Making a Mark in Foam

A growing number of microbrewers is encouraging Israelis to seek new tastes in beer

Amir Hirs of ABeer salon microbrewery 311 (photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
Amir Hirs of ABeer salon microbrewery 311
(photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
ON A SWEATY AUGUST Thursday, Dima Grabak reaches into the fridge pulling out bottle after bottle of malty dark beers. “This is a stout,” he says, pouring a dark and aromatic brown beer that he made himself, out of an unmarked glass bottle into a waiting tasting glass.
Grabak makes seven kinds of beer in small 50-liter (13 gallon) batches, in a whitewashed room on the third floor of an industrial building in southern Tel Aviv. His Laughing Buddha brewery, currently waiting for Health Ministry approval, is one of nearly 20 tiny beer start-ups that have mushroomed in Israel in the last four years.
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From the Golan down to the Negev, the microbreweries are churning out minuscule batches of beer flavored with date syrup, herbs, or just plain hops. The boutique beer culture nests within a wider foodie culture that began in the late 1980s, with the growth of gourmet cheeses, breads, wines and fresh produce.
Only 20 years ago, it was hard to find diversity in quenching your thirst in local foam. “Originally, from the early days up to the end of the 80s, there were a couple of white lager-type beers and black beer, the [nonalcoholic] malt beverage we still have,” Oren Avrashi, the long-haired manager of specialty beer brands for the Tempo company, which also brews the most popular local beer, Goldstar, tells The Report.
Avrashi’s small but expanding empire of imports and local brews show the growing diversity of the local beer market. Goldstar, a lager, and Maccabee, a pilsner, debuted in the 1950s and 1960s and still dominate the market. In 1985, the Dutch beer company Heineken bought a stake in Tempo Breweries, and soon Heineken’s trademark green bottles became widely available in bars. A decade later, the Israeli Beer Breweries company began producing Danish Tuborg and Carlsberg beers in a plant in Ashkelon, south of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast.
As the number of mass-produced beers increased, Israel became part of the “Irish pub craze” that was popular around the world at the beginning of the 2000s, Avrashi says.
“The whole concept of an Irish pub is the large varieties of beers,” he explains. “So demand began. New beer pubs started looking for specialty beers and new importers started meeting demand and bringing in Belgian ales, stouts and other specialties.”
It was only a matter of time before Israelis started pushing for even wider variety. Avrashi himself brewed beer on his Tel Aviv stove top using a soup pot. Other home brewers, inspired by trips to the United States or Germany, joined the trend.
Eventually, the aficionado culture grew large enough to support microbreweries, which are defined as breweries that produce a limited quantity of beer. Israel has no official limit, but the turnout in local breweries ranges from about 1,300 to 13,200 gallons.
Microbrewing takes a minimum of three weeks, according to brewing teacher and importer Gad Deviri. The basic ingredients are hops, which are a plant grown in cool climes like Europe, northern California and China, as well as yeast and malted barley or wheat. Deviri sells these at his Beer-D store three doors down from the Laughing Buddha.
The basic brewing process starts with soaking malted barley in hot water for an hour, Deviri says. Then, the brewer strains out the grains, adds hops and boils the mixture for an hour, then quickly cools it down. The whole mixture goes into fermentation tanks, along with yeast, for a week. The last step is letting the beer mature for at least two weeks. Unopened and at room temperature, a keg of beer can stay fresh for three to six months, Deviri says.
THE FIRST MICROBREWER IN THE Middle East was Nadim Khoury, who studied beer-making at the University of California – Davis before founding the Taybeh brewery in 1996, named for its host village north of Ramallah (“Cheers and Saha!” The Jerusalem Report, November 10, 2008). Taybeh, a golden ale, is sold in bottles and on tap in the West Bank and across Israel. Khoury also released a non-alcoholic “Hamas beer” two years ago, and hosts an annual Oktoberfest celebration including live music. The sixth festival was this October 2 and 3.
But the bigger microbrewing community is in Israel. David Cohen, now 47, immigrated to Israel from Brooklyn and took beer-making equipment with him. He founded the Dancing Camel microbrewery in Tel Aviv in 2006, flavoring his brews with date honey, carob and pomegranate.
“We are trying to have our beers be identified with Israel,” he tells The Report. “We have a cherry vanilla stout emulating donuts around Hanukka.”
When Cohen began, few stores regularly stocked the hops, malted barley, or malted wheat essential for beer. “We would have to order four or five tons of grain, and if we missed the mark it was very hard to get stuff here,” he recalls. But today, Cohen says, he rarely faces a shortage because local suppliers have matched the growing demand from small brewers.
