July 25, 2016

. . . and yet two more festivals

More beer festivals in Israel keep coming to my attention, and I want to turn around and get the word out as fast as I can.

And not a minute too soon!  Already tomorrow, Tuesday, July 26, and Wednesday, July 27, the Kfar Saba Beer Festival is taking place in The Courtyard of the shuk (market), between 7:00 pm and midnight.  Twenty kinds of Israeli beers will be served, including Jem's, Malka, Srigim (Ronen and Emek Ha'ela), Mosco, Fass, Goldstar Unfiltered, as well as Buster's Ciders.

Each evening, there will be performances by Israeli bands.  Entrance to the festival is free.   

On the first evening, July 26, there will be a workshop on home-brewing led by Gadi Deviri of the Beer-D Center.  This is not free.  To register for the workshop, call 09-773-3055 or e-mail michalbs@gipm.co.il


Around a week later, "Beer in the Heart of the Desert," the first beer festival in Arad, opens on August 4 at the Zim Center.  Entrance is free, and you have to be over 18.  There will be stands for "southern brewers" and other well-known Israeli beers, in addition to musical performances by young Israeli groups.  The organizer, who has worked very hard to get this together and bring a beer festival to Israel's north-eastern Negev, is Uriel Elhayani, and he can be reached at 054-683-5634.

It seems as if we're approaching a situation where, instead of you have to get up and go to a beer festival, you can just wait and a beer festival will come to you!

July 24, 2016

Florida's world of beers

My mom with one of her caregivers,
Sunshine, who has a "Giant" heart.
I found myself in southern Florida once again on a melancholy trip to visit my mother.  She is not doing too well.  Within spitting distance of her first century, she suffered two falls in the last several months which have left her bedridden.  She is moved from the bed to the wheelchair and back again.  She can be pushed outside to sit in the Florida sunshine, and to the table to eat with others.  But her feet cannot support her.

Nevertheless, she finds enjoyment in her life from being around family and friends (including her devoted caregivers), reading, watching TV, and eating the kinds and quantities of food that she likes.

So it was that I didn't feel especially guilty when my son Ami came to visit us from Washington, DC, and we went out together to drink some beer.

Ami chose the World of Beer branch in Coconut Creek,  WOB is a multi-state chain of over 60 beer "taverns."  The Coconut Creek branch has about 40 beers on tap which are rotated daily!  Quite a piece of work!  In addition, there are hundreds of other bottles and cans of beer on ice and on display.  This is America, where bigger is better.

The World of Beer at Coconut Creek.

The printed menu for draft beers on the day we were there was clearly dated.  The beers were grouped into plain English categories, which I greatly appreciated: Light & Crisp, Wheat-Weiss-Wit, Hop Forward (the largest), Malt Forward, Dark & Bold, Belgian & Belgian Influenced, Sours, Cider & Fruit, Specialty, and Old School (a nice way to say mass-brewed pale lagers).

Since I like to travel globally and drink locally, I asked the bartender and shift manger, Eric Riggins, for a four-beer flight of Florida beers on draft.  He gave me:

Manager Eric Riggins recommended
a flight of four Florida craft beers.
White Wizard -- a Belgian-style wheat beer from Barrel of Monks Brewery in Boynton Beach.  5.5% alcohol by volume.
Floridian -- a classic weizen from Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park (near Fort Lauderdale).  5.6% ABV.
Pompano Lager -- a "Pompano-style lager" (which I guess it is) from 26 Degrees Brewing Co. in Pompano Beach.  5.5% ABV.
Koffie Saison  -- a coffee-infused saison from Band of Monks Brewery.  6.5% ABV.

After the four-beer flight, Ami and I were still thirsty, so he ordered the Inti Cancha Berliner Weisse from Darwin Brewing Co. in Bradenton, Florida.  This was Ami's first taste of a sour beer and he was enthusiastic.  Darwin calls the beer a "Floridaweisse" (which I guess it is), and they make it with organic starfruit, a sour exotic fruit that grows with five ridges, so the slices look like little stars.  It was a weak 3.9% ABV and a lot less sour than other lambics and Berliner Weisses I have tried.  I'd call it a "half-sour" in honor of the famous New York pickles.  Ami paired it with a black bean patty.

I had the Rebirth Pale Ale (5%) from NOLA Brewery in New Orleans, an American pale ale made with multi-malts and multi-hops.  I was looking forward to something less hoppy than all the IPAs I was trying in Florida, but this NOLA APA was no different.  Still, it went very well with my hummus and corn chips.

Afterwards, I went back to speak with Eric Riggins, who had been at his job for four years.  Eric started out as a bartender, fell in love with the whole craft beer scene, and worked his way up to manager.  "Beer has become my passion," Eric enthused.  "I'm taking a course now for $650 to become a cicerone, a beer sommelier.  It's good to have a title.  My homework is drinking.  I can think of much worse alternatives."  Well said, Eric.

Ami and Danielle getting acquainted.
Ami noticed that one of our waitresses had some interesting tattoos on her inner thigh and they started chatting.  Her name was Danielle Bushey and she was excited to hear that we were from Israel since she was planning to visit on an upcoming Birthright trip.

