Beer in Israel, old and new

“This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast. In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced. This has never been done before”

Beer Judging Pannel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beer Judging Pannel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This past fall witnessed two events that mostly went under the radar, but have a lot to say about beer in Israel.

The first Israeli earned the Masters rank in the internationally recognized Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) – the highest level, of which there are only 160 in the world – and a new project was unveiled to recreate and sell ancient beers brewed in the Land of Israel thousands of years ago.

To begin with the old, the ancient beer project was the collaborative work of Israeli biochemists, archeologists and brewers.

A team of archeologists under the leadership of Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Yitzchak Paz of the Antiquities Authority wondered if the residue found in ancient pottery vessels, believed to have held beer, could be identified. The shards were brought to two microbiologists at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine, Dr. Michael Klutstein and Dr. Ronen Hazan.

They succeeded in isolating and cultivating yeast cells found in the pores of the vessels. Six different yeast strains were isolated from 21 shards of pottery found in four different archaeological sites throughout Israel.

These were:
Two from the Egyptian period (3100 BCE) at Ein Habesor.

One from an ancient Egyptian brewery (also about 3100 BCE) found near Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv. This was found to be a known contaminator of beers.

Two from the Philistine period (850 BCE) at Tel es-Safi (the biblical city of Gath).

One mead yeast from the Persian period (500 BCE) at Ramat Rachel.

When the cultures were analyzed, it was found that the yeasts were authentic, that is, actually used in brewing and not just pollution from the environment. In fact, one of the yeast strains found in pots from Tel es-Safi is still used today to brew native sorghum beer in Zimbabwe.

Next, beers were brewed using the five resurrected yeast strains. This part of the project was led by Itai Gutman, the former founder
and partner of Herzl Brewery in Jerusalem, now residing in Germany.

The beer brewed from a Tel es-Safi yeast strain was unveiled a few months ago at Beerateinu, the Jerusalem Beer Center. The journalists and guests tasted a beverage very much like a modern wheat beer: Mild, slightly spicy, sweet and fruity, drinkable and refreshing.

Dr. Yitzchak Paz told the guests that this experiment was a real “breakthrough.”

“This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast. In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced. This has never been done before,” he said.

And Prof. Aren Maeir summed it up by proclaiming, “Make no mistake about it. This is a fantastic find!”

THE SECOND drink was a mead made from a yeast strain found in the Persian-period Ramat Rachel site. It was made public during an event at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Mead is made from honey, water and yeast – and this one had a delicious sweet, nutty flavor, with a higher alcoholic content than beer.

At that event, Klutstein revealed that his laboratory, along with Hebrew University’s Yissum Research Development Co., plan to bring three of these ancient beverages to the commercial market: The Egyptian beer (tentatively to be called “Narmer,” the first pharaoh), the Philistine beer (“Goliath”) and the Persian mead (“Ishtar”). Yissum is now seeking investors for this project.

“In the past,” Klutstein told me, “reconstructed ancient beers have been made with what people thought were original ingredients,
and modern yeast. We have made our drinks so far with ancient yeast and modern ingredients.

“But the ancient beverages we brew will have both original yeast and other original ingredients. This is a first, and this is what we are really excited about.”

After the beers were brewed, Klutstein and his team of scientists and archeologists still had one more question: Do these beers have the tastes and flavors that appeal to today’s beer drinkers?

To find out, they assembled a panel of certified Israeli beer judges led by Shmuel Naky, one of the partners of Beerateinu. They also used chemical analysis for the same purpose.

The human tasters and the electronic analyzers all agreed that the beers are indeed drinkable and contain unique aromas and taste compounds.

All of those on the judging panel had been certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) – which connects us to the second major event.

Created in the US in 1985 but now accepted and adhered to internationally, the BJCP seeks to ensure that all beers are judged by the same style criteria no matter where they are brewed. Israel today boasts about 40 home-grown BJCP judges.

The one person most responsible for bringing the program to Israel is Omer Basha of Beersheva, former partner (along with Dvir Flom) in what was the Basha-Flom Brewery, and a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics.

Basha was recently awarded the highest rank in the BJCP – a Master Judge. There are only about 160 of such in the entire world.
In order to become a BJCP judge you have to contend with not one, but three examinations. The first is the online entrance exam, where you have to answer 180 questions in 60 minutes.

Then comes the tasting exam – 90 minutes during which you have to taste and judge six beers, while filling out score sheets.
The final written exam is 90 minutes and consists of 20 true-or-false questions and five essays.

Whew! This is obviously not a test you can breeze by. It takes studying and memorizing a vast amount of material; Topics such as beer styles, characteristics and ingredients; BJCP ethics and procedures; recipes, brewing processes and troubleshooting.
Basha continues: “The judging rank you get is determined by your grade. The lowest rank is a Recognized Judge, next Certified, then National, and finally Master.”

The 40 or so BJCP judges in Israel are in high demand for local competitions, and some even get invited to judge in overseas competitions. I asked Basha if personal tastes can interfere with beer judging. For example, I pointed out, a critic can give a movie or a restaurant a glowing review, while another person with different tastes can find them atrocious.

“It’s not the same as judging,” Basha answered. “We evaluate a beer by the way it adheres to its style guidelines, not by our personal tastes. I may love a beer that’s called an amber ale, for example, but if its color, aroma, taste and/or some other characteristics are not what an amber ale should be, I have to take off points and give it a lower score.”

Judging beer is a difficult task. As Basha explains it: “It’s hard work to break down a beverage and evaluate each of its aroma and flavor attributes – and do it again and again! We call this ‘palate fatigue.’”

My take-away from all of this is that beer judges, whether BJCP-certified or not, are very dedicated volunteers who are working for the good of the craft beer community. The judging sessions can easily stretch into hours, involving dozens of beers. You have to stay focused, you have to treat each beer like it was the first, and you have to fill out the score sheet so it has value to the brewer who gets to read it.

This, Basha emphasizes, is perhaps the most important element in certified beer judging: Giving the brewer a chance to read what expert judges have to say about his or her beer and how to make it better suited to the style guidelines. “In the long run,” says Basha, “it is this feedback that will result in the overall improvement of craft beer in Israel. This includes home-brewers as well as commercial micro-breweries. Everybody benefits from expert and fair judging.”

Even, it seems, the Egyptians, the Philistines and the Persians.
The writer is the owner of MediawiSe, an agency for advertising and direct marketing in Jerusalem. He writes a web log on Israeli craft beers at 
www.IsraelBrewsAndViews.blogspot.co.il