December 29, 2014

First Israeli craft beer kiddush in America

"There have been synagogues which have brought in Israeli craft beers for other events, but to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time they were served at a Sabbath morning kiddush [post-service repast]."

This is what I heard from Austin Clar, manager of Sublime Imports in Dallas, Texas, the sole importer of Israeli craft beer into the U.S.  Clar was talking about a kiddush held on December 20 at The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton, New York.
Len Wasserman presents the Israeli craft beer
table at The Hampton Synagogue.

(Photos taken before Shabbat.)

Let's back up a little bit.

Having an Israeli craft beer table at a kiddush in an American synagogue was the brainchild of my friend Len Wasserman, a member of the Hampton Synagogue.  Len is a passionate beer lover and committed supporter of Israel.  He saw this kiddush as a way to introduce Israeli craft beer to the American Jewish market.

Cases of Malka and Alexander
beer on the way to Long Island. 
The Hampton Synagogue, founded by Rabbi Marc Schneier in 1990, is a unique, active and successful Orthodox synagogue located in one of America's most affluent areas on eastern Long Island.  Its lavish Saturday morning kiddushes would put many wedding receptions to shame, especially the groaning liquor tables.  But what has always been missing is beer.

Len decided to sponsor an Israeli craft beer table at a kiddush on the Sabbath of the Hanukka holiday.

Len says that he chose Hanukka because, "it is the holiday of light and freedom in the Land of Israel, and what could bring more light and freedom to the contemporary Land of Israel than Israeli craft beers, made from products of the earth and brewed by creative individuals in Israel."

Here's where Israel Brews and Views stepped in.  I was able to find out that Alexander and Malka are the two Israeli craft beers which are being distributed in the U.S.  The two and only, according to Austin Clar.  Len made contact with Sublime Imports and arranged to buy five cartons of beer.  One each of:

Alexander Ambree
The Alexander Beer side of the table . . .
Alexander Black (porter)
Alexander Green (IPA)
Malka Stout
Malka Pale Ale

Israel Brews and Views supported the beer table by printing flyers on the two breweries and (full disclosure) cards to promote the blog.

The Thursday before the kiddush saw Len driving his Buick all the way out to New Jersey to pick up the beer and bring it back to Westhampton.  On Friday, he set up the table and put the beers in the fridge.

The Israeli craft beer kiddush was a great success, Len reported.  By the end of the Sabbath, all 120 bottles were consumed.  Many people told Len how much they enjoyed the beers, even some who were not beer drinkers. 

 . . . and the Malka Beer side.
Len continued: "A number of people asked me where they could obtain these beers in the New York metro area.  I told them that, unfortunately, they are not available yet for retail distribution in New York.  I told them what they should do is take the flyers and, when they go to a kosher or Israeli restaurant, they should demand that these are the beers they should be serving -- not Bud, Miller and Heineken.  If we can create a demand, we should be able to create a market and the opportunity to buy these terrific products.  I told folks also that when they go to visit Israel, they should look for these and other craft beers and also visit a craft brewery or two.  I think people took it seriously."
Alexander beers.

According to Austin Clar, Alexander and Malka beer should be available in New York by the middle of 2015, as well as in Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Michigan.  The beers are already for sale in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Illinois (Chicago area), Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington DC, northern Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Malka beers.
Sublime has been importing Malka since October 2013, and Alexander since the summer of 2014.  Clar disclosed that he has been speaking with "several other" Israeli craft breweries, but doesn't expect to be importing other beers anytime soon. 

So, hearty congratulations to Len and his girlfriend Abigail Moore, who sponsored the Israeli craft beer table (in honor of the birthday of Abigail's aunt, Bernice Feldman).  Step-by-step, it's independent initiatives such as this that will open new markets and vistas for our Israeli beers.    

December 22, 2014

Samson at Tzora

"The spirit of the Lord first moved him [Samson] in the encampment of Dan, between Tzora and Eshtaol."              (Judges 13:25)
If the Bible says that Samson grew up near Tzora, what could be more natural than the Samson Brewery being on Kibbutz Tzora, about 20 kilometers (12  miles) from Jerusalem.

