January 28, 2019

Alexander wheat beer from the Gaza border

The Alexander Brewery in Emek Hefer has come out with a new wheat beer, brewed with wheat from the Israeli fields on the Gaza border which were damaged by incendiary kites. 

Before the winter rains began, the Hamas rulers in Gaza attacked Israeli farmlands by sending over kites and balloons carrying explosive devices or fire bombs.  About 7,000 dunams (1,730 acres) of wheat fields were destroyed, equal to around 15% of the wheat grown around the Gaza border.

Ori Sagy, the founder and owner of the Alexander Brewery, decided to step in and purchase a quantity of the surviving wheat from these fields to produce a wheat beer, called the Otef Azza (Gaza Border) Beer.  All the profits made from the sale of this beer are being given to help the farmers whose fields were burned.

The Alexander
Gaza Border Beer . . .
"Beer is a drink that begins in the field, in barley and wheat," said Sagy.  "From the start, we chose to use Israeli wheat from the fields in the south as one of the ingredients in our beer.  I grew up as a farmer, and the connection with fields and plants is a part of me.  I had to do something when I saw the heart-breaking sights of the fields and crops that were destroyed."

The Gaza Border Beer project was planned in conjunction with the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency in Tel Aviv, and from all indications, it has succeeded beyond expectations.  The beer received wide coverage in Israel and abroad.  The first batch was sold out in a week, so it is now being brewed on a continual basis until further notice.  To date, over $60,000 from the beer sales has been contributed to Gaza border farmers.  It's a great idea.  Not only did it promote Alexander Brewery and the Gaza Border Beer, but it also introduced many people to the very concept of Israeli craft beer!        

As to the beer itself, it is very much in the style of German wheat beer, or Weissbier.  It pours out a hazy yellow straw color with almost no head.  The aroma has spice and cloves, with a background of yeast and grains.  The flavor is mostly sweet, with spice and hops plus coriander and banana.  The finish is mildly bitter and stays in your mouth.  If you're a fan of the classic German wheat beer, you'll be pleased with Gaza Border Beer. 

. . . and the regular
Alexander Israeli Wheat Beer.
Since Alexander already brews an Israeli Wheat Beer, I was interested to learn if there was any difference between the two wheat beers.  I joined my drinking partner Moshe for a head-to-head tasting.  And the results: In spite of some flights of our imagination, there is no difference in appearance, aroma, taste and strength (5%).  They are the same beer. 

So if you'd like to drink an Alexander wheat beer, choose the Gaza Border Beer and your purchase will help support farmers who lost so much in the attacks.

January 24, 2019

Three newest IPAs -- Barzel, Negev, Bazelet

In the U.S., India pale ales have maintained their position as the most popular craft beer style.  It's safe to say that every one of the more than 7,000 micro-breweries makes at least one.  The same thing is happening in Israel.  Here are three of the newest:

Barzel Beer of Kibbutz Ha'ogen (but contract brewed at the Alexander Brewery in Emek Hefer) has come out with an IPA called Effie.  It pours out a clear, light amber, the color of dark straw.  Although actively carbonated, the head is thin.

IPAs are generally characterized by hop aromas and tastes that can be fruity, citrusy, piney and resinous, flowery, or some other interesting combination.  Effie has sharp aromas of pine and lemon, and bitter tastes of grass, apricot and tropical fruit/mango.  The finish is dry and bitter, which makes you want to keep drinking.  The alcohol by volume is a moderate 5.5%. 

Effie is light bodied and full of taste; typically a good summer beer, but with flavor enough to hold its own with a warm winter's meal.  It was our favorite of all the Barzel beers.   

The new Negev IPA (brewed at the Malka Brewery in Tefen) is an India pale ale which recognizes the limits of Israeli popular tastes.  With American and European IPAs competing with each other to reach new heights of intense hop flavors and bitterness, the Negev IPA is surprisingly delicate, avoiding the extremes that Israeli beer drinkers tend to shun.  ABV is 5.8%. 

It's a clear, light amber color, with almost no head after our pour.  There's a light hoppy, indistinct aroma, close to citrus (orange), yeasty, piney, and some sweet toffee.  The taste is also what I would generously call "mellow."  Mildly bitter with some citrus, pine, herbs and grain.  It's an enjoyable enough beer, but I think Israeli tastes these days are ready for something with stronger hop flavors and bitterness. 

A step in this direction was taken by the Bazelet IPA from the Golan Brewery in Katzrin.  The Golan Brewery rarely comes out with a new beer style, and this IPA is a good choice. 

