November 25, 2019

An Israeli in the wonderland of American beer

Image result for American beer"First of all, I'm very happy with the variety of craft beers we have in Israel: our locally brewed beers, supplemented by some very fine imports.  What's available in Jerusalem stores, pubs and restaurants can keep me satisfied till the end of my days (whenever that is).

But on a recent trip to the U.S., I was awed by two visits with family members to a neighborhood beer hall and a brewery taproom, chosen completely arbitrarily, seeking no special or seasonal brews that get beer geeks traveling hundreds of miles.  No, that's not for me.  It was enough just to go local to experience some of the combinations and permutations of beer styles that is now the American craft beer scene.  Maybe the pessimists are right that it's ephemeral and unsustainable, but for now America is a Garden of Delights for the beer-loving visitor.

Ami and Trudy join me for four Floridian craft beers
in the World of Beer.
Let me give you two examples:

Our first stop was southern Florida to visit my mom and brother.  My son Ami from Washington, DC, joined us for a few days, and together with Trudy we visited the World of Beer in Coconut Creek.  WOB is a chain of 53 craft beer restaurants across the U.S., 15 or so in Florida alone.  We've been there before and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  [You can read about a previous visit here.] 

Our attentive waiter (who also knew a thing or two about selling beer) offered us a flight of four beers.  Since we like to drink local whenever possible, we chose Florida breweries.             

First up was Neon White IPA from the MIA Beer Company in Doral, Florida.  This is brewed with Pilsner malt and wheat, and hopped exclusively with Citra.  Alcohol by volume is 7.5%.  In our glass it was very hazy, orange juice colored, with a lovely white head.  The aroma is grapefruit and pineapple, with Ami also detecting some mango.  The strong bitterness was just right for me, but too much for Ami, who prefers his beers with lower level IBUs (International Bittering Units).

So he preferred our second glass: Bell Cow Milk Chocolate Porter from Jdub's Brewing Company in Sarasota.  An opaque dark brown with a tan head, this beer has aromas of chocolate and malt.  The taste reminded me of an old-fashion egg cream, although the lactose sweetness was kept in check by the dark malts.  ABV is 5.6%.

We ventured into different territory with Single in Havana, a Belgian Singel ale (not very commonly brewed outside of monasteries), brewed with pink guava pulp and juice.  The brewery, Barrel of Monks Brewing in Boca Raton, specializes in Belgian-style beers, and they chose this lightest of the style, with an ABV of only 4.2%, because of the Florida weather.  It's a semi-hazy, mid-amber color, and the aroma is sweet fruit and guava.  The sweetness disappears when it hits your tongue, with bitter and slightly sour guava on top.  The finish is very dry and it even left me a little breathless.  Ami was impressed with this light, refreshing and fruity beer.

Our last beer was also an "only in America" hybrid -- a Cucumber Berliner Weiss from the Florida Avenue Brewing Company in Tampa.  This is a traditional Berliner Weiss, a kettle-soured wheat ale, but flavored with a massive amount of fresh cucumbers.  As clear as ginger ale, with an aroma of sour funk, and a mildly sour taste with cucumber and crispy citrus.  This is a wonderful summer beer, and fortunately for us, it was summer in Florida.  Can't get any more summery than that!

A quiet street on a quiet day:
Outside The Bottle House Brewing Company
in Cleveland Heights.
From Florida we traveled north to the cooler climes of Cleveland, Ohio, to visit Trudy's brother Dan and his wife Carole.  Dan, a retired rabbi and psychologist, has been following my blog since its inception and was eager to take Trudy and me to a Cleveland craft brewery, of which there are about 25.  (What we didn't expect was Dan's growing enthusiasm when we began to taste the beers.)   

We chose The Bottle House, a cozy brewery and taproom, because it was 1) conveniently located for Dan, and 2) was open when we wanted to go.

The Bottle House tap list.
The brewer and co-owner, Brian Benchek, wasn't there, but the attendants were knowledgeable and helpful.  We ordered a flight of four beers, choosing them according to different styles.

