By Desmond Bentley
Small breweries that produce fine ales were a novelty in Israel only a year or two ago. Most Israelis settled for locally-produced lagers -- import-label Tuborg, Carlsberg and Heineken or the classic Israeli brands, Maccabi and Goldstar.
Yet a cadre of Israeli brew masters has emerged from under the radar. Local breweries are popping up like proverbial mushrooms – they are rapidly becoming a national phenomenon. And they are producing a surprising variety of top-quality brews.
Unlike commercial breweries, which mass-produce mainly light, delicately flavored lagers, these boutique breweries are headed by passionate brew masters who use only premium ingredients and offer a range of styles and flavors. The beers are not aimed at the general market, rather sold in-house or at pubs and restaurants.
Many – but certainly not all – of the microbrewers are native English speakers.
US émigré David Cohen started the ball rolling when he opened the Dancing Camel brewery in Tel Aviv six years ago. “I’d been brewing as a hobby in the States, and investigated the option of opening a brewery in Israel,” he recalls.
In New York he had an accounting practice before immigrating to Israel with his wife and three children.
“It was a chance for a career change,” says Cohen. “I started from scratch, at age 40, and produced my first beer in July 2006. I saw the potential back then, although I was still unfamiliar with the market. I saw what had happened to the local wine industry. Israel is becoming a more affluent country. With that comes the desire to become more cosmopolitan. Israelis travel more.
The concept did catch on.”
The Dancing Camel was Israel’s first licensed microbrewery when it opened in 2009. Now there are more than 20 licensed breweries in the country.
The competition is good for all concerned, says Cohen. “Nothing can help us more than having 15
other microbreweries opening up.”
Based in the center of Tel Aviv, the Dancing Camel brewery produces a variety of boutique brews for select stores, pubs and restaurants. It also has its own pub – closed on Shabbat, which is unusual for Tel Aviv .
Word of mouth
“It’s hard for an individual to start from scratch,” says Cohen. “There was no beer culture here until recently. Not much was happening when I started.”
But Israel is a country where everyone seems to know everyone else, and the word soon got around.
“People heard that I was home-brewing. Beer suppliers and wine critics started to turn up on my doorstep. From there it just took off. The business started without its own bar. I began by sending beers to several Tel Aviv bars, and expanded throughout the country.”
Danny Schlyfestone sells his delicious range of home brews from a funky bar-café in the picturesque artist’s colony Ein Hod on the Carmel.
“I’ve seen a great change in Israelis’ approach in the last couple of years,” says Schlyfestone. “They’re more knowledgeable than they used to be. Now they come in to try different types of beers -- they want to try new things, which is why I always stock 37 different beers.”
US-born Schlyfestone first came to Israel as a 15-year-old in 1968, and went through high school and military service before leaving to begin a successful 20-year career as a sound recording engineer in Europe. He completed the master brewers program at the University of California-Davis and worked for a year at the Mendocino Brewing Company before returning to Israel in 1994.
For the next decade he continued brewing at home. “It was a hobby that gave me great pleasure,” he recalls.
It wasn’t until recently that he managed to turn his hobby into something concrete. “I was brewing at home, and started by bringing my beers to my wife’s studio at weekends. I was testing it out.
The feedback was great and the idea started to work.”
About five years ago, Schlyfestone brought his brewing equipment over to the café, called the Art Bar, where live bands play on weekends.
“The change has been very radical. It’s paralleling the wine phenomenon,” he says.
Cohen and Schlyfestone belong to a cadre of home brewers that has emerged in recent years, as have several beer entrepreneurs.
An importer of beer-making equipment and materials, Shachar Hertz of Beer and Beyond played a major part in beer’s growing acceptance in Israel by organizing a string of beer festivals, tastings and other events.
“Only five or six years ago you had to try really hard to find a decent beer in Israel,” say Hertz. “Now there are hundreds of specialty beers on offer. The entire industry is changing. About 20 microbreweries have opened in the last three or four years. Each brewery is producing at least three types of beer – that means 100 new [locally produced] beers on the market recently. If you add the imported brands, more than 300 different beers are on sale in Israel right now.”
Israelis were not born into a beer-drinking culture, notes Hertz.