Samson in action, a few years after he left Tzora.
I rode out to the kibbutz with photographer Mike Horton to speak with Leon Solomon, the founder and owner of Samson Beer.  Solomon brews nine different beers and, as we sat on the patio of the little pub that adjoins his brewery, we tasted most of them.

Solomon was born in Vereeniging, South Africa, where (as it says on the bottle), "We don't talk about beer; we drink it."  He immigrated to Israel in 1966 and has been a member of Kibbutz Tzora ever since.  Now retired, he's been brewing for about seven years.  His beer is not sold anywhere else than his brewpub.

"People come from a wide area to drink and buy my beer right here," he smiles.  "Eighty percent are returning customers."

Leon Solomon talking
about his favorite beers.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Samson Brewery is small but is constantly active.  "Each batch is between 100 to 120 liters," Solomon explains.  "I put 20-40 liters in barrels for serving here at the bar, and the rest I bottle."  Solomon was bottling his popular dark India Pale Ale when we visited.

As we sat on the patio, Solomon began serving Mike and me his beers, along with smoked cheese and herring.

We started with the Blonde Ale.  The freshness was very welcome; Leon told me it was only two weeks old.  The beer was suitably crisp and and dry, with subdued hops, and a little bit sour.

The sour meter shot up with the next beer: Sorgum Ale.  This is made with sorgum grain instead of the traditional barley, wheat or rye.  It is naturally gluten-free.  Solomon says the beer became popular among blacks in South Africa who sold home-made sorgum beer in illegal pubs.  This beer reminded me of an amber ale, with sour fruits very dominant.

"Why is my glass empty?"
(Photo: Mike Horton)
The Christmas Ale, which we had next, couldn't have been more different.  It was full-bodied and sweet (brown sugar and caramel) and high in alcohol (7.5% ABV) like a winter/holiday ale should be.  To this yeasty mixture, Solomon adds cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, ginger and orange peel.  For those with the proper memories, close your eyes and dream of the December holiday season.

The Samson Porter, which did not participate in our recent Porter Beer Tasting Panel (read about it here), was a delicious classic porter, at 5% ABV.  It had a strong malt character and moderate coffee bitterness, with no smokiness.

Next on tap was Samson's dark India Pale Ale.  This style beer is growing in popularity in the U.S., but to me a "dark" pale ale is an oxymoron.

Bottling IPA at Samson Brewery.
(Photo: Mike Horton)
Like so many other things in life, Samson's dark IPA began as a mistake.  Solomon simply used too much dark malt when he was brewing his IPA.  It came out very dark, but his friends and customers liked it that way, so he continued with the recipe.

Solomon uses Citra hops for a strong citrus flavor, and strengthens the aroma with dry hopping.  This is a moderately strong (6% ABV) and refreshing IPA, with grapefruit by far the dominant taste.  I brought home of few of his new bottles and promised to let them mature for at least two more weeks.

At this point, we still had some sobriety left, so we moved on to Samson's most popular beer -- the Belgian Ale.  Solomon said that this beer has the "Belgian taste" that Israelis seem to love, and I can confirm that.  Sweet and very malty, with dark fruit flavors and a full body.  A beer for a Jerusalem winter's day.  Solomon uses 10 kilograms (22 pounds) more malt per 100 liters in this beer than any other.            

We closed with a new beer that Solomon poured just for us -- "Beer X" he called it.  It starts as his regular Belgian Ale, but then sits for a week with oak chips soaked in Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whisky, and then spends two more months in the bottle.

I found that the strength and maltiness was the same as the Belgian Ale, but the added taste was oak -- or at least how I imagine oak to taste.  It was definitely not the taste of Tennessee whisky, which I do know well. 

Leon Solomon and his beers.
(Photo: Mike Horton)
Solomon also brews three more beers which we didn't taste that day:

Witbier -- A Dutch-style wheat beer.
Extra Special Ale -- Based on the British extra special bitter style (which is not very bitter at all).

After a few lovely hours talking, eating and drinking with Leon Solomon, Mike and I rode home while holding on to the mellow feeling.  It's a shame that Samson Beer is not available outside of the brewpub, but I can certainly say that it's well worth a visit to enjoy the beer, the food and the atmosphere.  You should give Solomon a call to arrange a visit: 054-775-5948.   

