July 9, 2019

Shevet Brewery comes out of the shadows

I first heard of a new brewery being built in Pardes Hanna about a year ago.  People were whispering, "major investment," "ultra-modern," "nothing like it in Israel."  Curious, I tried to track it down but didn't get very far.

The old blogger tours the new
Shevet "brewstillery" with partners
Lior Balmas (center) and Neil Wasserman.

(Photo: Mike Horton) 
Then, around seven months ago, I began seeing notices on social media about a new beer brand – Shevet (Hebrew for "Tribe") – being sold in a few locations in the north of Israel.  I was able to make contact with one of the partners, Neil Wasserman, but every time I suggested that I write about the brewery, he politely told me, "Not yet.  We're still not ready." 

Well, they just became without a doubt ready.  After Wasserman told me the time has come, I rode to Pardes Hanna with Mike ("Have camera, will travel") Horton and found a brewery that lived up to all the rumors about it.

It could be a work of modern art,
but it's the twin stills at the
Shevet brewstillery in Pardes Hanna.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Only, it's not just a brewery.  Wasserman's background (in addition to being a retired NYC police officer) is distilling.  He is a whisky collector and connoisseur, with a wide knowledge of the distilling sciences.  A few years back, even before he came on Aliya in 2015, Wasserman thought that if countries like Japan, Denmark and India could make quality whiskies, there's no reason Israel could not be doing the same.  This idea has motivated him until today.    
The whisky barrels that will be used
for aging beer, which will then be used
for aging whisky.  Clear?

(Photo: Mike Horton)
"You're standing in Israel's first 'brewstillery,'" he proudly told Mike and me.  "We brew beer and distill whisky under one roof – and benefit from the synergy they generate.  For example, after we finish with wooden barrels for aging our whisky, we can use them for barrel-aging some of our beers.  The beer picks up added layers of aromas and flavors from the whisky and the oak.  Then these same barrels can be used to give some of our whiskies the delicious notes of quality beer.  It's a two-way street."

Lior Balmas (right), Brewmaster at the
Shevet brewstillery, keeps the old blogger
entranced with his tales of fermentation,
while partner Neil Wasserman looks on.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Wasserman introduced us to his partner Lior Balmas, a 17-year veteran of craft brewing abroad and in Israel, with a brewing diploma from Germany.  The brewstillery is the natural result of the two partners' expertise.

We admired the custom-made copper stills which were works of art in themselves, but the first aged whisky, under the Ruach label, won't be ready until at least September – and anyway, we were here for the beer.

The old blogger strains to see the tops
of the giant fermentation tanks at the
Shevet brewstillery in Pardes Hanna.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
The Shevet Brewery is visually stunning, shiny, modern and fully automated.  From the time the malted grain arrives in one-ton sacks until the beer bottles are packed, hands are only needed to press the buttons.  Conveyor tubes and piping suck the malt to the mash tun, to the kettle, mixing in the hops, to the centrifuge, to the fermentation tanks where the yeast is added and the wort magically becomes beer.

All of the tanks and equipment are self-cleaning.  The bottling line can fill and cap 5,000 bottles an hour.  I thought I heard that wrong, but Balmas repeated it: "Yes, 5,000."
A view of the automated high-speed
bottling line at the Shevet brewstillery:
5,000 bottles an hour!

(Photo: Mike Horton) 

The automated keg filler cleans and fills 30 twenty-liter kegs every hour.

There are cold storage rooms for the hops and yeast, and for holding the full bottles and kegs before they are shipped out.

Balmas didn’t want to reveal the brewing output or the total capacity of the fermentation tanks, but my impression was that Shevet is now the largest and most modern craft brewery in Israel. 

Shevet partners Lior Balmas (left) and
Neil Wasserman treat their guests to cold glasses
of their wonderful beer.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Building a brewstillery of this size and quality took a major investment in property and equipment.  Wasserman was able to obtain this from a U.S.-based investment group which has other real estate interests in Israel.

"Our business plan was very calculated and methodical," Wasserman says, explaining why I and other Israeli beer lovers had to wait such a long time for Shevet to reach us.

"We introduced our beers first in stores and restaurants around Pardes Hanna," he continues, "gradually expanding the area of distribution."  Balmas adds: "We wanted to make sure everything was running well before we rolled out." 

Shevet partner and Brewmaster Lior Balmas
inspects a brewing kettle.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
Overseeing this plan is Yotam Baras, the former owner and brewer of The Dictator beer, now in charge of marketing and sales for Shevet.        

Wasserman himself gave special attention to branding the Shevet beers.  The labels are similar in typeface and style, though each beer has its own color, logo and symbol.  The first two beers are The Wee Laddie, a Scottish Ale, symbolized by a strong Scotsman in a kilt with a puppy on his shoulder, and The Ice Mann, a Helles Lager, with a hipster speed skater.  All labels share a sketch of a tandem bicycle, but each beer has its symbol interacting with the bicycle differently.

I noticed that the logo, symbols and slogans have no Jewish or Israeli associations, though there is Hebrew on the label.  This was done deliberately to give the labels an international look and feel, something that could facilitate plans to export their beers in the future.     