Danielle brought us over a complimentary pint of Cali Creamin' Vanilla Cream Ale from Mother Earth Brew Co. in California.  Even though Ami and I were getting beer bloated, we couldn't resist this delicious beer.  Made with flaked corn and honey malt, it tasted like an American cream soda with hops, a malt backbone and an alcoholic kick (5.2%).  The strongest aroma and flavor, of course, was vanilla, which I prejudicially love,

We said good-bye to Eric, shalom to Danielle, and thanked the World of Beer for a most enjoyable American beer experience.

During my stay in Florida, I tasted around 10 other American craft beers.  Here they are, very briefly (in order of appearance):

Goose Honkers Ale -- An English-style bitter from the Goose Island Beer Co., established in Chicago, but now brewed elsewhere.  An easy-drinking beer, well balanced between fruity hops and malt.  Alcohol by volume is 4.3%,

90 Minute Imperial IPA -- From Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats in Milton, Delaware.  One of America's most popular IPAs, it is continually hopped during brewing and then dry-hopped.  Even though the citrus and fruit flavors are powerful, I found that they were even surpassed by the bready-caramel tastes of the malt.  A strong beer (9%), but well-balanced.  

420 Extra Pale Ale -- From the Sweet Water Brewing Co. in Atlanta, Georgia.  A West Coast style pale ale, 5.7% ABV.  The hops gave their bitterness, but without much added flavor.

Milk Stout -- From the Left Hand Brewing Co. in Longmont, Colorado.  A 6% alcohol beer made with lactose and flaked oats.  A smooth and sweet beer, with tastes of roasted malt and coffee.  Surprisingly went very well with my spicy Indian wrap.

Fat Tire Amber Ale -- From the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado.  After a surfeit of pale ales and IPAs, I enjoyed this beer's balance of toasted malt, caramel and hop sharpness.  5.2% ABV.

Island Citrus Ale -- From the Islamorada Beer Co. on Islamorada in the Florida Keys.  Brewed with "natural citrus flavors," this is a 5% ABV mildly hoppy very pale ale.  Unfortunately, you don't get much a citrus taste, only a flavorless hop bitterness.  A shame, since the idea of a refreshing and citrusy ale for the Florida summer (and winter!) is a natural.

Organic Amber Ale -- From the Peak Organic Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine.  Beautiful amber-red color with a very creamy head.  Bready aroma and low hop bitterness.  Began to taste sour while having it with my semi-spicy pasta.  It's beers like this that are making me much more appreciative of amber ales.            

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale -- From the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, California & Mills River, North Carolina.  Whole cone Cascade hops give this 5.6% beer plenty of pine and citrus.  Also some fruit flavors; dry and bitter at the end.  This is a classic American pale ale, a pleasure to drink.

And finally, a beer from Shmaltz Brewing Co. in Clifton Park, New York.  Shmaltz's HE'BREW branded beers have become a legend in the U.S. for their Jewish association and shtik which founder-owner Jeremy Cowan actively encourages.  Cowan is also a big fan of the late and controversial comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) and he created and named a beer in his memory.          

Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A. Rye Double IPA -- Wow!  There probably isn't another beer like this.  It's sui generis; also hop-generous and malt-generous.  Since Lenny Bruce reveled in obscenity, the label of this beer says it's "brewed with an obscene amount of hops and malts" -- eight malts, to be exact (including three from rye), seven hops and three in the dry-hopping, and has an ABV of 10%.

A reddish-maroon color with a beige head, Bittersweet Lenny's has a strong chocolate-hop aroma with tropical fruit and some pine.  The hop bitterness is so strong that it threatens to overpower the other flavors, which are grapefruit, brown sugar and rye spice.  Yet, a balance is maintained by the just-as-strong malt.  I chose to have this beer with a pasta dish including broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms and peppers, and it was excellent.  It also provided a satisfying contrast to my sweet dessert, dark chocolate with acai and blueberry flavors.

This was a wonderful, memorable beer which takes IPA-ness to new heights.  A good way to end my American trip, and leave me wanting to come back for more.

And also to see you, Mom!  

July 21, 2016

Two more beer festivals

Everybody wants to get into the act!

So said the late great Jimmy Durante.  (I date myself here.)  But in terms of beer festivals, who's counting?  Here are two more which have just come to my attention, and I waste no time in letting my readers know.

Already next week is the very first Netanya Beer Festival in (of course) Netanya on Israel's central coast.  The dates are Wednesday, July 27 and Thursday, July 28, beginning at 5:00 pm in Kikar Ha'atzmaut (Independence Square).  The organizers promise that over 40 kinds of beer will be served from Israel and abroad.  To add to the festive atmosphere, there will be music pumped by deejays, live performances, and food stands.  Entrance is free.   

