Summer beer festivals in Israel

Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem show off the best of the suds.

Dancing Camel brewery founder David Cohen with his daughter. (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Dancing Camel brewery founder David Cohen with his daughter.
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
If you enjoy drinking beer, mingling with happy people and rocking to live music, it’s only a matter of choosing which beer festival to visit.
Haifa and Jerusalem are both holding beer fests on August 26 and 27, so fanatic suds lovers can visit each on alternate days, if they really have a mind to.
The most recent beer fest, Beers 2015, at Hatahana in Tel Aviv’s old railway station, promised a fun evening with dozens of imported and locally brewed craft beers, and did they ever deliver.
Even before the sun set over Jaffa beach, there was a long line in front of the ticket booth. Some had already bought cheese platters and were enjoying a nosh while waiting for the beer to wash it down. A band started heating up a Janis Joplin number at one end of the grounds, and as night fell the music came full on. The crowd grew, circulating with plastic glasses in their hands, and the breweries were happy to keep the glasses filled.
According to Avi Ben Ami, the organizer, about 20,000 people went through the grounds on the three days of the festival. There were 60 or 70 booths – not even Ben Ami knew the exact number – and at least 200 breweries represented.
Less genteel and more down-home than wine festivals, food booths offered hot dogs, hot pretzels, picnic tables set up near a chuck wagon, and the ever-present stand of cheeses. As the singer begged her man to take another little piece of her heart, folks were greeting each other with high fives and big, sweaty hugs.
Focusing on local breweries, I learned some surprising things about the Israeli craft beer scene.
Craft brewers sell the freshest beer. Yishai Oman of Negev Beer said, “Our beers aren’t pasteurized, filtered or heated. All the flavors, aromas and vitamins remain in the beer.”
Ori Alexander, founder of Alexander Beer, put it this way: “You can taste the freshness with craft beer.”
Celiacs can enjoy gluten-free beer. Brian Meidan of Meidan Beer was diagnosed with celiac disease eight years ago. No longer free to drink wheat or barley-based beer, he began experimenting with all kinds of substitutes at home.
“Our beers are made from malts of buckwheat and chickpeas, and date syrup. We make our own malts and believe we’re the only brewery in Israel that does,” he told me. Meidan hopes to obtain a kosher-for-Passover certificate this year.
Craft brewers are often eco-conscious. Alexander Beer, whose tart and fruity Belgian saison I tasted, refines the water used in its beers by reverse osmosis.
“We then rebuild it with minerals to the exact content that we need. So each beer has a slightly different water. When we make the porter, for example, we use water that’s similar to English water. We mix the salty leftover water from the procedure with water from the chilling process and give it to the Emek Hefer irrigation system,” said Alexander.
Side Effect Cider, the one non-beer at the festival, donates the dry pulp left over from squeezing the apples to local shepherds and goat farmers. The cider is made like wine, 100 percent pure juice fermented with wine yeast and fermented cold.
Water is beer’s most important ingredient. Bazelet, produced by the Golan Brewery, which collaborates with the Golan Heights Winery, uses water that has filtered naturally through local basalt rock.
Amir Lev of Mosco Beer expounded: “Naturally, local water affects the beer. It’s one of the many factors that affect its taste. If two brewers make beer from the same recipe – one in the north and one in the south of the country – they’ll taste different. We use the local water, which comes from wells around Beit Shemesh.”
Craft brewers offer styles that you don’t find in your supermarket. Big commercial breweries don’t produce the varieties of ales, Belgian tripels, porters, high-alcohol lagers or strongly individual flavors.
The Srigim Brewery, on Moshav Srigim (also known as Li’on), offers seven kinds of beer. Its India pale ale has noticeable flavors of litchi, passion fruit and grapefruit.
It claims that when the Rolling Stones performed in Israel, that was their beer of choice.
The Dancing Camel Brewery also offers a line of unique beers, with playful names like The Golem, an iced India pale ale with 11% alcohol. It’s released once monthly, on the full moon. It also offers Leche del Diablo, a wheat beer spiked with ground and dried hot chili pepper.
There’s beer in the Talmud. Dancing Camel’s Old Pappa beer is a homage to Rabbi Pappa, a brewer by trade. David Cohen, founder of the brewery, explained: “He was famous as a brewer and beer geek. Wherever he found an opportunity to bring beer into a Talmudic discussion, he did. He brewed a beer called sudni, which was made with date honey and hops. It’s the earliest historical reference to hops in beer.
“In the Talmud, it talks about ‘keshut,’ which we think is hops, although some scholars debate that.
The earliest definite reference we have to hops is in Rashi, about 750 years later. Rashi, discussing keshut, defines it as lupulus, which is Latin for hops. I love history in general, but especially Jewish history and beer history. I don’t know if many have researched this as I have. In ancient Israel, they brewed beer with barley, date honey and hops. We took that combination and made Old Pappa, named after the rabbi.”
Craft brewers began by teaching themselves the craft.
Although many went on to study the craft in Germany, England or the US, all the brewers said that they began brewing at home, getting the information out of books or the Internet.
Asaf Lavi of Malka Brewery in Kibbutz Yehiam crafts five different ales, all of which go through a second fermentation in the bottle.
“I learned from the Internet,” he says, laughing engagingly.
“And I spilled a lot of beer on the way. I’m always learning.”
Other brewers also said that they’re always learning and improving their craft.
There are women brewers. Naama Ashkenazi of Klara Brewery named her product for her grandmother.
“I started brewing at home about five years ago,” she told me. “In 2011, there was a beer competition at Kfar Hamaccabiah, with a category for beers without licenses.
I entered two of my beers; one a stout, the other an Indian pale ale. The IPA earned the gold grade, the stout got the silver grade, and I was awarded ‘the best small brewery in Israel.’ I didn’t even have a brewery yet! I try to make the best beer I can within the classical styles: stout, Belgian tripel, IPA.”
Ashkenazi also teaches cooking with beer, holds brewing workshops and beer-tasting sessions, and guides tours to microbreweries – in English as well as in Hebrew.
Google “Malkat Habira” (in Hebrew) to find her. There are other women brewers in Israel, although not many.
There’s a warm comradeship between brewers.
“All the brewers know each other and are good friends,” say the six siblings who own Jerusalem Beer.
“At a certain level – on the shelves – there’s competition.
But we share ideas and cooperate. If one is missing a stack of malt or bag of hops, someone will lend it to them. The thing that’s unique about this industry is that people are in it from passion.”
The Israeli craft beer industry is young. Microbreweries are popping up all over the landscape. None of those represented at Beers 2015 are older than 15 years.
The first stage is usually brewing in the kitchen. Expanding, the brewer might hire a contract brewery licensed to brew for others. The major contract brewery is Mivshelet Ha’Am in Even Yehuda. Eventually, a brewer will build his or her own facilities.
Jeremy Welfeld, founder of Jem’s Beer Factory in Petah Tikva, said, “We’re still educating the public and the industry, but brew culture is advancing in Israel.” Waving his glass in salute, he added, “What I say is ‘L’haim!’ to the brewers of Israel.”
The next beer festivals will be in Haifa, on the Agritech Grounds, near the Convention Center. This festival will be sponsored by Tempo, producers of Goldstar and Maccabee beers. Expect fun and great music, but not craft beers. The 11th Jerusalem Beer Festival will be held in Independence Park and will certainly feature craft beers. Both fests will take place on Wednesday, August 26, and Thursday, August 27.