A wise man named Frank Zappa once said: "You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer."
Depending on whom you ask, Israel meets most of the criteria: Regarding nuclear weapons, you'd have to ask Prime Minister Olmert for a more definitive answer. As for football, if soccer and football are interchangeable, then Israel is making the grade. And Israel now boasts more than one airline. But when it comes to beer, while Maccabee and Goldstar have been around for a while, Israel's latest crop of brewmasters would probably say that mass-produced commercial beers don't make the grade.
Beer actually traces its history to the Middle East, where the drink was first made in the grain-rich lands of Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE. While barley and wheat, two main beer ingredients, are two of the Land of Israel's "shiv'at Haminim" (seven indigenous species), modern Israel has never been known as a beer-brewing, beer-chugging country. Statistics show the average Israeli drinks approximately one liter of beer for every 10 liters in Europe or America.
Beer aficionados, however, are now saying that Israeli beer culture is burgeoning, with the growth of boutique breweries in Israel mimicking the rise of boutique wineries 10 years ago.
"Historically, Israelis are not big beer drinkers," says David Cohen, CEO of Dancing Camel, one of the first commercial microbreweries in Israel. "There are certain things that are happening [a growth in home brewing culture, more microbreweries, and a greater variety of imported beers] that seem to indicate that Israelis are open to drinking more beer and experimenting with different types of beer."
Cohen made aliya with his wife and three children from Teaneck, New Jersey in 2003, equipped with his home brewing equipment and a dream of giving the Jewish homeland a boutique beer of its own. He started production in August 2006 and these days he can be found wearing his signature bandana (which doubles as a kippa), "doughing in" hot water and barley in huge vats at his microbrewery in Tel Aviv.
According to Cohen, who left his job as a CPA in Manhattan to realize his Zionist longings, creating a new Israeli boutique beer was far from simple. Unlike the wine industry, there was no infrastructure for brewing beer in Israel, on either a large or small scale.
"It was hard to get malt, hops and wheat," explains Cohen of his initial attempts to expand his hobby into a commercial enterprise. "When we got here, there was nothing in terms of home brewing supplies. I had to order supplies from the States. It was very expensive."
After searching tirelessly for a suitable location, cutting through sticky municipal red tape and establishing contacts with suppliers and customers, Cohen finally set up his microbrewery in a Tel Aviv industrial zone, to which he commutes from his home in Modi'in. His beer start-up is now beginning to pick up steam, currently serving about 15 bars and restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with more expressing interest.
Together with two staffers, Cohen closely follows the brewing process from start to finish: grinding the grains, mashing the barley, boiling the wort (liquid extracted from barley), adding hops, cooling the wort and fermenting and conditioning the beer. He imports the malts (enzyme-activated barley) from Germany, but Cohen, a loyal Zionist, is adamant about giving Dancing Camel an indigenous flavor.
"Part of the point is not just to come over here to brew an English ale. My intentions were to use Israeli spices and ingredients - if not for the barley and wheat, then at least for the spices of the beer to give it something completely Israeli."
Silan (date syrup), cilantro, oranges, and cloves make up some of the added flavors. Every year after Succot, Cohen collects etrogim (citrons) from across the country and makes a special post-High Holy Day blend. He also has plans to bottle the Dancing Camel for export.
Leave it to the immigrants to give Israeli culture a beer boost.
Vitaly Chen made aliya from Russia in 1996 with the dream of carrying on a family tradition: Both his father and grandfather were brewmasters in the city of Ufa.
After he completed his MBA and worked as a customer service and advertising rep, the hops were finally ripe for Chen to open the Haifa-based Eldorado microbrewery exactly one year ago.
Eldorado was officially launched last September at Jerusalem's beer festival. Made according to family recipes, Eldorado is served at a few pubs and bars in Haifa, as well as a brew-pub restaurant Chen recently opened called Knight Cellar.
According to Chen, people are increasingly well-informed about beer and "demand" boutique beers. "People are sick of the industrial beers," says Chen. "Everywhere you go you see the same brands."
Even so, he believes that it will take a while for gourmet beers to challenge the industrial beer market, especially since the latter are aggressively pushing their beers to maintain their monopoly.
WHILE MOST Israelis associate the Golan with wineries and vineyards, archeological digs from ancient times have shown that other kinds of alcohol were produced in the region as well. The month-old Golan Brewery is aiming to renew this age-old tradition with the first large-scale Golan-made beer since the state's founding.
Unlike the Dancing Camel and Eldorado, the Golan Brewery adheres to strict German beer standards which stipulate that beer must be made using only water, barley, hops and yeast, in accordance with the German beer purity law of 1516. Moti Bar, manager of this Golan Heights based brewery, seeks to lead the transformation of Israeli beer culture.
"Just as the Golan Heights was the starting point for the revolution in the field of wine, the idea was to start a revolution in the field of beer," Bar says.
In this case, different beer flavors are based on the creative combination of these four ingredients. The Golan Brewery's claim to "Israeli-ness" is the water it uses. The Golan is Israel's main source of water. The brewery's water flows straight from a Golan stream into the tap.
"Ninety-eight percent of beer is mineral water. Using quality water is very important to create a quality beer," Bar adds.
Currently the beer is served on tap at the brewery's accompanying restaurant, but plans are in the works to bottle its three types of beers: Golan, Emek, and Galil.
While 2007 is likely to mark a turning point in the local beer industry, the trend actually began about 10 years ago with the Tel Aviv Brewhouse, a restaurant within a microbrewery. The Tel Aviv Brewhouse was the first to import a sophisticated beer brewing system. Unlike other microbreweries, the beer is made for consumption straight from the tap to which the beer flows through an elaborate system of pipes. Both the vats and the pipes are on premises.
The advantage of such a set-up, says Itamar Hatsor, co-owner of the Tel Aviv Brewhouse, is that the beer is fresh and has no shelf-life: "You can't compare it to Heineken or Carlsberg," he explains. "Our beer doesn't go through a filtering process. All the goodies remain inside. This is why when you look at our beer through light, it's opaque."
This is one reason why the Tel Aviv Brewhouse refuses to bottle its beer, unless by individual customer request. Bottling, he explains, affects temperature, which is why beer bottles are usually dark brown or dark green - to protect it from damaging UV rays.
Amir Neuman, manager of Norman Premium which distributes and imports local and imported beer, thinks this is only the beginning. "It's a hot topic and a very interesting one. People are asking a lot of questions," he says.
"In the past few years there has been a serious growth in Irish pubs, which serve a more sophisticated and greater selection of beers. There is demand and room in Israel for more kinds of beers of higher quality."
"Israelis are not necessarily drinking more beer," concludes David Cohen of Dancing Camel, "but better beers." n