"Our slogan is 'Hop On,'" Wasserman explains.  "There's room on our bicycle for all the tribe – and everyone can be a member of it."

After our tour of the brewery, we sat down for the serious business of tasting Shevet's two beers.  Both of them are styles which, as far as I know, are not made by other Israeli craft breweries.  "We want to highlight original beer styles that exist around the world," Balmas said.  "We can produce in Israel any beer style from any country."

The Ice Mann, at 5.2% alcohol by volume, is a Helles lager beer that pours out a clear light amber color with a foamy but fast dissipating head.  The noble German hops, in the case Hallertauer, give the beer a sparkling aroma of spice and grass.  There are flavors of grain, malt and honey, and the finish is bitter and peppery on the tongue and in the throat. 

The differences between a Helles and a Pilsner lager are very subtle.  Helles tend to be less hoppy, while stronger on the malty taste and a bit sweeter.  Obviously, there is a lot of overlapping. 

(Several Israeli craft breweries make a Pilsner beer, and we reviewed some of them here.)

The Wee Laddie Scottish Ale (5.5% ABV) is in a different league altogether.  Its clear, dark amber color reminds you of whisky.  Malt predominates in the aroma, along with caramel.  It has a full, rich taste – sweet malt, caramel and vanilla.  As the beer warms up, the flavors are enhanced, yet remain balanced between bitter and sweet.  A very enjoyable drink.

Scotch Ale is also known as "Wee Heavy," and the name Wee Laddie was chosen to show that, although it's in the same family, it's not as strong as its big cousin.

For the future, Wasserman says that Shevet will slowly expand its distribution throughout Israel, as well as add more beers to its repertoire.  "These may be more of our flagship beers," he explains, "or seasonal beers, limited edition beers, and premium barrel-aged beers.  In addition, our first Ruach whiskies should be hitting the market later this year.  We're also developing our facilities to include a Visitors' Center, and a separate building for barrel storage and whisky tasting. 

"Wait until we're done.  There will be no other place like this in Israel."

There's no doubt that Shevet is out of the shadows for good.

A version of this article is appearing Friday, August 2, in 
The Jerusalem Post Magazine.

The 3 new beers from BEERS

When I visited the BEERS 2019 Exhibit in Tel Aviv a little earlier this year, I found three beers from commercial craft breweries being unveiled to the public.  I mentioned them in my blog post here and I promised to give more detailed reviews a little more down the line.

As I say, if I remember I made a promise, I try to keep it.

From the Shapiro Brewery in Beit Shemesh comes Israel first commercial sour beer.  They call it Strong Sour because of the alcoholic content -- 8.5% -- not because of the sourness.  It's a "kettle-soured" beer because the souring takes place in the mash kettle before the boil.  In this case, Brewmaster Yochai Kudler and Head Brewer Ory Sofer used a wild yeast which they collected from almond blossoms blooming around Jerusalem in the early spring.  (Sounds like a theme song from a 1950s movie.)

The wild yeast and accompanying microbes are what give the beer its sour taste.  When the wort is boiled, the single-cell organisms die and the souring ceases.  Afterwards, domesticated Saison yeast is added for a second fermentation.

On to our tasting:

Strong Sour pours out a hazy, orange-amber color.  The sourness is immediately felt in the aroma as sour fruit, along with citrus, floral and yeast.  It makes you want to taste what this is all about -- and what you find are more sour fruits and fruit juice.  My drinking partner Moshe and I detected flavors of apple, grapefruit and peach.  The sourness was always balanced by the malt sweetness, even as the final pourings give you a cloudier beer.  The mouthfeel is light, and the finish tart and refreshing.

When I wrote about this beer for the first time, I called it an "entry-level sour," implying that you can and should "advance" to even sourer beers.  Well, that wasn't quite fair.

If you taste and enjoy beers more sour than Strong Sour, by all means go for it.  But if you don't, if Strong Sour is the most sour you want to go, then you're in no way deficient if that's where you stop.

The same is true if you find no pleasure in any sour beer.  You shouldn't have to force yourself to like something just because it's popular or "trending."  They're your taste buds.  Listen to them.

From sour to hot.  Esh ("Fire") is the new beer from HaDubim ("The Bears") Beer (contract brewed at the Beer Bazaar Brewery in Kiryat Gat).  It's a hoppy and bitter pale ale brewed with shati red peppers. 

At the BEERS Exhibit, HaDubim partner and brewer Rotem Bar Ilan was offering to make Esh even hotter by adding drops of shati pepper distillate; the beer straight from the bottle is certainly not the hottest of chili beers I've ever tasted.

The hops used in this pale ale are Chinook, Amarillo, Cascade and Citra, all American craft beer hops which together add bitterness and intense floral, citrus and spice flavors.  Alcohol by volume is 4.7%. 

The beer is a cloudy, mid-amber color with almost no head when we poured it.  The aroma was rich and fruity, with strong citrus scents and already wafts of pepper.  The taste is very bitter (the label gives the number of IBUs -- International Bittering Units -- as 63, quite high), with fruit flavors, notably orange and grapefruit.

