December 25, 2013

Ass-kickin' Chutzpah

Denny Neilson and his son Matt at The Winemaker
shop in Mevasseret Zion.
Going out to see Denny Neilson in Mevasseret Zion is a nostalgic trip.

My diploma.
I took Denny's beer-making course in 2008 and in all humility, that's when I went from beer-lover to beer aficionado.  Denny made it official by awarding me an MBA certificate (Master of Beer Appreciation).

Denny welcomed me in his little shop, "The Winemaker," at 99 Shimon Swissa Street.  "I'm afraid we have to talk here," he apologized, "because these are the hours that I have to man the store."

Denny is a true expert in what he calls the "fermentation arts."  He might have gotten in on the crest of the Israeli wine and beer boom -- or he might have helped create it.  At any rate, "The Winemaker" is today a very active enterprise, and is engaged in four distinct activities:

1) Teaching -- Wine-making, home-brewing, and, most recently, home-distillation.

2) Selling equipment and ingredients for making beer, wine and liquor at home.

3) Fermenting and marketing apple cider under the Buster's label.

4) Brewing and marketing Chutzpah IPA under the Isra-Ale label.  This is what got me out here -- but more later.

Buster's apple cider and Chutzpah IPA.
Denny has been teaching home brewing and wine-making for years.  He has provided the knowledge and wherewithal for a generation of home-fermenters.

He explains: "When we came on aliya ten years ago and I told people what I want to do, they said, 'Nobody drinks beer.'  But we believed there was a market for people who wanted to make their own beer and wine.  We wanted to provide a one-stop service for all of their needs.  Our motto is, 'If we don't have it, you don't need it.'"

In addition to continuing courses in beer- and wine-making, Denny is introducing classes in distillation next month.  "So many people applied," he says, "that we had to add on two additional groups."  During the course of six months, the classes will make their own single malt whiskey, "moonshine," vodka and fruit brandy.

Denny believes part of the interest in home distillation is due to the high tax on liquors.  "People can make their own hard drinks at a fraction of the cost," he says, "but distillation can be very dangerous -- the liquids are very flammable and can even explode.  And if you don't know what you're doing, you can end up with the poisonous methyl alcohol instead of the drinkable stuff, ethyl alcohol.

"We're starting the classes to teach people how to home-distill safely."

In the area of apple cider, Denny recently opened a fermenting plant in Beit Shemesh, and is now the third largest cider producer in Israel.  ("Don't get too excited," he admits. "There might only be three real cider producers in Israel anyway.")

If you've ever tried Buster's cider at a beer festival or pub, or bought it at a retail store, you know it's a delicious drink.  I'm not much a cider fancier, but for me, apple cider is intimately linked with the North American autumn: outdoor sports, powdered donuts, fireplaces.  But Buster's is definitely a year-round drink.  Denny said that the "kosher for Passover" apple cider is in high demand over Passover, when beer is forbidden.  Buster's is available in the sweet variety (4.8% alcohol) or the dry (6.7% alcohol).                    

Now it's time for a little Chutzpah, what you've all been waiting for.  This is the only beer currently being brewed at The Winemaker.  "We call it an 'ass-kickin' IPA,' a beer drinker's beer," says Denny.  "We make only 100 bottles a week, and most of the time, we're sold out in advance."

Denny poured me a glass of Chutzpah and, so help me, you can smell the hops as soon as he popped the cap.  Chutzpah is made with six different expensive hops, and in quantities five to seven times the amount used in most Israeli beers.  It is dry-hopped twice; once in a glass demijohn during regular fermentation, and then again seven days later in a different demijohn.

All told, it takes 3-4 weeks to prepare each batch of Chutzpah.  All the beer is then kegged before being bottled under pressure.  The carbonation is kept low by strictly controlling the level of CO2 introduced into the beer.  There is no second fermentation in the bottle so that there is no sediment on the bottom.  "We understand that customers want the beer to have a certain eye appeal," says Denny, "and we achieve that without giving up on quality."

There is no doubt that Chutzpah is not a beer for everybody. (Denny says that he always asks first-time drinkers, "Are you sure?" before he draws them a pint of Chutzpah.)  The intense aroma and taste of hops, the bitterness that floods over your tongue, the citrusy undertone -- all this will wallop the taste buds of anybody used to drinking tamer beers.

Because of the huge quantity of fresh hops used in making Chutzpah, it must be drunk fresh.  "After about two weeks, the taste of the hops begins the dissipate and the malt becomes dominant," says Denny.  "If we happen to have any Chutzpah in the shop which passes the two-week mark, I drink it myself."

That's the main reason you won't find Chutzpah in your local liquor store.  With a shelf-life of only two weeks, Denny will only sell it at his own shop in Mevasseret Zion.  The other reason is that Chutzpah doesn't fit into the commercial model for retail beers.  With the extra time and expense needed to brew it, and the extensive labor, Chutzpah would have to sell at a cost higher than most retailers will allow.  "Liquor stores don't really care about the quality or the ingredients of the beers they sell," Denny explains.  "They just want the price to be low enough for quick sales.  They don't think they could sell Chutzpah at the price we would need."

I respectfully disagreed with Denny, arguing that in my experience, there exists a niche market of Israelis who are willing to pay more for quality products, be it cars, clothing or alcohol.
 I don't think I convinced Denny about retail stores, but he did reveal that Chutzpah may soon be available in draught at selected pubs and restaurants, since kegs have to be finished anyway within a few days.

Denny also told me that, in addition to Buster's cider and Chutzpah beer, The Winemaker will be unveiling a third alcoholic beverage in the spring.  He would only call it "Product X," and promised that it would be special.  "Start getting thirsty," he said.

I will be sure to let all of my readers know about Product X; Denny promised to invite me to the inaugural event!  In the meantime, take it from this certified MBA that it is worth a trip to The Winemaker to bring home a six-pack (or more) of Chutzpah IPA.  You won't find its like anywhere else in Israel.     


  1. That Chutzpah was delicious. Any time you need help to finish some, just call me, ok...

  2. Anonymous12/25/2013

    You know, you'd think that in a country as small as ours it wouldn't be so hard to lay hands on the good craft beers out there. In America I can understand it. I can understand why a highly sought-after release in Boston can't make it past the Mississippi River, if even that far. But Mevaseret is practically in walking distance from the capital, yet it's literally impossible to get Chutzpah here. Givatayim Brewery makes a Belgian Quad that's supposed to be the real deal. Good luck finding it Tel Aviv, let alone Jerusalem. Back when I was craving some Alexander Black, I had to call the brewery directly to inquire why none of the stores Downtown had any Black on the shelves, and subsequently had to wait three weeks until the distributor finally made it out there. It's a crying shame about the new alcohol advertising law, which'll likely make our situation even more pitiful. In the end we'll have to establish a network solely for the purpose of domestic beer trades!

    1. Well, Anon, as I wrote, Chutzpah isn't available in retail stores because it has a shelf life of two weeks or so. No liquor store will accept it on that condition. However, if it starts to roll out in kegs, you'll be able to buy it in selected pubs and restaurants in Jerusalem. About the new advertising law, we'll have to wait to see how that takes effect. There are things in it that can be interpreted in different ways. I do agree with you, though, that the government seems to be going out of its way to screw the craft breweries.

  3. Yitzchak Miskin12/29/2013

    Well, I can vouch for the cider as being reminiscent of the fresh apple cider we used to get from the farms in Connecticut. I highly recommend it!


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