may be regarded as inoffensive, seeking to not put off the majority of consumers by having anything approaching too much character, flavor or individuality. Sagy, by contrast, wanted to make a quality Israeli beer, so he concentrates on ales, which usually have more flavor and character than lagers.
Israel has gone through a few milestones before reaching the craft beer awakening of today.
In 1934, the first modern brewery in Israel was opened at Rishon Lezion Wine Cellars. It was called Palestine Beer Breweries, and there was a wall between the brewery and the winery. It was founded by a Frenchman named Gaston Dreyfus and James Rothschild, the son of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
This is where my office is, so I have a daily reminder of the beginnings of Israeli beer.
Regrettably, the only people who drank beer in those days were the British. When the British Mandate ended, beer sales went into terminal decline, and the brewery closed in 1960.
However, two of the beers originally produced at Rishon passed the test of time. These were Nesher, the first Israeli beer brand, and Goldstar, the largest-selling Israeli beer, both of which still exist.
The next step in the development of Israeli beer was the formation of two giant brewing companies, which together created a proper beer industry.
A soft drink company called Tempo entered the beer industry in 1985, and its brewery was based in Netanya. Then in 1992, Israel Beer Breweries Ltd (IBBL) was formed. This was otherwise known as Carlsberg Israel, and a new brewery was built in Ashkelon.
Together, Tempo and IBBL control most of the domestic production and most of the imports.
In the early 2000s, I attended a competition and festival for domestic brewers and was astonished to see so many participants.
I could see that beer was about to follow the gigantic strides that wine had made in the 1990s.
Then in 2006, Dancing Camel became the first in a new wave of small brewers that bridged the gap between being a domestic brewer and a handcrafted, boutique brewery. Fast forward a few years, and there are now at least 20 quality Israeli boutique breweries, making quality beers with individuality and passion.
The most prominent of these are Bazelet, Malka, Jems, Shapiro, Negev, and, of course, the award-winning Alexander.
Consumption still remains painfully low. Israelis drink a mere 14 liters of beer per head annually. (In the Czech Republic, they drink 160 liters per head a year!) However, Sagy is full of hope. He remembers that America used to be dominated by the massive global breweries. Then came their Craft Beer revolution, which rejuvenated the whole industry.
He firmly believes that Israel is at the dawn of similar developments here.
I come from the beer age myself.
I started my drinks career at Bass Charrington in London. I remember well learning how to spile a cask of cask conditioned bitter (a.k.a. British Real Ale) in the pub cellar or practicing to pour the perfect Worthington White Shield (bottled conditioned beer) correctly. So it was a great experience for me to visit Alexander Brewery. When I tasted the beers and saw the sparkle in Sagy’s eyes, it took me back.
Written high on the wall in the brewery bar is a great quote from rock musician Frank Zappa: “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline.
It helps if you have some kind of football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”
This is a new Israeli brewery that is flying high, and it should make all Israelis proud.
It is located virtually next door to Recanati Winery and not far from Jacobs Dairy. Beer, cheese and wine. What could be better? Sounds like an ideal day out to me!
The following are the Alexander beers I tasted:
A drinking beer, to quench the thirst.
It is in the Belgian Blonde style. Pale in color, it looks like a lager but with a less tight head. It has a delicate beery nose and a fine balance between sweetness refreshing CO2 bite.
This beer has an attractive amber color because of the type of malt used. It has an inherent caramely, malty sweetness, backed by a balancing bitterness.
It is full of flavor. It is one mouth-filling glass of beer.
This is an IPA, named for the green color of the hop flower. Like a good wine that you can’t put down and keep nosing, I was drawn to this again and again, trying to nail down the exquisite aromas. It was at once very fruity, with tropical notes, matched by the sweet maltiness and bitter hoppiness. The taste is very hoppy. It is not totally bright because all these beers are unfiltered. An enchanting beer for the beer anorak.
This looks like a Blonde but is fuller bodied. I was surprised by the high alcohol, but it did not feel too strong because it is totally in balance.
A porter beer, named for its color. It is rich, complex and black as night, with a beautiful frothy head. It has aromas of mocha and dark chocolate and is smooth and satisfying in the mouth. The taste stays with you way after the final slurp.
It has a long, long finish. It is meant to be a seasonal beer, most appropriate for the cold winter months. I could drink it any time.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery. He regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. email@example.com