At 7% alcohol, it's the strongest of this new batch of IPAs.  It's a hazy amber color with a miniscule white head.  There's a nice hoppy aroma of citrus and pine, yeast, pineapple, lemon and some malt.  With the taste, you get more citrus, tropical fruits and apricot, blending into a short, bitter finish.  This is the kind of crescendo I'm looking for in an IPA.    
All of these IPAs go classically with strong, spicy foods like curries, pizza, milder cheeses, and sweet desserts.   

I have little doubt that Israeli craft breweries will give us even more India pale ales as the new year rolls along.  

January 20, 2019

Two winter warmers: Alexander Barley Wine + Jack's Winter Ale 2019

Two really excellent beers have arrived in time to keep us warm on these winter days.  They're both rich in flavor and strong in alcohol – the two things we're looking for when the temperature drops.  Keeping warm is just a matter of using the right fuel.  Put your "light, crisp and refreshing" beers aside until at least April.

From the Alexander Brewery in Emek Hefer is Israel's first Barley Wine.

Born in England and adopted and adapted by U.S. breweries, the barley wine style of beer has an alcohol by volume (ABV) more commonly associated with wine than with beer (8-12%).  Also like wine, barley wines can be aged, with expected changes in the complexity of aromas and flavors.  Barley malt and alcohol are dominant in barley wines, with hops playing a distant third fiddle.  The American versions of barley wine, however, have stronger hop characters.

Alexander owner and brewmaster Ori Sagy said that the Israeli public is continuing to demand different beers of higher quality, and the decision to brew a barley wine "expands the boundaries of experience for Israeli beer lovers." 

"In honor of our tenth anniversary, we decided the celebrate with barley wine, one of the oldest styles of beer that dates back to the fifteenth century in England, and is a kind of bridge between the world of beer and the world of wine.  We just brewed a limited edition of about 2,230 bottles and each bottle is numbered." 

My bottle of Alexander Barley Wine was number 1469, and it poured a light copper color with a thin white halo of foam.  It dispersed a rainbow of aromas.  My drinking partner Moshe and I detected caramel, malt, alcohol and honey candy.  The first sip also brought a range of tastes as if they were all steeped in alcohol: caramel, toffee, vanilla and spice – finishing dry and bitter.  Alcohol by volume is a powerful 11.2%. 

For Moshe, the tastes conjured up visions of "oatmeal with butter and brown sugar."

There is nothing skimpy or weak about Israel's first barley wine.  It's a great beer to sip on a cold day or night.  If you must have it with food, strong cheeses or rich, intense desserts are best.  It easily overpowers most main dishes. 

The 2019 edition of Jack's Winter Ale has also arrived in time for the cold.  The Shapiro Brewery in Beit Shemesh has been producing this seasonal beer every winter since 2012.  The recipe has been finessed here and there over the years, but the basics have remained the same: a strong (8.5% ABV) malt-forward ale, aged with oak chips steeped in Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whisky.  This is not a "holiday" or "Christmas" ale filled with festive spices.  All of the intense flavors come from the skillful blending of specialty malts, hops and yeast – and the whisky-imbued wood aging.   

This season's pouring brought back memories of winters past.  A dark, reddish copper color, with aromas of sweet malt, caramel, vanilla and some whisky.  The mouthfeel is creamy, full-bodied ("chewy"), with rich, sweet tastes of alcohol, caramel toffee, cocoa and a little vanilla.  The tastes stay with you for a long and sweet finish.  

As in year's past, I didn’t get any real taste of bourbon, or wood for that matter, but I must assume that those whisky-soaked chips added something to the flavor background.  However it works, it succeeds.

I just enjoyed a bottle of Jack's Winter Ale with a Shabbat meal of a hearty cholent, a thick stew of barley, beans and potatoes.  It would go swimmingly with any full and flavorful winter meal.     

Jack's Winter Ale continues to be a winner year after year; something Israeli beer drinkers can look forward to as winter approaches.  I know I do.   

[Read more about previous versions of Jack's Winter Ale here (2015), here (2016) and here (2017).

January 12, 2019

The Israeli "Queen of Beer"

Male brewers . . . 
Not a week goes by without seeing an article or two on women brewers.  It may be North America, Europe or Asia, but the subject of women who make beer seems to captivate readers around the world.

Maybe it's because the industry has such a masculine image.  Say "brewer" and most people think of a burly dude, woolly bearded, tattoos covering both arms (and maybe more), unencumbered belly, hefting a beer keg on each shoulder.  I definitely know a few like that.

. . . female brewsters.
But historically, women have been the brewers of beer.  Beginning in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, beer was a family staple brewed in the kitchen the same as bread was baked in the kitchen.  As brewing became more industrialized to meet the growing demand, men began to be the workers in the breweries. 