Then, much later this year, over the Sukkot holiday, there will be the Red Sea Beer Festival in Eilat, October 17-20.  I'm told this is the fourth, but somehow I've never heard of the first three.  Here too the organizers proclaim that over 40 brands of beer from Israel and around the world will be available, plus a central stage for performances by some of Israel's leading entertainers.  "The biggest beer street in Israel" is how this festival is being billed.  So head down south for a beer festival that's sure to be at least as much "festival" as it is "beer."  Eilat does have that kind of reputation.              

July 17, 2016

Between hops and malt -- Three pretty recent craft beers

Three Israeli craft breweries have introduced beers which will help us get through the hottest months.  All of them have powerful tastes, but very different.  Two of the beers are India pale ales, or IPAs, where the aroma and taste of the hops are most dominant, while the third is a Belgian-style ale which emphasizes the malt side of the recipe.

Barley malt can be roasted from
very light to very dark.
Every level changes the taste
of the final beer.
According to urban legend, the IPA style of beer originated in the 18th century, when London brewers had to make a stronger beer to survive the ocean voyage to India (four to six months!), where thirsty British soldiers needed their daily beers.  The brewers found that by increasing the amount of hops and malt, they could get a beer with a higher alcoholic content that didn't spoil.  In addition, the hops acted as a natural antiseptic to control pathogens in the beer.
Hops add bitterness, flavor
and a natural antiseptic.
Well, modern researchers have shown that this narrative isn't completely accurate, but it's close enough -- and it explains the name.

Citra 2016 IPA from 
Shapiro Brewery in Beit Shemesh

The first beer is the new version of Shapiro's IPA, called Citra 2016, in honor of the Citra variety of hops used in the brewing.  Last year, Itzik Shapiro, a brother-partner in the Beit Shemesh-based brewery, promised that Shapiro would be producing a new IPA every spring.  With Citra 2016, he's keeping his promise.

Last year's IPA version from Shapiro used American Amarillo hops, which gave the beer an orange-citrus aroma and taste.  (Refresh your memory here.)  Citra hops from the state of Washington, are also known for their citrus and tropical fruit characteristics.

The beer pours out of the bottle a light copper color with a thin foamy head.  You get a pleasant aroma of grass and grapefruit.  With the first sip, it feels very smooth in the mouth, with a light body.  The taste of the grapefruit stays, not very bitter, but there are also back-ups of apricot and lychee.

My companion mentioned that Shapiro's Citra 2016 doesn't taste "like a classic IPA," but it is a wonderfully refreshing summer drink.  Alcohol by volume of 6.5%, but you don't feel that at all.  This is an IPA that I can recommend to all those who appreciate hop and fruit tastes in their beer.  It is available in most specialty beer and liquor stores.  Look for the blue-labeled bottle with the turbaned Shapiro lion.

Dark Matter from 
HaShachen Brewery in Netanya

From HaShachen Brewery in Netanya has come Dark Matter, a "Black IPA" which owner Itay Marom calls, "Dark as the night, Tasty as hell."  I put "Black IPA" in quotation marks because it's an oxymoronic name.  How can any pale ale be black?  
Nevertheless, there are about ten recognized sub-styles of IPA beer, and "Black IPA" is one of them.  There have been suggestions to call it "American-style black ale," "India black ale," or even "Cascadian dark ale," after the name for the Pacific Northwest, where many hop varieties originate.

In the end, however, the other names all fail in getting across what Black IPA really is: A beer dark from roasted malts yet with the hop and alcohol strength of an IPA.  And, as others better qualified than I have written, the acronym "IPA" has taken on its own meaning, long divorced from its "India" and "pale" origins.

Itay Marom with some Dark Matter in bottles.
Be that as it may, Dark Matter from HaShachen began as a stout beer but, as Itay Marom reminded me, "HaShachen only brews IPAs, and they are massively dry-hopped, so we came up with a recipe for our first Black IPA."

Itay made three home-brewed batches of this beer, using Nelson Sauvin hops along with two other varieties.  "It was so amazing," he enthuses, "that we began to brew it commercially at the Srigim Brewery on Kibbutz Srigim (Li-On).  We'll continue to make it as long as we can get the Nelson Sauvin hops, which are not easy to obtain these days."

Dark Matter pours out a very dark brown with a tan head.  The aroma brings you grassy hops and roasted malt, which is not too surprising.  At first taste, you get the stout half -- strong chocolate and weaker coffee -- but the hoppy taste of the IPA is also there.  The hops add a fruity character to the roasted malt: a very classy combination.

My friend affirmed that he could "feel the stout in my throat," in addition to tasting it.

In short, this is a good Black IPA to try if you're having this style for the first time.  It's a true bridge between a stout and an IPA -- without having to spell it out.

Barzel Beer from
Kibbutz Ha'ogen and Kibbutz Hama'abarot

The Barzel Beer brewers:
(from left) Yair, Idan and Ori 
Something completely different comes from Barzel Beer (which means "Iron"), the product of three young partners from Kibbutz Ha'ogen and Kibbutz Ma'abarot, located near Netanya in the central plain.  Yair Alon, Ori Granot and Idan Talyas began home-brewing about four years ago while they were still in the army.  Right after their release, they began to sell their beer in the local kibbutz pub, and then expanded to other pubs in the area. 