“Israelis are social drinkers. Most people here still drink mainstream brands -- but that is changing. Like most other specialty drinks or foods, you need to become more aware of the nuances of beer-tasting,” says Hertz.
Israelis are taking to the new beers with great excitement.
Photo by David Silverman
“There are many stereotypes attached to beer. Beer in general is not something you love from the first sip – you need to get familiar with it. Only once you try several different styles do you know your personal preference. The key is to sample as many flavors you can. Everyone likes beer – but most people don’t know that they love beer.”
Hertz says some types of beers suit Israelis better.
“Israelis no longer drink only lagers. Stout, fruit beers and brown ales are picking up. India Pale Ales are the hottest trend right now -- and I expect they will stay the most popular for a few years. Belgian-style beers are also very popular – they are strong and sweet, with 8-9 percent alcohol.”
But not every type of beer suits the Israeli palate, he says.
“Bitter ales still haven’t caught on here. Israelis are not into British-style warm beers. We’re a hot country, and the concept of drinking beer that is not cold will never take on here. There are some English ales on sale in Israel but they’re not very popular. They’re not sexy enough.”
“Israelis act pretty much as in the US market,” adds Hertz, “although Americans tend to take it to the extreme – with loads of hops and a very fruity, if bitter, brew.”
Cohen has observed the changing demographics of beer drinkers.
“There’s a section of the population that no longer views beer as a cheap buzz,” he says. “They’ve come to see beer as something more interesting and exciting than cracking open a six-pack.
When we first set up, bar owners told us that the crowds drink beers like Goldstar. I would pitch something more akin to US microbreweries: Put in one or two more taps and rotate other taps.”
“Premium beer is a niche market, but the borders of this niche are starting to blur,” says Cohen. “Where that market ends and where the mass-produced beer market ends is very much a moving target. It’s becoming closer to the wine market.”
Beer is mostly consumed in bars and pubs. “Israelis don’t tend to drink beer with their food. The connection hasn’t been made yet. Many would definitely not drink beer at home. Israelis don’t have the culture of taking home a six-pack, or drinking by themselves,” says Hertz.
“It starts when a bar adds a tap or two after enough clients ask for it. From there it catches on. More and more specialty beer bars have opened in the last couple of years -- multi-tap bars with over 20 taps. The biggest one, Porter and Sons in Tel Aviv, has 50 taps. It’s become Israel’s beer shrine.”
The bustling bar-restaurant opened in March 2009. “It’s the first of its kind in Israel, based on similar places we’ve seen in the US” says Porter and Sons’ co-owner Yoav Alon.
Instead of a wine list, there’s a beer list. “Our waiters are trained in the nuances of beer, and how to suit it to different foods. It’s more of a family place than a bar – a type of evening out that Israelis were not familiar with before,” says Alon, who previously owned smaller bars in the city.
“Eight or nine years ago we began importing specialty beers and had five taps. Our other bar, Norma Jean, has 17 taps – all different, all interesting. We only stock premium brews,” he says.
Barreled beer tends to go sour after three or four days at room temperature, Alon notes. “All our beers are stored at 4 degrees Celsius, which allows us to keep the 30-liter barrels for up to 90 days and offer such a wide selection.”
Guy Muallem, the bar manager, produces a random selection of Israeli-made brews: a stout from Kibbutz Ginegar in the Jezreel Valley, a Bavarian-style brew from Srigim the Elah Valley, a deep red brew from Kibbutz Yechiam in the Galilee, and a Piltz from Zichron Ya’akov. Four distinct tastes, each more interesting than the next.
“We’re taking beers out of the bars and clubs, and into the restaurants,” Muallem says. “Chefs are increasingly incorporating beer in their menus. People want to try something new, be more daring.”
In January, thousands turned out for the annual Israel Beer Festival held at Yad Eliyahu, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s basketball arena. “It was tremendously successful and a reflection of what’s happening to this market,” exclaims Hertz.
Schlyfestone says he cannot see boutique beers becoming mass-market products in Israel. “Israelis still drink 10-15 percent the amount of beer that Europeans do. But it’s a good thing that they’re becoming more adventurous.”