(February 5, 2016 / JNS) By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer?
For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore.
“There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, owner and founder of Beer Bazaar, Israel’s latest brewery and bar, which is located in Jerusalem’s Shuk Mahane Yehuda.
An immigrant entrepreneur and start-up aficionado, Moskowitz says making craft beer is like working in a laboratory—something Israelis are accustomed to. But brewing beer is also quick; one can brew a keg in a couple of days. That’s ideal for the stereotypically impatient Israeli.
“You can tinker with it and come up with so many flavors. There is no limit to what you can do with beer,” Moskowitz tells JNS.org.
Indeed, Israeli beer makers are tapping into this market.
The first microbrewery in the area was actually opened by a Palestinian in 1995 in the village of Tayibe. But a low marketing budget and restrictions on alcohol in Islamic culture prevented the beer of the Taybeh Brewing Company (taybeh meaning “delicious”) from successfully penetrating the marketplace until around 2000.
In 2006, New York native David Cohen opened Israel’s first microbrewery, Dancing Camel. Cohen says he started brewing beer in the 1980s in his home. He kept up the passion through his aliyah in 2003, and today owns one of the most successful breweries in Tel Aviv.
“From the beginning, the focus was to whenever possible use local ingredients, spices and fruits that would give the beers an Israeli accent, that they could be identified as Israeli beer,” Cohen tells JNS.org.
Dancing Camel brews about 20 beers a year, the Talmud-inspired Old Papa beer, brewed with silan (honey made from dates), which sweetens the bitter IPA. The Carobbean Stout is brewed with carob. Around the time of Sukkot the Trog Wit beer is developed from etrogim (the traditional citron fruits).
“I did not set up a brewery in Israel to brew another English ale or American IPA or German lager. The mission of the brewery was to make a connection between Israel and the beer. I came here like a kid in a candy shop with all the fruits and herbs and spices to play with,” says Cohen. “No one has experimented with them for at least 1,700 years. It is very much a passion to go after these flavors and make them beers.”
Cohen says that less than 15 years ago, there was no knowledge about boutique beer in Israel. Over the last decade, as more microbreweries have opened up—and have been successful despite a crippling NIS 4.19 (more than $1) per liter tax on beer—it has become easier for Dancing Camel to explain itself. And he says the competition is healthy, save for all the beer bellies.
Earlier this year, Israeli beer made international headlines when Jerusalem’s Herzl Beer was selected to collaborate with a German brewery to create an international beer blend that will celebrate Jewish contributions to beer, especially in Germany, as part of a 2016 exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s and perhaps the world’s first beer purity law.
Herzl is the only beer that is actually crafted in the holy city.
What else is making bubbles in the Israeli craft beer scene? Jem’s Beer Factory, also started by an American immigrant, Jeremy Welfeld, has become a Petah Tikvah favorite. At 8.8 percent alcohol by volume, it’s a red Belgian-style triple ale that’s rich, sweet, and fruity, with a mild bitterness.
The Negev Brewery, tucked away in the development town of Kiryat Gat, is now the official beer maker for the posh and breathtakingly beautiful Beresheet Hotel in Mitzpe Ramon. It makes a beer named for the colorful sand getaway. The brewery has become best known for its light and fruity passion-fruit ale, with its rich tropical aroma and taste.
All of these beers and more can be tasted at Moskowitz’s Beer Bazaar, which was opened only a few months ago. On a recent Thursday night when this reporter stopped by, there is nowhere to sit or even stand. Nestled in the covered section of the shuk and sandwiched between a dried fruit stand and vegetable market just off Jaffa Street, Beer Bazaar is about as trendy as you get—for the young and young-at-heart alike.
Moskowitz says the shuk beer scene started a few years ago when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat began bringing local talent, such as musicians and artists, to the market for evening performances. He harnessed an inherent authenticity and spiritual energy that Jerusalem residents were craving.
“In so many ways, the shuk defines the pulse of this country. Here you can see the full spectrum of Israeli society: Jews, Arabs, haredim, and secular people. They are not necessarily socializing, but they are all interacting and I feel the energy, the pulse,” says Moskowitz, who sells more than 100 Israeli beers, including two of the company’s own crafts.
A NIS 25 (about $6) tap wheel gives consumers a shot of each of 10 beers on tap (counting Buster’s Dry Cider, which has become all the rage in Israel and is served from the tap, though cider is essentially a weak wine because it goes through the same fermentation process). An 11th option is nitro coffee, which Beer Bazaar brought to Israel, though that doesn’t come with the wheel.
The Bazelet wheat beer is refreshing, slightly tangy with light fruity notes. Alexander Black is an award-winning stout, full of flavor.
Beer Bazaar’s Six Mix allows visitors to mix and match a six pack of their choice for NIS 79 (about $20).
“We encourage visitors to dry different things. People go away with the six and every week make it through a few more bottles of Israeli beer and become more familiar,” says Moskowitz. “We ask, ‘What have you been drinking?’ Chances are there is a great or even better Israeli beer for whatever you are used to.”
Moskowitz doesn’t purport that the growing beer and bar scene will bring Israeli-Palestinian peace, or even necessarily reduced tensions between the Israeli left and right, religious and non-religious. But he does think it has the potential to bring a little more harmony.
“There is a real community component,” Moskowitz says. “When I am able to sit there and experience the people congregating around the beer, I see everyone from religious people dancing to secular girls jumping up on boxes—they are socializing.”
He adds, “Beer bonds people, brings people together, washes away their differences. Sure, you could come in and sit down to have a beer on your own—but you won’t be alone very long. It’s just beautiful.”