Only at the end of the swallow do you feel the pepper in your throat.  It's competing with the bitterness and it really doesn't matter which wins.  Esh is a well constructed hoppy pale ale -- with a surprising hot twist at the finish.

Also introduced at BEERS is a new "single-malt and single-hop" (SMASH) India Pale Ale from the Six-Pack Brewery, the Super Hero Beers (made at the Beer Bazaar Brewery in Kiryat Gat).  SMASH IPA is brewed with Maris Otter malt and Columbus hops, very popular in IPAs for their intense bitterness and herbal-lemon undertones.  Alcohol by volume is 6%.

The Six-Pack SMASH IPA is a hazy, mid-amber color with aromas of flowers, grass and sweet fruit, including apricot.  The taste is mid-bitter, and as the beer warms up, you tend to get different flavors with every sip.  The body is full, and the finish is dry, bitter and refreshing. 

Six-Pack's one other beer on the market now is Ultimus, an amber ale.  Their Heavy Hitter, a Belgian trippel ale, is no longer produced.

More July beer festivals: Modi'in, Ramat Hasharon, Hod Hasharon

Before July finishes, you have a choice of three more beer festivals.  At least these are the ones that I know of.  Unfortunately, I won't be here for any of them, since Trudy and I are going on a vacation to Portugal (where we will attend the huge ARTBEERFEST in Caminha) and the U.S. for the rest of the month.  Here, in chronological order, is what's going on in Israel.  
The Third Modi'in Beer Festival
July 18-19
This is a festival I really enjoyed when I went two years ago. This year it's Thursday, July 18 (6:00 to 11:00 p.m.), and Friday, July 19 (noon to 5:30 p.m.), in the big courtyard of the Azrieli Mall.

According to the advance publicity, there will be over 45 kinds of beer, local and foreign, food trucks of all kinds and live musical entertainment. There are steps and benches to sit on all around the courtyard, if I remember correctly.

The performing bands include Overtone, The Boom Boom Boys, Ritalin Band, and the Tarante Groove Machine.

Entrance is free and you have to be 18 or over. This is a festival organized by our old friend Alechko Neznansky, and he is offering his usual three paths for buying beer: Three glasses of 250 milliliters each cost 55 shekels; four glasses cost 70 shekels; five glasses are 85 shekels. You can buy your beer tickets before the festival at this link (it's in Hebrew).

The organizers stress that the festival is accessible for those with special needs. For more information, write to alechkopro@gmail.com or phone 054-2111328.

Ramat Hasharon Beer Festival
July 24-25
For years, the publicity says, there has been talk about a local beer festival in Ramat Hasharon -- and now it's finally arrived.

It's taking place on Bialik Boulevard on Wednesday, July 24 and Thursday, July 25, from 6:00 p.m to 11:00 p.m. each day.  Admission is free to all those over 18.  Children under 10 can also enter, but only if accompanied by an adult.  I guess this means that anybody aged 11 to 17 is not allowed in under any circumstances.

Anyway, there will be a beer garden with dozens of beers from Israel and abroad, food trucks, arts & crafts stands, and live entertainment.  Wednesday will feature the Knesiyat Hasechel (The Mind Church) and the Ummagumma band.  Thursday, Mosh Ben-Ari and the Arctic Monkeys will take the stage.

Hod Hasharon Beer Park Festival
July 31 - August 1

The Four Seasons Park in Hod Hasharon is the location for the third Beer Park Festival, Wednesday, July 31, and Thursday, August 1.  The gate opens at 6:00 p.m.

There isn't any other information available on their Facebook page, but they say that it's "coming."  It's worth checking out from time to time.  At the least, you can see the beautiful photos from the past festivals and get some idea of what to expect.     

Here is the link:  https://www.facebook.com/drinkbeersavewater2/

Enjoy the summer -- Stay hydrated -- Drink responsibly!

July 7, 2019

ARTBEERFEST, here we come! (Cervejas do Portugal)

Mr. & Mrs. Old Blogger are taking time off from the hectic schedule of retirement and traveling to Portugal for a week, and thence to the U.S. for two more.

While in Portugal, we will visit Lisbon, Porto and Caminha.  This last little city, snug on the northern border with Spain, is home to the huge ARTBEERFEST, which we will attend on the last night, July 14.  The organizers have lined up 50 participating breweries -- mostly from Portugal, but also other European countries, the U.S. and, for the first time, Israel.  Yes, the Alexander Brewery from Emek Hefer will be representing Israeli craft beer.  I'll be meeting owner and brewer Ori Sagy there and reporting back to you how the Europeans are reacting to Alexander beer.

I understand there might be other exciting news for me to report about, so stay tuned.

I'm also meeting the indefatigable Octavio Costa, whose event organizing company is responsible not only for the ARTBEERFEST, but for at least five other beer festivals in Portugal, and Mario Beltran from the Lervig Brewery in Norway, whom I became acquainted with a few years back via my blog.

My wife Trudy thinks we're taking a vacation in Portugal.  I think that we're going to a big European beer festival.

Can we both be right?