Yair relates: "Our most popular beer was our Belgian red ale, actually quite strong at 6% alcohol, which we kept on tweaking until we got it just right.  At the start of 2016, we decided to take it to the commercial level and started contract brewing at the Mosco Brewery on Moshav Zanuach near Beit Shemesh."

Kibbutz beer:
"Take it or leave it!"
For a start-up brewery, Barzel has done a wonderful job of marketing and distributing, since the beer is now on sale in beer specialty stores in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Yair credits this success to hard work ("We got out there and promoted our beer anyway we could, and got it into as many stores, pubs and events as our production would allow.") and to the fact that, at only 24-years-old, the three partners are the youngest brewers in the field and therefore most connected to this very influential age group of Israeli beer drinkers.

Their catchy label has an anchor on it (which is the meaning of Ha'ogen), and their slogan is the in-your-face "Take it or leave it!"  They also call it "kibbutz beer" to link it with those pioneering communities so admired in Israeli history and folklore.  Currently, Barzel brews about 600 liters per month.

Now to the drinking: Barzel is a red-tinged beer, the color of a copper penny, cloudy but translucent.  The aroma is caramel, not uncommon in Belgian-style beers.  The strengths lie in the tastes: The alcohol is very apparent, but so are caramel, chocolate and malt.

I made the mistake of having this beer with a baked eggplant dish, made with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.  The beer was too strong for these delicate tastes, but I think it would go very well with spicy or fried foods with intense flavors.

The Barzel brewers have succeeded in making a Belgian-style strong ale that captures the delicious qualities of that style.  Yair assured me that Barzel will continue to brew beer (even though all of the partners are keeping their day jobs), and will even introduce a new flavor in the near future.

Barzel is a relative newcomer to the Israeli craft beer market, and its presence helps to balance out the hop-heaviness which has characterized many of the other new beers.  

July 6, 2016

Beer7 Fest 2016 -- Part 1

Gilad Ne-Eman (right) shows the old blogger
the glories of Beersheva brewing.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
The owners of the Beersheva Brew Shop, Gilad Ne-Eman and Tomer Ronen, have once again succeeded in organizing a little gem of a beer festival, featuring around nine local home-brewers.

Gilad and Tomer are trying mightily to put Beersheva, the unofficial capital of the Negev region, on the Israeli beer map.  These festivals help, as does the Home-Brewers' Guild of Beersheva, which they also run and which is one of the most active home-brewing organizations in the country.

So a few Fridays ago, I rode down to Beersheva with fellow Israel Brews and Views Tasting Panel judges Bob Faber and Mike Horton (who is also our photographer), for the third (I believe) Beer7 Fest.  I was suffering from a terrible night cough which was preventing me from sleeping, and my family doctor had just prescribed antibiotics.  I told him I would probably be imbibing some alcohol during the day, so he checked to see the counter-indications with this particular antibiotic.

"The alcohol will not affect the antibiotic," he assured me," but the antibiotic will speed up your body's absorption of the alcohol."  Sounded good to me, so southward we went.

The festival was once again held in the courtyard of the HeChalutz 33 restaurant (which is also the address), with the brewers at their tables along the walls.  We began our stroll, humming the Promenade theme from "Pictures at an Exhibition."  I concentrated on the new brewers who were not here at the last festival in October (which you can read about here.)


Four student roommates in Beersheva began brewing beer around a year and a half ago and were quickly caught up in the magic.  They are Matan Ziv, Tal Griffit, Aviv Gruber and Eyal Grossman, the unofficial "brewmaster."   

For a name and a logo, they chose the wolf-like dog that lives with them, Balu.  And they gave their three beers catchy labels and funky names: The Scientist, a 7.8% ABV saison with ginger; The Last Survivor, a 4.7% stout; Patient Zero, a 4.9% Black IPA.  They also make an apple cider called First One to Die!

I tasted the ginger saison and thought it was pretty amazing.  Since the saison style is naturally fruity and spicy, the ginger just accentuates these flavors.  In fact, it works so well as an added ingredient to this type of beer, I wonder why no one thought of it before.  (Although maybe someone has and I just don't know about it.)
Patient Zero Black IPA
by Balu'z.

The Black IPA Pours out the darkest brown (the color of coca-cola) with a large tan head, the result of high carbonation.  There's a medium hop aroma, but not much of what you would expect from the "black" side.  In other words, this is not a combination IPA-porter or IPA-stout, but rather a low-level IPA with complex flavors.  The taste is mild, with some citrus, berries and coffee.  
The Balu'z crew busy pouring.
(Photo: Mike Horton)

Black IPAs are becoming more commonplace, but I try to appreciate them as I would any other beer style, in spite of the obvious oxymoron, "black pale ale."  The Balu'z version is adequate enough, but I would have preferred a nice "neat" IPA or porter.      

Unfortunately, Tal told me that the four roommates are finishing their studies this year and going their separate ways, which will probably mean the end of Balu'z beers.  As they say, it was fun while it lasted, and they were a positive addition to the craft beer scene in Beersheva.   

