Something's brewing down south

Prize-winning beermeister brings his brewing methods to the Negev.

beer 88 (photo credit: )
beer 88
(photo credit: )
Passion fruit beer? Don't laugh - and don't expect an alcoholic version of Kool-Aide, either. As brewed by the Negev Brewery's beermeister Yochai Kudler, passion fruit beer is simply delightful. With the rich, heady aroma of malt and hops, the brew is light and fruity, so refreshing it seems to sparkle on the tongue. No one could take just one sip. "It's perfect as a summer beer," comments the 30-year old Kudler, who grew up on Kibbutz Urim. No doubt about the pleasantly fruity beer being a great summer beverage, but at an informal beer tasting recently at restaurant Shabazi, in Beersheba's Old City, three out of four beer lovers ranked passion fruit as their favorite, with Kudler's full-bodied Porter stout coming in a close second. One taster insisted Kudler's Indian Pale Ale (IPA) was the best he'd ever tasted, and no one would have turned down another glass of his lush Amber Ale. The four styles are the mainstay of Kudler's Negev Brewery, a small operation now in its last days as a home-brew operation on the kibbutz. In a few short weeks, the new Negev Brewery moves to much larger quarters in Kiryat Gat, where production will be vastly increased. Kudler's original intent was to keep his brewery on the kibbutz, but that didn't work. "What I really wanted was to open a full-size brewery with a nice showy pub - a place with copper kettles and a comfortable setting to attract tourists. Everyone on the kibbutz liked the idea, but it wouldn't have been a good investment. It would have cost far too much to build it there. I decided to downsize my goals and start with a different project, just a basic brewery. That would be less expensive to build and I'd use stainless steel equipment instead of copper, but the quality of the beer would be the same." "We're set to start production soon," Kudler says, noting that he found an existing building that needs only minor adjustment to become a brewery. A business loan from MATI, a Jerusalem-based business development center, has been approved and all relevant government authorities brought on board. "I invited the health department, the fire department, the police and everyone who'd have to give approval to visit the factory site and tell me what I needed to do to make sure it would meet everyone's approval. Only minor renovations were required, and that's what we're working on now. I found good used commercial equipment through an Israeli friend who's been working in Germany's beer industry for many years. It's being shipped here. I think our timing is good - beer is just on the verge of becoming popular in Israel. We're where wine was, just before Israeli wines broke through to world popularity." While it's true that the popularity of beer is just now emerging in Israel, in fact the ancient art of beer making began in the Middle East many thousands of years ago. A 2,000-year-old Assyrian tablet lists beer as among the foods that Noah took to provision the ark. Even more interesting is that at Tel Isdar - about 20 kilometers southwest of Beersheba - archeologists uncovered 3,000-year-old beer mugs. So Kudler's Negev Brewery came into being in very nearly the same spot where beer was popular 3,000 years ago. Kudler himself always loved beer. "I like the taste," he says. "It's not the alcohol, but there's a whole feeling about beer, the whole atmosphere." Still, it wasn't until his post-army world tour that he began to experience the full range of the wide world of beer. "I traveled all over the US, doing construction work along the way - that's how I paid for the trip. At one point, I was broke and ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I worked for a couple of months. Then, a guy who was building his own home in Winter Park, Colorado, asked me if I wanted steady work. I did, so I went with him to Winter Park, which is close to Boulder. It was in Boulder that I started to learn about beer. "In Boulder alone there are probably 10 breweries," Kudler recalls. "In Israel, I'd order a beer and they'd say, 'Okay. Goldstar?' So that was all I knew. But when I got to Boulder, I'd go into a pub and say I wanted a beer, and they'd say, 'Which one?' "That surprised me. I'd shrug and say, 'I don't know. I just want a beer.' But then they'd say, 'But what kind? Do you want Bud? Coors? Miller? Do you want a stout, an IPA, a porter, amber ale or English style? A weak beer or a strong beer?' I'd had no idea there were so many varieties, but I started to try them all. That's when I really started to love beer." Oddly enough, Kudler began brewing beer himself during a sojourn in Homer, Alaska, a village of 5,000 souls in the Kenai Peninsula. Or maybe it's not so odd - a popular local bumper sticker reads, "Homer: a quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem." In Homer, the town's main attraction is the Salty Dawg Saloon, a log cabin pub with its water tower built in the shape of a lighthouse. "I started to home-brew in Homer," Kudler says. "I'd worked in Boulder, saved money, traveled to Venezuela, up through Mexico, back through Albuquerque again, then took a bus to Seattle and from there on up to Alaska. Homer is the most beautiful place I've ever been, with wonderful people. I lived on a farm and started home brewing with friends. In Homer, there's even a home-brewing store - everyone went there. We all pitched in $20 and bought the few pieces of equipment we needed, plus the ingredients. Every week, one guy would decide which kind of beer he'd make and we'd all sample it. "When it was my turn, I decided I wanted a stout. The guy at the home brew store told me exactly which grains to use, which malt, this yeast or that, how much hops. Basically, he just gave me the recipe for a stout beer. We did all the brewing outside. It was just great. So when I finally left Alaska and came home, I missed all that - the fun, the brewing, the different kinds of beers. That's when I got serious about opening a brewery." His first Israeli batch was less than successful. "I stocked up on supplies in Alaska and brought as much as I could back to Israel," he says. "I tried to duplicate the way we did it there, including doing the brewing outside. That worked in Alaska. It didn't work here. My first beer in Israel was another stout, and it turned sour." He realized right away what he'd done wrong, he says. "In Alaska, we lived on a farm and did it all outside. Even the stove was outside. I tried the same thing here in Israel, and it got contaminated from being out in the open air. I was disappointed, but I have to say that's the only batch of beer I ever ruined. I knew what the problem was, and it never happened again." Once his imported ingredients were gone, Kudler had to find local suppliers. "I decided to ask some of the big brewing companies for help. I went to Carlsberg and Tempo [which produces the Goldstar, Maccabi, and Nesher Malt brands] and asked if I could buy ingredients. They were surprised. 