Brewing, bottling and selling Israel

Small beer producers take different approaches to giving their beverage a local flavor.

beer 521 (photo credit: Ella Yerushalmi)
beer 521
(photo credit: Ella Yerushalmi)
The sludgy, foaming, hot, yellow, frothy liquid gives only one indication that it could someday become something delightful – and that is its distinct beerlike smell. Wort, a malty mixture of boiled grain and hops, is cooled to levels hospitable to yeast, which will gobble up the sugars and spit out alcohol and carbon dioxide in the fermentation process. The variance of ingredients and tweaks in the process, however, are what determine whether the stuff will be a porter or a blond, lager or ale, bitter or sweet, heavy or crisp. A beer can reflect the local palate, the local religion, the local agriculture or the local politics. It can reflect the local people or just the imagination of the minds that made it.
In the Jewish state, where beer makes up 40 percent of all the alcohol consumed, a debate is brewing over what makes a beer Israeli.
In the past decade, a swarm of microbreweries have popped up in the Holy Land, each the result of entrepreneurial beer aficionados imbued with Zionist vision. In a beer market that is 95% saturated by two companies – Tempo, which sells Goldstar and Maccabee, and International Beer Breweries, which sells Carlsberg and Tuborg – some 25-odd microbreweries are carving out a small but growing space in the beer market. On display at the Israel Beer Festival in Tel Aviv’s Nokia Stadium, they offer competing visions of Israeli beer as varied and individually valid as the country’s population.
Most prominent among them is Dancing Camel, the country’s oldest microbrewery. Just under seven years old, the Tel Aviv-based brewery and its attendant bar are the vision of David Cohen, an immigrant from the United States who is determined to create a beer that reflects Israel’s flavors.
“Part of the Tzionut [Zionism] that contributed to my aliya was to start brewing beer that could be distinguished as Israeli beer, so as much as possible we use local ingredients,” he says.
In the US, he says, brewers throw “anything that grows,” and even bizarre ingredients such as oysters or bulls’ testicles, into their beers to extract a unique flavor. Smiling through his overgrown graying goatee, the gregarious 50-year-old rattles off the ingredients that give his beers their local personality: date honey, chili pepper, nana mint and rosemary.
“There’s a plethora of spices and fruits that grow here that, for 1,500 to 1,700 years, have never been found in beer,” he says. “Because we were the first ones here, I got to play with this whole palette of colors that nobody else had access to.”
One example is the brewery’s Hanukka beer, a cherry-vanilla stout that is “like a sufganiya in a cup of espresso in a pint of beer.” Were it deepfried, the sweet, dark beer would seem as natural an aspect of the festival of lights as latkes.
ORI SAGY, the founder of the Alexander brewery, has a different approach altogether.
“We’re not looking for an Israeli flavor. I make the beer I like,” says the former air force pilot, whose beer obsession led him to open his brewery in Emek Hefer, near Hadera, in 2008. “We make beer the way you make beer: no shticks and gimmicks.”
“We don’t put fruit and we don’t put coffee,” he continues. “If you taste our porter, in which you can detect coffee and chocolate, it’s not because there’s chocolate in it. It’s got water, rye, yeast and hops.”
For Sagy, the history of the land is enough to define the beer, brewed with the best European techniques and the finest German equipment. The brewery shares its namesake, Hasmonean King Alexander Yannai, with the nearby Alexander stream, home to the soft-shelled turtles that inspired the company’s logo. “I believe it has to have an Israeli name, to represent the region,” says Sagy, whose blond beer he calls “the ultimate summer beer” for its light, balanced feel. “This is where the Israeliness comes in. I’m Israeli.”
The Shapiro brewery, founded by two Jerusalemite brothers, is intimately linked with the holy city. Itzik and Dan Shapiro expanded what started as a home brewing experiment at the bars they knew, with friends. “It’s like a moshav,” says Itzik, who recently hired a marketing and distributing agent to help overcome the challenges of a small company expanding onto the national stage.
“I believe that at a certain point we won’t be able to personally speak with people,” he says ruefully. “It’s limiting.”