HaTeirutz (The Excuse)

Another group of four young men, in this case engineers and high-techies, began brewing together around three years ago to save money on the high cost of beer.  They call their brand HaTeirutz (The Excuse) because they had to change their brewing plans a few times during a period of trial-and-error.  Now, however, their repertoire has settled down to a number of very fine beers and ciders. 
Ohad Boxerman (right) and the HaTeirutz crew.
(Photo: Mike Horton)

At the Festival, Yoav Ekshtein, Maor Pallivathikal, Yaron Berger and Ohad Boxerman were pouring It's Alive, a 3.4% American Pale Ale, Lactose Intolerance, a 3.8% sweet milk stout with added lactose (milk sugar), Basil Wheat, a 3.9% German wheat beer with basil, as well as three different flavored hard apple ciders.  I was fortunate enough to try all of the beers.

The milk stout is indeed sweet, a testimony to the fact that yeast cannot metabolize milk sugar.  It is a wonderfully rich-tasting brew with strong coffee flavor.  I found the Basil Wheat beer also a successful integration of flavors.  The basil was unmistakable, and blended well with the regular banana and clove flavors of a weissbier.  Bitterness was very low.  
HaTeirutz beers and ciders.
(Photo: Mike Horton)

When I opened a bottle of the American Pale Ale at home, it poured out a medium cloudy amber with a thin head.  The aroma was strongly citrus hops, which became more focused in the taste as grapefruit, pine, grassy and passion fruit.  The tastes were flat rather than crisp, with a medium bitter aftertaste, but I still found this a very enjoyable beer.  It was an excellent foil to my veggie shwarma.

Ohad told me that the Beer7 Fest was the first opportunity for HaTeirutz to present their beers to the wider public and to get reactions, which were overwhelmingly favorable.  "Now, we'll continue to brew the beers we love to drink," he added, "while from time to time changing the recipes or trying something completely different, to improve the drinking experience."

Sufat HaBar (The Wild Storm)

Bar Mizrachi and his father Sufa from Kibbutz Gevim in the northwestern Negev near the Gaza border, began brewing beer at home two years ago after Bar was wounded in the army.  They put their two names together and came up with a catchy moniker for their beers.  Bar is still a soldier so he doesn't have a lot of time to brew beer.  But what he does make shows promise.
Bar Mizrachi of Sufat HaBar beers greets the old blogger.
(Photo: Mike Horton)

"My father prepares all of the malt we use," explains Bar, "which is quite unusual for home-brewers.  We also use the BIAB (Brewed in a Bag) method, where all of the malt and hops are placed in a large porous bag during the mashing and boiling process, so they can then be lifted out cleanly."

Bar was pouring three beers at the festival: The Volunteer (female), a strong (8.4%) Belgian blond ale; The Leavening, a 7.8% cherry wheat; The Automation, a 4.1% brown ale.  
The Volunteer Belgian blond ale.

The Belgian strong ale had all the beautiful characteristics of that style.  The aroma was very fruity while low in hops.  The mild malt and hop tastes were enough to hide the strong alcoholic content, but my throat sensed it, as did my brain a few minutes later.  The antibiotic was working.  This was one of only two Belgian-style beers at the Fest, and a pleasure to find and drink.

I brought home a bottle of the Cherry Wheat which I enjoyed later with a friend.  This interesting beer reflects a growing trend to brew wheat ale with different fruits.  Cherries are very popular, since they add a fruitiness and tartness that blend well with wheat beer tastes.  It's also the height of the cherry season in Israel.  

The Sufat HaBar Cherry Wheat is the color of Schweppes strawberry soda, with a light pink head.  You get the cherry aroma along with the carbonation, as well as the wheat beer spiciness.  The cherry taste, however, is subdued.  Rather, you get a lot of tart and bitter fruit; almost no hops and malt.  My drinking companion was more enthusiastic about this beer than I was, although he thought it was probably made with cherry concentrate rather than whole fruit.  Nevertheless, I found the beer enjoyable and refreshing enough to hope Sufa and Bar continue their brewing activities.

We continued our Promenade to revisit some of the brewers we met at the Beer7 Fest last year.  I hope to write about them in Part 2.              

July 3, 2016

In the Land of Israel, Beer Came Late

The following is my original English-language essay
titled "In the Land of Israel, Beer Came Late: 
Historical Brew Traditions in the Near East." 
It appeared in German translation in the catalog
for the "Beer is the Wine of this Land" exhibit in the 
Munich Jewish Museum, April 2016.

Jews and beer have a long history together, going back at least 3,000 years.  But others have been together with beer even longer.

In fact, archaeological evidence shows that beer was brewed in the Land of Israel only after it was well established in its neighbors to the north and south: Mesopotamia (the Fertile Crescent) and Egypt.  In these two great centers of early civilization, the climate and soil were excellent for the growing of huge amounts of grain, particularly barley and wheat.  Most of the harvest, of course, went to making bread and for eating as roasted grain.  But a quantity not much less was used for brewing beer.