'You want to brew your own beer at home?' they said. But Tempo ended up being very supportive and helpful - they gave me several bags of ingredients and wished me luck." Finding equipment was another issue. "I knew what I needed in terms of lidded kettles and pots, so I drew sketches and took them to welders all over Israel. I insisted on good quality work at a reasonable price, and I never found it. All the good welders know they're good, and they were much too expensive. With some of the others, when I told them that I insisted on sterile seams, they said 'Fine, no problem.' Then I added that I wanted a guarantee: if anything went wrong, it was their responsibility. That they wouldn't accept. That's why, for the new brewery, I bought used brewery equipment from Germany. It ended up being the cheapest and best way to do it." Once Kudler got started, success followed pretty quickly. "One of the food writers in Israel started holding beer competitions. The first year, I didn't hear about it until too late. I got there only on the last day. That year, there were 16 people who entered. I entered one beer the next year, when 54 people had entered. I didn't win that year. But the next year, 2005, 100 people entered and I won three prizes, with passion fruit, my IPA which is Indian Pale Ale, and with Smoked Salmon Beer. I was really happy to win the 'best of the best' prize, which was a trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. I was happy to go back almost to where I'd started in the beer business." Kudler planned on using his October Beer Festival trip as a place to make contacts, to find someone who'd take him on, teach him more about how to make beer. "That didn't happen," he says. "The Festival itself was amazing. There's this enormous room, and each brewery gets about a meter of table space to put their pitchers, keeping their kegs behind them. You pay an entrance fee and get a small glass with a one-ounce marker. You're invited to go around to any of the breweries and taste as many beers as you want. There were 1,800 different kinds of beer there that year. I was really looking for a place to learn, so I asked everyone I met. A lot of people were encouraging and willing, but eventually every one backed out because of insurance problems. So when I didn't find anyone to take me on, I just came back to Israel and kept on brewing. "The second year I entered the Israeli competition, I entered my IPA again and Barley Wine, which is my crown jewel. Barley Wine is aged for over a year. That won first place in its category, and then won the best of the best award, too. And what was my prize? Another trip to the Beer Festival! This time they said I could go somewhere else if I wanted, but I wanted to go back to Colorado. By that time, I had a lot of friends there." Asked to describe how beer is made, Kudler responds with a detailed description complete with chemical formulas, an explanation of how the living organisms in yeast convert starch to sugar, and how the various processes of cooking, straining, draining, washing, settling and fermenting work - not to mention variations in boiling temperatures, resting time and cooling periods. The basic idea is that barley, water, yeast and hops are combined, cooked, cooled and strained in varying ways, until ultimately a tasty rich flavorful beer results. All in all, the most intriguing factoid was that all different kinds of beer - every possible style and variety - could be made from grain that came from the same barley field. All variations in style, taste, color and alcohol content result from different ways of processing the ingredients, starting with the malting of the grain itself "There's an infinite number of styles and kinds of beer that can be made," Kudler says. "It all depends on how you vary the basic ingredients and procedures." After the beer is processed, it's aged. "I age mine for two weeks," Kudler says. "After it sits in kegs for two weeks, I bottle it." That's another issue: where do the bottles come from? "I bought a whole pallet of bottles from Germany. That worked for a while. Then I found some companies who sell leftovers, and I bought those. Now I'm working on importing bottles. Up to this point, though, I was small enough that I could reuse most of the bottles. I cleaned and sterilized them, then just reused them." How are the bottles capped? Kudler laughs and groans at the same time. "It's quite a process," he says. "I have a capping machine that I work myself, filling and capping the bottles one by one. It takes me 50 minutes to cap 54 bottles - I know that exactly. First the bottles have to be filled, which is done with a T-shaped device. There's a pipe that goes all the way to the bottom of the bottle, with two other pipes forming the T on top. One runs to the beer, the other runs to CO2, carbon dioxide. It's critically important that you get all the air out of the bottle to keep the beer from being contaminated. So you first fill the bottle with CO2. Then you start adding the beer, filling from the bottom, which pushes the CO2 up and out of the bottle, keeping oxygen out. When it's full, you take out the T device and beer fizzes. You wait for that fizz and cap on the foam. That way you know you've kept oxygen out so the beer won't spoil." Of course, any commercial venture involves taxes and revenue, and Kudler's been lucky there, too. A relatively recent change in tax law operates to help small breweries. "There used to be a tax of 40 percent on the price of the beer, which really blocked the whole process for small brewers. Only the big companies could deal with a tax like that. But then they changed it. Now it's NIS 1.94 on each bottle, which makes brewing and selling beer a viable business for microbreweries. That gave all of us small brewers a big boost." For Kudler, everything seems to be coming together at the same time: He has one semester left at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he's earning his degree in Hotel and Tourism Management. The tax structure changed, making a commercial brewery venture possible. He has financing to start his factory, found and bought all the equipment he needs, and now the new site in Kiryat Gat is nearly ready. What's his biggest satisfaction? "It's the whole thing about beer. You're sitting on the beach, it's sunset, and you have a beer. To me, that's just about perfect."