Then again, in medieval Europe, beer was brewed and sold by "alewives" or "brewsters," some of whom became quite famous and prosperous. Brewing once again moved into masculine hands due to economic pressures and the church's demonization of women brewers and the taverns which they ran.   
The craft beer resurgence in the U.S. has helped restore some balance, with roughly a third of all brewery workers being women.  But here in Israel, women in the business are almost entirely invisible.    

No heavy stuff:
Na'ama Ashkenazi capping
bottles at home.
Meet Na'ama Ashkenazi, the self-styled "Queen of Beer" from Karkur, a woman who brews and sells craft beer commercially in Israel.

"I think it's pretty cool being a woman in a masculine business," she declares.  "What I can't do so easily is move around heavy stuff – like the cases of bottles, the sacks of malted grain and the brew kettles.  Okay, so I get help with this.  I'm currently contract brewing at the Sheeta Brewery in Arad, where the workers do all the heavy lifting.  When I brew at home, I use the mini-mash system, which is only five liters, maximum."

Is this the only problem you face as a woman in the industry? I ask. 

"Yes," Ashkenazi answers.  "Men brewers have never treated me any differently because I am a woman."

Ashkenazi reminds me that there are other women in the craft beer industry in Israel who are working in administration, accounting, marketing, and teaching.

(In addition, there are at least three other women who are professional brewers in Israel.  Israel's two industrial breweries both have women brewmasters working for them: Anat Meir is the head brewer for Carlsberg, a mass-brewed lager from the Israel Beer Breweries Ltd. in Ashkelon.  And Marina Zeltzer is the chief beer technician for Tempo Beer Industries in Netanya.  Hadas Karmazin in Moshav Talmei Yaffe near Ashkelon, runs home-brewing courses, workshops and beer events, as well as a store for home-brewing equipment and supplies.  She brews her own beers under the Karmazina label for use at her events.)       
Ashkenazi got into brewing without much planning aforethought, in short, like almost every other brewer I have ever spoken to!

The "Queen of Beer" (right) hosting
one of her beer tasting parties.
"My husband saw an ad for a course in home-brewing and thought I would like it," she relates.  "That was in 2010.  He was (still is) a career army officer and we had two young daughters.

"Brewing opened up a whole new world for me.  I loved the first ale we made and I wanted to find out more." 

Ashkenazi began attending lectures on beer, tasting session, brewpubs – anything to increase her knowledge of this captivating beverage.  At one of the tasting sessions, she thought, "I can do this much better.  I can make it multi-sensory with video presentations and sound."

She chose "Klara" as the brand name for her beer.  "It's a strong name and the name of my grandmother, who was a strong woman, one of the founders of Kibbutz Ma'abarot." 

After a few more months of planning, Ashkenazi emerged as the "Beer Queen of Israel," ready to put herself on the map. 

The old blogger accepts a gift
from the "Queen of Beer:
"It's not cigars or champagne. 
It's better.  It's beer!"
She started to organize and conduct beer tastings, workshops and lectures, home-brewing seminars, and special parties and events in workplaces and restaurants. 

"I love to speak in front of people, to share my love of beer," she admits.  "The emphasis is always on entertainment.  I try to bring other Israeli craft beers into the tastings, not only mine, and also foreign beers.  For some events when I speak to tourists, I use only Israeli craft beers.  I go into the different styles, the ingredients, the brewing process, and even some background about the breweries themselves."

The big push came when she entered a home-brew competition and her beers won gold and silver medals – and Klara was crowned "the best small brewery in Israel."
"I was hooked then," she confesses. 

Today, Ashkenazi's professional life revolves around craft beer, which she started brewing commercially in 2012.  After trying contract brewing in several locations, she now makes Klara beers at the Sheeta Brewery in Arad.

Klara Beer comes in three styles:

Every Klara beer label gives details
of the style, including infographics
showing the bitterness,
sweetness and color scale. 
India Pale Ale – One of the few beers in Israel brewed with Sorachi Ace hops, originating in Japan and now grown in the U.S.  It has a very fruity aroma and flavor with citrus (lemon) and mango.  Made with Israeli tastes in mind ("We really don't like things too bitter," according to Ashkenazi), it has the lowest level of bitterness that can still be called an IPA.  Alcoholic level is 6%.

Stout – A dark and sweet beer with flavors of coffee and roasted malt.  4.5% alcohol.

Belgian Tripel – A classic style, brewed with Belgian yeast for its distinctive taste.  Sweet and strong (8% alcohol), it is not a widely brewed style in Israel.

A very welcome feature of Klara beers is their very informative labels.  In addition to a written explanation of the style, each label includes color-coded infographics which show the beer's bitterness, sweetness and color.  Wouldn’t it be great if all beers had this on their labels?

Much of the beer that Ashkenazi brews goes to her own events.

She adds: "I am very pleased to see that more and more women are attending these events.  This empowers women to reach their own decisions and speak their minds about craft beer."