The same conditions that made Mesopotamia and Egypt perfect for growing cereals, made them poor for growing grapes.  In Canaan, the Land of Israel, it was just the opposite: the cooler highlands and the soil were suitable for viniculture and other fruits, but less so for grain. 

So when we look at "national beverages," Israel was the country of wine, while Egypt and the Mesopotamian empires of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia were the lands of beer.

Egyptian agricultural scenes.
But the story of beer begins long before that.  In fact, we have to go back to the Neolithic period which, in the Near East, was about 9000 – 8000 BCE.  It was during this period that our forebears went from being hunters and gatherers to being farmers and herders.  In short, life changed from being nomadic to being sedentary. 

A bit later, grains were domesticated, including wheat and barley.  What makes perfect sense, even to historians, is that farmers might have left a vessel of harvested cereals out in the rain.  The moisture soaked out the sugars in the grain.  Wild yeast cells which were in the air fell into this mixture and began the perfectly natural process of spontaneous fermentation.  Within a short time, a day or two, the liquid would have turned into a sweetish, alcoholic mixture which we would call today "beer." 

We can also assume that our forgetful Neolithic farmers, whether in Egypt or the Fertile Crescent, actually tasted the stuff and enjoyed it.  They also probably liked the way it made them feel.  And so, the very human activity of drinking beer came to be.

Everyone drank beer, men and women, old and young.  It provided concentrated nutrients – calories, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals.  Even before boiling became a step in the brewing process, beer was safer to drink than water because the alcohol killed most of the pathogenic microbes. 

Throughout the ancient Near East, beer was thought to have curative powers.  It was used to treat coughs and swollen eyes, intestinal parasites, constipation and stomach pains.  While it's true that inebriation was always a problem lurking in the background, beers at the time were relatively low in alcohol, usually not surpassing 8% by volume, much lower than wine and spirits.

In the lands of Mesopotamia especially, beer culture was always quite strong.  We have a few images on clay tablets which depict people sitting around a bowl of beverage and drinking it through straws.  The oldest one is believed to be about 6,000 years old(!) and is from Sumer.  Most historians believe the drink to be beer.

The ode to the beer goddess Ninkasi,
including perhaps the oldest recipe for beer.
As far as written texts go, there are several legends, recipes and account sheets which relate to beer.  For example, there is a 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem which honors Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing.  (Most of the deities associated with brewing were feminine, but more about that later.)  This poem also contains the oldest surviving barley beer recipe.  Two of the lines are:


          Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the                                                collector vat.
          It is [like] the onrush of the Tigris and Euphrates.

That's a lot of beer!

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian poem originally written in Akkadian, we see how beer is one of the elements which differentiates civilization from barbarism.  Enkidu, who was raised by animals and later becomes the close friend of the hero Gilgamesh, is introduced to human culture by the prostitute Shamhat:

 Enkidu does not know of eating food; of beer to drink he has not been taught. The prostitute opened her mouth.  She said to Enkidu: "Eat the food, Enkidu, [it is] the luster of life.  Drink the beer as is done in this land." Enkidu ate the food until he was sated; of the beer he drank seven cups.  His soul became free and cheerful; his heart rejoiced. . . . He anointed himself with oil.  He became human.

The Ebla Tablets discovered in Syria about 40 years ago are clay tablets, mostly written in Sumerian cuneiform, from about 4,500 years ago.  They tell us a lot about daily life in that city, including the production of beer.

About 4,000 years ago, the famous law code of King Hammurabi regulated the sale and the strength of beer.  For example, stiff fines were imposed on anyone selling beer at inflated prices. 

From the language, it was clear that this was referring to women innkeepers.  They were also warned that they had to accept grain as payment for beer, and not insist on silver.  Mesopotamian priestesses could not drink beer in public.  The code states:

          If a [priestess] who does not reside within the cloister should open a tavern or               enter a tavern for some beer, they shall burn that woman.

I doubt if public drinking has ever since had such a harsh penalty!

Even though priestesses and other women were denied access to taverns, they were among the most prominent brewers.  This was true when most beer was brewed in the home, of course, since women were in charge of the family's food and drink requirements.  Brewing was closely associated with baking bread because the ingredients were so similar: grain, water and perhaps other additives for flavor.

When brewing became industrialized, actually a big business, women also continued to work in the breweries.  Some temples also had their breweries, and these were staffed by the priestesses.  Other professions had their patron deities, but only those for beer brewing were goddesses, Ninkasi (the Sumerian goddess who covered the production of beer), Siris (the Mesopotamian goddess of beer and Ninkasi's daughter), and Siduri (who covered the enjoyment of beer). 

As the beer industry grew, male workers also joined in.  Several archaeological sites in Mesopotamia have revealed large quantities of vats, jugs and strainers, and these are assumed to be professional breweries.  Sumerian tablets found at Lagash and dating over 4,400 years ago report on the supply of grain to brewers and on the supply of the beer itself.  Some 60% of the cost of beer went towards wages, a proportion which is probably accurate even in modern breweries.