December 16, 2014

A hike along the Alexander River

Viewing the wonders of the
mighty Alexander River.
Friday morning found Trudy and I hiking with our friends Yitzchak and Pnina Miskin along the Alexander River near Netanya.  (It's actually too small to be called a "river," but it's bigger than a stream.)  It was a beautiful fall day and we enjoyed the weather and the scenery and observing the famous soft-shell turtles which are colonizing the river.

After the hike, we took a short drive over to the Emek Hefer Industrial Area to visit the Alexander Brewery.  The beer is named after the river and its symbol is a flying soft-shell turtle.  "Wedded to the landscape," as we say.

A famous Alexander
soft-shell turtle.
The Alexander logo:
A flying soft-shell turtle.
Luckily, the founder and owner Ori Sagi was there to greet us.  We congratulated him once again for the two gold medals he won last month in Germany at the European Beer Star Competition for his Alexander Black porter and Alexander Blonde golden ale.  (Read more about it here.)

The sparkling brewery was very impressive with modern mash tuns, boiling kettles, coolers and eight giant fermentation and maturation vats, seven of which were full of beer.  Alexander's brews 25-30,000 liters a month.

Ori Sagi gives us a tour of his brewery.
Sagi explained to us that the brewery is taking environmental-friendly steps.  For example, to cut down water usage, which has traditionally been a serious problem in brewing, the water that is used to cool down the wort after boiling, is recycled into the mash tun to be used for the next batch of beer.

"Also," added Sagi, "the used grains are given to the local farmers to feed their happy cows."

Ori Sagi shows the old blogger his two
Gold Medal certificates from the
European Beer Star Competition.
He showed us the huge cold storage room where all of the bottled and kegged beer is kept until shipping.  "We also deliver our beer in refrigerated trucks," Sagi said.  "We're not responsible for how the beer is kept in stores and restaurants, but we want to make sure that it arrives there as fresh as possible." 

We went out to the front sitting area where the brewery hosts visitors and groups for tastings.  "But the most important thing we do here," explained Sagi, "is educate bartenders and restaurant owners about Israeli craft beers.  They have to know how to explain to their customers how we are different from the giant industrial brewers and why it's worth drinking craft beers."

Lunch at Kfar Haro'eh.
After we said good-bye and another "Mazal Tov" to Sagi, we drove over to the Kfar Haro'eh moshav to have lunch.  I ordered a Goldstar, arguably the flagship brew of Israeli big beer.  And then sitting there, hot and thirsty from the morning's activities, I took the first gulp and felt that this was the best beer in the world.           

December 10, 2014

Home-brewing heroes

A curious thing about some home-brewers is this: They may have no intention of going commercial but they want to share their beers with as wide a public as possible.  So they keep active on social media, make fancy labels for their bottles, and spend money to participate in beer fairs and festivals.

A short while ago, I went over to a home-brewers fair at the Abraham Hostel in central Jerusalem.  Eight brewers had signed up to come and sell their beers.  Big disappointment: only three showed up.

Appel and Bernstein in the foreground,
with Castel in the back.
The first ones I met there were Daniel Bernstein and Yair Appel, two students at Hebrew University.  They have no name yet for their beers, no cards, no labels.  They took a home-brewing course at Beer & Beyond in Tel Aviv and started brewing around six months ago.

Their India pale ale was already gone by the time I got there, so I tried their wheat beer.  It tasted like a wheat beer should.  Classic, nothing special.

Next in line was Tom Castel, a bartender at the Glen Whisky Bar on Shlomzion Hamalka Street.  His beers carry the Cast-Ale label.  Cute.

Tom Castel pumping his Cast-Ale beer.
I first tried Castel's American Pale Ale, a delicious example of this style.  It poured cloudy and
the color of light copper, with a large creamy head.  Powerful in hops like the "American" moniker suggests, it had a citrus bitterness with the taste of pineapple and grapefruit.  The finish was long and bitter.  This is a beer I can keep on drinking.

The Cast-Ale IPA, on the other hand, lacked the flavors of the APA.  The impression I got was just hoppy bitterness, which was too much for me -- and I love hop-heavy beer. 

