Veterans: A brewmaster's persistence

With some patience, luck, lots of hard work, Jeremy Welfeld turned his dream to brew beer into reality.

Jeremy Welfeld brewing beer (photo credit: Marian Lebor)
Jeremy Welfeld brewing beer
(photo credit: Marian Lebor)
It’s a weekday lunchtime and Jem’s Beer Factory in Petah Tikva is full to capacity, with a line of people waiting outside. “What would you like to drink?” Jeremy Welfeld, Jem’s founder, asks as we sit down to chat. I ask for soda but he insists I also try a small glass of Jem’s Pils, which won’t affect my concentration, he says, as it’s only 5 percent alcohol. Pils is one of six beers brewed in the factory that houses both the brewery and a kosher restaurant. Behind us are huge stainless-steel vats in which amber beer is being brewed as we speak. Welfeld jumps up every so often to adjust the temperature, lift the lid and stir the brew. “It’s an exact science,” he explains, and one that has taken him years to perfect. Jem’s is the successful culmination of his long-held ambition to brew beer in Israel.
Welfeld was born in Boston in 1965 and when he was a young child his family moved to Washington, DC, where he attended the local Jewish day school. In 1983, he visited Israel for the first time, at which point he decided to make aliya. He spent six months in yeshiva and then joined a Nahal group as a new immigrant in 1984.
“I served two years, nine months and 26 days,” he recalls. “I was in Lebanon and Gaza with the Nahal infantry unit.”
Shortly before he completed his army service he met his future wife, Sandra, when she was 18 and here on a youth program from Brazil. “She told me then that we would get married,” he says, but it wasn’t until August 1992 that they tied the knot in Sao Paulo.
Meanwhile, he had decided in 1987 that at the age of 22 he was ready for higher education. He returned to the US to study, intending always to come back to live in Israel. He spent two years in culinary school in the Catskills and followed that with a hospitality and management degree from Florida International University.
“That’s where I got the beer bug,” he says. “In the mid-’80s there was a beer renaissance in the US and for the first time I was able to taste fresh, unfiltered, aromatic beer.”
After his marriage to Sandra, he worked for a catering company and organized numerous events at the White House during the Clinton administration. Now living back in Washington, he began brewing beer at home.
“I was brewing 20 liters at a time but I soon realized that if I was serious about opening a brewery when I went back to Israel, I needed to understand the science of beer.”
He studied microbiology and brewing science at UC Davis in California, followed by an advanced brewing course at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago.
“I put on 10 pounds in 10 weeks,” he quips. “But now I was ready to make aliya again, this time with my wife, two kids, $5,000 and a business plan.”
THE FAMILY first lived in the absorption center in Ra’anana.
“I worked in the local construction industry and commuted to the US for roughly half the year to work there during the catering high season,” he says.
But after a while, the pressure began to tell on Sandra. She had a full-time job in a hi-tech company and the couple now had three children.
“It was tough for her, managing on her own so much of the time. In 2003 she told me either I had to figure out a way to make enough money working in Israel, or we were going back to the US. I found work in a restaurant and set up a small catering company in Ra’anana. We were just about managing to survive financially when I met Dan Alon. Twenty years after beer first came into my life, I finally found a partner who had the credibility and sophistication to find the serious money we needed to turn my dream into a reality.”
It took another five years for them to find the right venue – an old factory in Petah Tikva’s industrial zone – and sufficient capital.
Welfeld worked on much of the construction himself and finally, in 2009, Jem’s Beer Factory was open for business.
The Welfeld’s fourth child was born in 2006, and the family still lives in Ra’anana.
Jeremy routinely puts in a 15-hour day, but he is Shabbat observant so once a week the family will always be home together.
“Shabbat is a gift: there’s no phone, no computer; just time to be with Sandra and the kids,” he says. It hasn’t proved a drawback in business terms, either. “I was told I was out of my mind to close the pub on Shabbat, but being kosher allows us to get a mixed crowd of secular and religious Israelis and the atmosphere is the better for it.”
His advice to new immigrants is straightforward.
“Persistence,” he says emphatically. “This country tests you, but be persistent and be patient. I had a lucrative job planning events at the White House, and then in Israel I was filling pitot in a restaurant. The challenges you face only strengthen you, and always remember that simply being here is the most important thing.”
He doesn’t have any plans as yet to open any more branches of Jem’s.
“I’d like the beer to be a national product, but as it is we’re brewing 3,600 liters a week. I’m taking it one day at a time, one customer at a time.”
His Hebrew is very good, allowing him to interact with his customers, something he relishes.
“What we are producing here is medicine – beer is the beverage of friendship. It’s the perfect drink for Israel, with its hyper-connected and hyperactive society. This is a place for Israelis to sit and chill.”
It has been a very long journey but Welfeld clearly loves and appreciates every minute of his life as a brewmaster in Israel.