Not just a bottle of beer on the wall

Negev Brewery is churning out flavors that range from bitter and fruity to dark and oaky, filling each bottle one at a time.

CEO SAGIV Karlboim stands near the bottle assembly line in the Kiryat Gat brewery of Negev Beer (photo credit: Courtesy)
CEO SAGIV Karlboim stands near the bottle assembly line in the Kiryat Gat brewery of Negev Beer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Next time you pick up a Negev Beer, take a good look a that label, because a lot of love went into it. When brewery CEO Sagiv Karlboim makes a batch of 6,000 bottles, ready to be distributed all over the country, each bottle is labeled individually.
That’s because despite growing by leaps and bounds, award recognition and deals with major hotel chains, a labeling machine that allows only one bottle at a time remains the standard.
“It takes a day,” Karlboim says with a shrug of his shoulders at the Kiryat Gat brewery, surrounded by stainless steel fermentation tanks, kilos of barley from Europe and the sound track of beer being funneled into bottles in assembly-line production. All these products make a quality beer and Negev Beer is happy to invest in them, willing to put in the extra manpower that is needed.
The brewery’s dedication was recently recognized by the popular consumer poll RateBeer, naming Negev Brewery’s Oak Porter the No. 1 dark lager for the second year in a row.
The dark specialty malt beat out legends like Guinness and Kilkenny, recognized for its easy body but complex flavors.
“It’s nice that judges like the beer, but it’s the consumer that matters,” Karlboim said of the recognition.
The porter is made with a large percentage of dark, specialty malt and aged between two and three weeks with American oak chips. For Karlboim’s taste, he favors a heavier stout over a lighter beer.
“More beer lovers like darker beer. It goes well with chocolate and cheese.”
Karlboim first got a penchant for small brews while working at Norman’s, a small bar in one of the many alleys of Tel Aviv’s Kerem Hateimanim, just outside Carmel Market. Norman’s is famous for importing specialty beer from Europe and it was there that Karlboim discovered the world of craft beer. “Around the world, beer culture started hundreds of years ago, and in Israel we are stuck on consumption,” Karlboim says.
Difficult bureaucracy for small business owners, a high tax on alcohol and no alcohol sales after 11 p.m. make success difficult, Karlboim laments. Yet despite these setbacks, Negev continues to grow.
The brewery has around six beers, with its most popular the light and fruity Oasis.
A close second is the Passion Fruit Ale, to which is added the fruit of its namesake, sourced from nearby moshavim.
An Amber ale is a slightly darker beer but remains pleasantly light. Its latest brew, a bitter and fruity concoction, is an exclusive offering to the Beresheet hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, one of Israel’s most luxurious and expensive getaways.
“It was surprising to me that they wanted to cooperate because we are a small brewery,” Karlboim says. But it seems only natural that a boutique hotel chain which puts such an emphasis on consumer satisfaction would partner with a boutique brewery that equally invests in a quality product for its customers.
The hotel is part of the Isrotel Exclusive collection, known for fantastically upscale hotels in Tel Aviv and Eilat. David Lewis, a Jewish businessman from London who saw the development of the tourist industry in Israel as his own brand of Zionism, founded the Isrotel chain.
“When you’re in the desert, you should drink a bitter beer,” Karlboim offers as background to the creation of the beer, whose dark color belies a light body; hints of fruit give it a unique tropical flavor.
And the brewery continues to churn out varied brews despite its small size, with people lining up for future batches.
The Hariton 2014 brew, a limited-edition, winter-season brew, had most of its 2,000 liters sold in advance. “We wanted to make an Abbey-style beer,” Karlboim says, referring to the addition of extra malt and sugar.
Developed with the monks of the Judean desert in mind, Karlboim explains that the monks were allowed to drink while they fasted, and they needed a drink that was filling. The result for Negev was a heavy, full-bodied beer with a deep copper color and an 8-percent alcohol content.
But not every venture has been a success.
“Once we tried a coffee beer and it was about 10% to 12%, and it just didn’t come out right,” Karlboim says. His inspiration came from Israel’s notorious coffee culture; he hoped to bottle it (pun intended) in a beer. A coffee flavor in beer is not so abstract, popular among many breweries, and Karlboim hopes to continue trying.
The next move for the team is to sell the brewery for Passover. A rabbi will symbolically sell it to a non-Jew, and after the holiday the owners will buy it back.
This is not a problem for Karlboim, who believes it is better for Negev Brewery to be kosher. The hardest part for this ever-growing and popular business, it turns out, remains just labeling the bottles.