In other professions, a ration of beer was part of the wages.  A simple laborer in Sumer received approximately one liter of beer a day.  Low-ranking officials received two liters; officials of a slightly higher rank and women in the royal court got three; high-ranking officials took home five liters a day!  These quantities demonstrate that beer was indeed a major part of the average diet.  They also point to the fact that this beverage must have had a very low alcoholic content.  If not, all of Sumer would have been walking around inebriated every day!

With beer such a universal and accessible drink, there was a need for variety.  According to tablets relating to beer, Mesopotamians were familiar with at least eight different beers made from barley, eight brewed from wheat, and three which used a combination of grains. 

The use of hops as a flavoring in beer was unknown, since these were first used no earlier than the ninth century CE in Europe.  But beers were flavored with such additives as honey, date syrup, grapes, figs and sycamore.

The brewing process in Mesopotamia was different from modern brewing.  These days, the malted grain itself is steeped in water which then undergoes fermentation with yeast.  In the Fertile Crescent, there was an intermediate stage: baking the grain into loaves of bread.

This is how it worked: The grain was first steeped in water for two to three days.  The water was poured away and the softened grains began to germinate, releasing enzymes which converted the starch to sugars.  At this stage, the germination was halted by roasting the grain or just heating it in the Middle Eastern sun.  This process, called malting, is still basically done today as the first step in brewing.

But then the grain was ground, mixed with spices (or not) and baked into loaves of bread.  This intermediate baking process, some brewing experts claim, is akin to the modern day process of roasting the malt in kilns, where the dry heat prevents mold growth and assists the development of enzymes.   
When these loaves were crushed and left to soak in a vat of water, the fermentation process began.  After several days, this sweet liquid would drip through holes in the bottom of the vat into another container.  Here it would continue to ferment for a few more days as the alcoholic content rose.  And voila!  Beer.

What happened then?  There were no cans, no bottles.  Unlike wine, beer at the time could not be stored for long periods.  It had to be drunk as soon as possible after it was made.  The fresh beer was poured into ceramic vessels for transporting it to wherever there were drinkers: homes or taverns or temples.  The most common type of beer container in Mesopotamia was large and pear-shaped, and had to be rested on a stand. 

Drinking could be done alone, with food, or more usually, in social situations.  As was pointed out above, one of the more common clay depictions of social life in Mesopotamia (particularly on cylinder seals from the third millennia BCE) is two or more men sitting together and drinking beer with straws out of a common bowl.  The straws were necessary because seeds, straw, chaff and chunks of bread would usually be floating on the top of the beer, and the straws enabled the imbibers to get to the clear liquid underneath. 

For the wealthy, even beer-drinking straws could be signs of social status.  Gold straws were found in the royal tomb of the Sumerian lady Pu-abi in the city of Ur Kasdim, next to the silver vessel which probably held her daily beer ration.

Another clay tablet from Dur-Sharrukin, the capital of Assyria 2,800 years ago, shows four noblemen drinking their beer out of tankards without straws.  Apparently, this beer had been pre-strained, as befits the social class of the drinkers.


From all accounts of documentation (papyrus and wall hieroglyphics) and drawings, beer brewing and consumption was even more widespread in Egypt than in Mesopotamia.  Many Egyptologists are convinced that it was the production and distribution of grain for baking and brewing that supported the entire economic and political structure of ancient Egypt.  Witness the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, where the distribution of stored grain during a famine led to the concentration of all land into the hands of the Pharaoh.    

The earliest textual reference to beer is from the time of the Fifth Dynasty, around 2500 BCE.  The word used then was washenket, but beer generally was called heket or tenemu

There is evidence, however, that beer was brewed in the Nile Delta region even earlier, in the fourth millennium BCE.  Beer could certainly be called the "national drink" of ancient Egypt, the "wine of this land."  
Model of Egyptian beer brewers.
As in Mesopotamia, beer had a divine feminine source, in this case the goddess Hathor, called "the inventor of beer brewing" or the "Lady of Drunkenness."  There was an annual festivity at her shrine in Dendera, where unlimited supplies of beer were distributed to the pilgrims.  No doubt public drunkenness became a big problem.

Another legend has it the god Osiris, associated with fertility, death and resurrection, who taught the Egyptian forefathers how to brew beer.  And although Hathor may be closely associated with beer, it was actually Tjenenet who was the goddess of beer.  With polytheism, there is always a choice.    
People from all levels of society had their daily beer ration: from the Pharaoh and the nobility, to the common laborers, soldiers and even schoolchildren.  The basic daily ration of the "employed" workers who built the pyramids at Giza, for example, was five loaves of bread and two jugs of beer.  We're not sure if this included the "slave" laborers.   
To provide for all of this consumption, every Egyptian household had the necessary implements to brew its own beer.  As in Mesopotamia, brewing and baking were in the hands of the women.  In addition, quite a few sites have been found throughout Egypt which were clearly industrial-scale breweries.  These include Kahun, Tel el-Amarna, Kom el-Nana, and Hieraconpolis.   