The Shapiros’ beer seem to capture the essence of Jerusalem. Their pale ale, with its crisp citrus-passionfruit bite, is the color of the city of gold. Their winter porter, pungent with whiskey notes, tastes old, as if it was poured from a tap in the Western Wall.
Perhaps the most eccentric character on the beer scene goes by the name of Jem. Born Jeremy Welfeld, the Boston native looms over the crowd at the beer festival, shouting “Am Yisrael hai!” as he sneaks shots of whiskey between the beer samples.
“I’m the King of Beers,” he declares, wrapped in a red robe and wearing a giant beer-mug hat atop his crown, gleefully adding. “F*ck Budweiser!” Over the course of four years, the former Arcaffe coffee roaster has developed six styles of beer for Jem’s Beer Factory in Petah Tikva.
“We’re the only place that’s kosher and cool in the whole world,” he says. “I get up every morning and I’m so excited to be a part of this social experience of am Yisrael!” Referring to himself as “dati [religious]- lite,” Jem says he aims to expand the beer market through his brewery and restaurant, which he says are kosher, though not certified.
The religious element has as much a place as any in the Israeli beer market. One new brewery, called Mashiach, features a donkey on the label and a slogan that reads “Here she comes.” In the US, He’Brew dubs itself “The Chosen Beer.” Jem isn’t worried about the competition. “I’m in the alcohol business. We have no fear,” he says.
A bitter taste
Small beer producers are worried by the sudden jolt their industry got when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz decided to raise the tax on beer from NIS 2.18 to NIS 4.19 per liter in July.
“Business is very hard in this country. We just had our beer tax raised by two shekels. That means we’re paying NIS 4.19 per liter in tax. My ingredients cost me NIS 1.5 per liter, so that’s a huge tax. It’s very painful,” says Jem of Jem’s Beer Factory in Petah Tikva.
Until the tax was increased, Dancing Camel’s David Cohen says, “things were actually exploding. Another microbrewery was opening every month.” But the new tax “seems to have ripped the industry apart. There’s no new openings now, and microbreweries are struggling to survive.”
“Everything here is expensive. When they increase the sales tax by 100% overnight, it almost breaks your business,” says Puah Alon, the marketing manager for Norman Premium, which imports premium beers and owns the Negev Brewery in Kiryat Gat. “Both as importers and producers, this tax has hit us very hard, and not just us but the entire industry... This is a young developing industry, and instead of supporting it they are raping it.”
Gilad, a marketing manager at the Negev Brewery, adds his complaint that the beer tax was lumped in with a rise in cigarette taxes, giving the beverage a bad name. “You absorb more anti-oxidants from beer than from wine,” he says, citing studies that show moderate amounts of beer are just as healthy as a glass of red wine. “Sticking it in the same category as cigarettes is unfathomable.”
“It’s hard twice,” says Ori Sagy, the founder of the Alexander brewery,. “First, it’s tough for the beer business,” he says. Microbrewers make up less than 3% of the Israeli beer market, so they face stiff competition and offer little for the government by way of filling the gaping budget hole. Second, he says, “the regulatory burden is tough. The sales tax is high. Almost every other place in the Western world has a graduated tax. A small producer like me doesn’t pay; a medium one a little; the big one the whole thing. Here they did it all together. For each liter, I pay the same as Tesco.”
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, of the Shas party, proved an unlikely ally in the microbrewers’ struggle.
“In my humble opinion, the State of Israel should be promoting promising ‘blue and white’ industries,” he wrote in a letter of support, saying that the government should carve out an exception for small brewers who are building a new industry in Israel. The tax, he said, was a “death sentence” to an industry that was creating jobs and could potentially attract tourists.
“Every microbrewery that opens up helps us expand the market,” says Cohen. And it’s not just here. “People are tasting Israeli beer outside of Israel and saying, ‘this is not bad! This is interesting! This is pretty good!’” Perhaps that is why, even in difficult economic times, there is no end in sight for the burgeoning microwbrew industry. Business is important, but it’s not about the money, Cohen says. “It’s just national pride.”