Next I tried Castel's Saison beer, which won second place in the Betsisa Home-Brewing Competition.  It was a refreshing change of pace -- very spicy, sour and dry, with complex flavors -- a fine example of the saison style.

The final offering was a Brown Ale, called "Utopia," which Castel makes jointly with Rehavya Beer (more on them later).  This is a very light-bodied beer, with 4.6% alcohol.  Brown ales have a wide range of sweetness, maltyness and strength.  This one was moderate in alcohol, malty, with a taste in the direction of stoutness. 

Roi and Yamit Krispin at the Rehavya Beer table:
The poster couple for Israeli home-brewing.
On the next table over, I met Roi Krispin and his fiance Yamit (by now his wife) serving their Rahavya Beer in matching logo T-shirts.  Roi is a third-year student in Biology at Hebrew University and wants to continue in Veterinary Medicine.  He loves brewing beers that he likes to drink, and his favorite is Belgian Wit, which he brews with coriander seeds, bitter orange and lager yeast.

So that was what we started with.  It's a very passable Wheat Beer, pale with a nice foamy head, very little bitterness and hop flavor.  There was also none of the banana or clove tastes so prevalent in wheat beers.  Instead, I tasted malt and citrus.

Rehavya's Irish Red was dry and full-bodied, with lots of good bitterness but without the hops.  The Blond Ale and the American Pale Ale were both uncomplex beers; "made with love," I'm sure, but nothing special.

A short while after the home-brewers fair, I re-met Avi Riji from Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa.  He came with his wife and one of his daughters to visit Jerusalem, and I met him at the Machane Yehuda market.

Avi Riji with his wife Nela and daughter Rivka
at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
Riji's label is Avir Beer, but he has no interest in selling his beers commercially.  "I brew my beer in my kitchen because I love doing it and to share it with my friends," says Riji.  He began brewing around four years ago and regularly shares his knowledge with home-brewers who are just getting started.

Riji currently makes seven beers:

Bavarian Wheat 
American Pale Ale
Black IPA
Single Hop IPA
Smoked Porter
American Pale Ale
Christmas Ale     

The Smoked Porter was excellent.  It was full and rich, sweet and malty like a porter should be.  The kicker was the smoky taste which comes from smoked malt.  I am not a big fan of smoked beers, but this was very well balanced with the smoky taste well understated.  It would go very well with grilled vegetables and mushrooms, strong cheeses, and even sweet deserts like apple pie and gingerbread.

Moshe Lifshitz with son Ze'ev,
looking on while his namesake
Zambish Beer is made.

At the Jerusalem Beer Festival this past summer, I met Riji for the first time and tasted the last of his Christmas Ale.  I thoroughly enjoyed it: a spicy and strong (12% ABV) holiday ale made with cinnamon, ginger, honey and nutmeg.

It's the kind of innovative beer that home-brewers can take chances on, hoping that some of them will come out right.

Riji has this year's batch of Christmas Ale under fermentation now -- and it should be ready for the holiday season.  I want some on my table.

And while we're on the subject of holiday ales, another 50 bottles or so are fermenting at my neighbor's Moshe Lifshitz.  He's been home-brewing for about three years, and from time to time I have the honor of helping him bottle and cap his beer.  His label name is Zambish, the nickname of his two-year-old son Ze'ev.

Lifshitz's latest batch is a rich and dark, double malted brew, which is now taking a late autumn snooze to be ready for drinking at Hanukka time.  We tasted it just before bottling and it had the sweet promise of becoming an excellent holiday ale, though without any added spices.
The Zambish label.

Lifshitz learned his brewing skills at a course from Beer & Beyond which was given in Jerusalem.  He purchases his equipment and ingredients from Denny Neilson of The Winemaker.  (The name is a little misleading: Denny also teaches home-brewing and makes excellent beer himself.)  Lifshitz has already brewed India pale ale, wheat beer, porter and stout.

Like most home-brewers in this country, he thoroughly enjoys making his own beer, while reaping the benefits of drinking higher-quality than store-bought beer, for a fraction of the cost.  May our home-brewers multiply and prosper!