In March 2015, workers at a building site in Tel Aviv discovered 17 storage pits for produce which were 5,000 to 5,500 years old.  The pits contained a 6,000-year-old dagger and flint tools, as well as animal bones and hundreds of pottery shards dating back 5,000 years. 

Some of the pottery was made with straw and other materials which link it to Egyptian vessels used for brewing beer.  This would make it the northernmost Egyptian site during the early Bronze Age, as well as the northernmost Egyptian brewery which was ever discovered. 

Were these vessels made in Egypt and imported to Tel Aviv, or were they made by Egyptians living in Tel Aviv?  Were the Egyptians living there making the beer only for themselves, or did they share it with the locals?  Archaeologists are still looking for these answers.

What we can assume, however, is that the Egyptian brewery in Tel Aviv used the same process as other Egyptian breweries and which is well portrayed on a wall painting from the tomb of the Egyptian official Ti at Sakkara, dating back to the third millennium BCE. 

An Egyptian depiction of the
various steps in brewing beer.
Here we can see and read each stage in the beer brewing process: Storing the grain in silos; crushing the grain with large mortars and pestles; grinding the grain on flat stones (done by men and women workers) and sifting the flour; adding water and kneading the dough into loaves; pressing the loaves through a sieve to break them up and soaking them in water; pouring this mixture into pans which are then stacked up and baked; crumbling the baked loaves and adding leavening and water; kneading this mixture and leaving it to ferment; straining this liquid, which is now fresh beer, into a vat, and then pouring it into clay vessels which are then sealed with conical stoppers.

Whew!  How much experimentation, trail-and-error, and human intelligence must have gone into perfecting this process?  And all to produce a better cup of beer!

Harvesting grain.
The grain used to make this beer was either barley or emmer wheat, the main wheat variety grown in Egypt during the Pharaohs.  Quite a few types of Egyptian beers are mentioned, including dark beer, date beer, sweet beer, iron beer (perhaps having a red or rusty color), thick beer, garnished beer, and friend's beer. 

There was also "beer of eternity," which was placed in tombs to accompany the deceased to the afterlife.  It didn't have to taste very good – just have a long shelf life.  On one wall painting from Dendera, the deceased is pictured sitting on his chair while his wife offers him a jug of beer with the words: "Refreshing beer from your cellar, for your Ka, the sustaining vital powers."

The Land of Canaan/Israel

When we come to the Land of Canaan/Israel, archaeological evidence of beer brewing is much harder to find.  We have no recipes of brewing or allocation of beer, no pictures or clay tablets of noblemen or women drinking beer with a straw, no paintings of how to brew beer, no patron deities of brewing, no poems or epic adventures involving beer, and no sites attesting to industrial brewing (except those belonging to foreign invaders!).      

Even the earliest vessels associated with brewing – pottery jugs, baking pans, large vats, large mixing bowls (kraters), and pottery vessels with a single hole in the bottom for straining – were mostly all found in areas which were controlled and inhabited by Egyptians!  Beginning from the late fourth millennium BCE, these objects were found in En Besor and Deir el-Balah near Gaza and at Arad in the Negev Desert.

Also reflecting possible Egyptian influence are the findings of bronze straw strainers at Gezer, Megiddo and Tell el-Ajjul in Gaza.  These unusual implements, which are assumed to have been attached to the bottom of drinking straws, are from the Middle Bronze Age, 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.      

But what about the "natives" – the Canaanites, the Philistines and the Israelites?  Here, it's not until the Iron Age, "only" 3,000 years ago, that we find any evidence of beer brewing and drinking.  Instead of sitting around drinking beer through straws, the inhabitants of Canaan had individual beer jugs.  The unfiltered beer was poured into the top of these jugs.  The drinker held the jug by a handle and drank the beer through a spout which came out of the side of the vessel.  Very convenient. 

But what made the beer jug special was that the beer was filtered through holes in the clay before it traveled down the spout and into the mouth.  In some examples of these jugs, there was a ceramic strainer in the top as well, so that the raw beer was filtered twice: once when it was poured into the jug, and again just before it was drunk. 

Jugs like these were used by the Philistines and the Canaanites/Israelites.  The only archaeological differences we can see is that the Philistine jugs were better crafted and had extensive painted decoration, while the Canaanite/Israelite jugs were somewhat cruder.  But they both functioned in the same way – to give the imbiber a pleasant, clean and tasteful experience while enjoying beer.

Whatever else is known about the beer-making and beer-drinking habits in the Land of Israel is found in the Tanach, also known by Jews and Christians as the Bible, and in the Talmud, the record of rabbinic teachings compiled between the first and the seventh century of the common era.  And that is covered in the next essay.    


Dayagi-Mendels, Michal.  Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times.  Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1999. 
History of Beer.  Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_beer
Hornsey, Ian S.  A History of Beer and Brewing.  Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.
Horst Dornbusch, (August 27, 2006).  Beer: The Midwife of Civilization.  Assyrian International News Agency (Online)
Smith, Gregg.  Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries.  New York: Avon Books, 1995.