One of those suppliers is Deviri, a former accountant and computer programmer who began crafting beer in 2002 and studied brewing and beer evaluation in Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology & World Brewing Academy. He founded Beer-D five years ago, where he stocks dozens upon dozens of local and imported boutique beers, including English porters, light Austrian lagers, and Belgian beers flavored with cherries, blueberries and apples.
Dressed in a buttoned gray shirt and green cargo pants, Deviri pours homemade Belgianstyle triple, named for the high quantities of malt added at the beginning of brewing, flavored with aniseed and lime from behind his bar. Alongside him are steel kegs and a microwave. He teaches home brewing to about 120 students a year, mostly men. The most popular micro-brewed beers in Israel are thick, sweet and highly alcoholic Belgian-type brews, Deviri says. Other breweries offer lighter India Pale Ales or German-inspired wheat beers.
Israelis only drink 30 US pints (13 liters) of beer per capita each year, Deviri says, which pales in comparison to the United Kingdom (211), Germany (243), and the Czech Republic (338). “You don’t see Israelis going home with a six-pack to drink while they watch TV,” Deviri says.
Deviri says that kashrut is generally not a problem, and many observant Jews drink beer without a kosher certificate. However, microbreweries need to get approval from the Ministry of Health to sell their beer, and there are also taxes levied per bottle produced. Most of the smaller microbreweries are not yet making a profit, but Dancing Camel reports that it is.
BUT THAT VAST GAP IN DRINKING habits is also an opportunity. The growing number of microbrewers is opening Israelis to the concept of beer as a beverage worthy of wine’s gourmet status. Deviri hosts a monthly “Beer Parliament” for home brewers in his store. He also organizes and serves as a judge in the annual Sam Adams Longshot competition for craft beer. Summer is rife with beer festivals, including one in June in Tel Aviv, and another in Jerusalem in August.
“They seem to be coming fast and furious at this point,” says Cohen, of Dancing Camel. “Every month there are two or three beer festivals. There are also a bunch of bars and wine shops doing wine and beer tasting. We used to run and jump when someone had a beer festival, but we don’t do that anymore. We pick the ones we think are targeting the audience we want to reach.”
Avrashi says boutique beers command only about 1 percent of the market. But if they grow, they will likely signal the expansion of the Israeli appetite for ale. “Major brands would probably earn from that,” he says. “Even though market share might be smaller, the whole cake might be larger.”
The trend for small batches of carefully crafted beers has also reached larger companies. In July, Avrashi’s Tempo, once best-known for a sticky-sweet imitation of Coca-Cola, rolled out a darker, sweeter specialty edition of Goldstar, called Black Roast.
This September, Tempo also released a revival of the Abeer brand, a pale lager served in Israel from the Mandate to the 1970s. The name, which means “knight” in Hebrew, comes from the demand of British soldiers for “a beer” in Mandatory Palestine. In 1952 Louis Herzberg built a brewery in Netanya, a half-hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv. The brand was bought and sold several times, and eventually died as a watered-down shadow of its former self.
Avrashi and other beer specialists at Tempo dug up old recipes and refashioned the beer as a light, crisp and hoppy pale ale. Two teams of nightlife tycoons in Tel Aviv, including a dreadlocked Amir Hirs, 31, built a saloon of the same name in the swanky northern section of Dizengoff Street, where Abeer and six other Tempo brands are served on tap.
At Abeer, the music is mostly Israeli. Customers looking for a second home can keep a personal bottle of whisky in locking wooden cabinets at the entrance. The seasonal menu offers roasted eggplant enlivened with charred onions, a lentil salad flecked with mint, and fleshy olives popping with flavor.
Although Abeer was carefully crafted for the market, boutique beer can be of spotty quality. It is also expensive. A 12-ounce (0.33 liter) glass of Malka beer on tap costs around 26 shekels ($7), nearly double the price of Goldstar, Deviri says. The high cost is due to high taxes and the tiny batches.
Yet there is a growing beer appreciation culture growing around the tiny breweries. At Porter & Sons in Tel Aviv, diners can choose from a double-sided menu of more than 70 beers on tap, or as many in bottles. The restaurant, opened this year, keeps its kegs in a long refrigerated corridor to keep them fresh.
And Avrashi sees a bubbly future for nascent local microbrewing. Like local wines, which underwent a revolution in the last decade and now dominate the local market, Avrashi says premium beer will do the same.
“If you look all over world, in England, the US, Japan, New Zealand, it’s amazing what happens there,” he says. “Everywhere you go there’s a local microbrewery making exciting beers, with new and very original recipes… I am sure this trend will reach us as well.”