Today, Klara beers are sold only in beer specialty shops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheva and Karkur.

"In order to sell my beer in more places, I need to have a distributor, but that would leave me without any profit," Ashkenazi reveals.  "So it seems most of my efforts will continue towards what I love doing – being Israel's Queen of Beer and introducing people to the fantastic experience of craft beer through my seminars and tastings."

[A similar version of this article appeared in 
The Jerusalem Post Friday Magazine.]

January 2, 2019

Wake up and taste the oak: Experimenting with oak-aged beer

The mighty American oak tree.
In the early days, when beer was fermented and aged in wood barrels or casks, the presence of wood was felt in all brews.  That ended with the introduction of metal fermenters and tanks.  However, since about the 1980s, oak-aged beers are making a comeback as part of the craft beer movement.         

A few months ago, a friend of mine read on my blog that I was having trouble discerning the taste of wood in beer, and so he sent me some oak chips.

His name is Jeremy Sulzbacher, born in the UK and living in Antwerp with his Belgian-born wife for about 15 years.  I had met Jeremy when he was in Israel earlier to visit his three sons who live here.  He brought me some of his gluten-free, kosher-for Passover, ginger-based beer.  (You can read about that here.)

The oak chips that Jeremy sent me were of two varieties: American and French.  I promised him that I would use them in brewing beer and try hard to get my tongue around the different tastes -- if different tastes there were. 

The "tea" from the French
oak chips (left) was
noticeably darker than
the American. 
So even though this has nothing specifically to do with Israeli craft beer, I decided to experiment with these gifted oak chips.

Working with my home-brewing neighbor Moshe Lifshitz, we first made some nice cups of tea -- oak tea that is.  We boiled a few of the oak chips from the two sets, and let them steep for a good long time.  Then we compared the two teas.

The American oak made a much lighter colored tea than the French.  The aroma of wood was very understated in the American, but was more pronounced in the taste: something like tooth picks or ice cream sticks when you chew on them for a while.  There were also flavors of cinnamon and vanilla.

The French oak tea had about the same smell but the taste of the wood was deeper and stronger, with less of those other flavors.  They both were not too appetizing, but we were starting to recognize the different tastes.

When it came time to brew the beer, we consulted with other home-brewers and chose to make a Belgian Strong Ale.  This style provides a good base for the oak flavors to shine through, yet has enough strength so we wouldn't be tasting only the wood.

The hops used were Perle for the bittering; Styrian Goldings for flavor.  The four malts were pale barley and wheat.  The yeast was a strain used for Belgian strong ales.

Oak chips made for aging in
beverages.  Also available are
oak cubes and oak spirals.
At the end of fermentation, we divided the beer up into three batches: One without any oak chips, one with the French oak and one with the American oak.  We sterilized the chips before use by boiling them vigorously for 15 minutes.  All three batches were allowed to "condition" another three weeks before bottling.  Candy sugar was added to each batch for fermentation in the bottle.   The beers spent another three months in the bottles before we opened them for our final taste test.

The first variety we tasted was the beer aged with American oak.  It was semi-hazy copper colored, the hue you would expect from a blond Belgian strong, with a light tan head.  On the nose, you got a good whiff of the Belgian yeast, alcohol and bubbling brown sugar.  The taste also fit the style: semi-sweet, strong and rich, spicy and fruity, giving way to a dry finish.  But surprisingly, no wood that we could detect.  Remember that the tea made from American oak had a subtler taste than the French.   

You can't do an experiment
without the right equipment.
Although the beer aged with French oak had the same color as the American, in its other characteristics it was almost a mirror image.

The aroma, first of all, was weaker in the yeast and alcohol.  The taste, too, was less full and rich, and showed a drier and bitterer finish.  However, the oak chips were tasted and "felt" to a greater degree.  This truly had the character of an oak-aged beer.

Next we tried the "control" in our experiment -- the beer aged with no oak.

The color was clearer than the oak-aged versions, pointing to the darker color which had to be imparted by the oak chips themselves.  In aroma and taste, it was very close to the American oak: lots of alcohol, a bit sweeter and, of course, no wood at all.  But all the other tastes of the American oak ale had been richer and fuller than this.  Perhaps the American oak, which could not be detected as wood, was doing its bit by adding to the depths of the other flavors.  That seems to be a logical conclusion.   

Each of these three beers was enjoyable as a Belgian strong ale.  The addition of oak aging, in our opinion (Moshe's and mine), did make minor changes in the aromas and tastes in ways we did not expect.  These changes, however, were different with the American oak vs the French oak.  Yet this experiment developed our taste for oak which we should from now on be able to recognize and appreciate in beer -- and wine, for that matter. 

The experiment was well worth it, and now let's get back to the Israeli craft beer scene.