First in line was Erie Coast IPA, hazy and pale and 6.3% ABV.  At the first sip, we all said "grapefruit and citrus" -- it was so dominant.  But then Dan ventured, "Maybe a little pine, right?"  Well, yeah, very good.  It was dank and very bitter, but without harshness and even a soft finish.  A well made and nicely balanced IPA.

Trudy never liked very bitter beers, but Dan and I agreed that Erie Coast got us off to a good start.

Trudy about to take a four-beer flight. 
Next was La Tentadora, a 9% ABV Imperial Stout aged in Bourbon barrels with cherries and paprika.  (Who thinks of these things?)

Dark as black coffee, it had aromas of espresso and dark chocolate.  "Aren't there also cherries in the aroma?" asked Dan.  I guess so.  "Hey, this is fun.  Is this what you do?"

Well, it isn't all I do.  I do have my advertising work, and my children and grandchildren, and other hobbies.  But, yes, this is the gist of beer tasting and sharing your opinions with other people.

Taking craft beer seriously:
Brothers-in-law Dan and the old blogger.
The taste was rich with cocoa and malt, on the sweet side, and full bodied.  Hard to detect any bourbon or oak, but that was okay.  La Tentadora is a delicious and complex Imperial Stout -- a sipping beer -- we all agreed.     

What followed were two "wild," "spontaneous," or "sour" beers, whatever you want to call them.

Nova Raspberry, named a "Wild Ale," with 6.9% ABV, aged in wine barrels with raspberries and Brettanomyces yeast.  It's a lovely crimson color, like cranberry juice.  We all took dainty whiffs and voiced our associations: "berries," "sour berries," "dankness," "wet cardboard."  (This last one was from Dan, who was really getting into the flow.)  The taste was tart raspberry preserves; sour like yogurt.  Dan noted that the carbonation sharpened the sourness.  We all agreed this beer would go well with crackers and cheese, like goat cheese and mild cheddar.  As we took our final sips, we noticed that the "oomph" was gone; the tastes were not
as prominent.
Welcome to The Bottle House
Brewery and Meadery.

We ended our flight with Duality #1, a spontaneous sour golden ale, 6.8% alcohol.  The aroma was sour and funky with bread from the malts.  There was almost no carbonation.  The taste was less sour than the Nova Raspberry, but devoid of fruit, spice or vegetable flavors.  "Rain forest green," was Dan's contribution, and "flat and not interesting."

The old blogger pumpin' iron
and pluggin' Goldstar:
It's not craft but it is Israeli!

We had gone into The Bottle House a family, and walked out a beer tasting team!  It was a great pleasure for me to see my brother-in-law Dan get turned on to the finer points of craft beer.  He always enjoyed good beer, and I'm sure this experience will make him appreciate it even more.

We thank Dan and Carole for being such wonderful hosts, for showing us around their home city, and for taking me, the old blogger, on their daily visits to the gym.  I used the occasion to show the colors for Israeli beer. 

Trudy and I soon afterwards left Cleveland and returned to Israel.  We both brought back a bunch of new memories and new tastes.           

November 19, 2019

Israeli za'atar beer from the Nomads

Jacob Mogerman (right) and
Yonah Rubin in their formative
days of home-brewing.
When Yonah Rubin and Jacob Mogerman, two thirty-somethings, met a few years ago, they were brewing for other people.

"We were young kids looking to advance ourselves, and we both knew how to make beer," explains Yonah.  "So it was natural for us to think about brewing together."

Yonah had grown up in Sharon, Massachusetts (though he lived in Jerusalem as a young child) and returned to Israel in 2005.  Jacob, from St. Louis, Missouri, came to Israel in 2010.

The result of that partnership is the newest Israeli craft beer on the block -- Nomads (which they contract brew at the Beer Bazaar Brewery in Kiryat Gat).  Their first beer is made with za'atar, a Middle Eastern plant used to spice many dishes and baked goods.  It normally is not used straight, but mixed with other spices.

My internet search turned up only five other beers in the world that have been brewed with za'atar (which may or may not even exist anymore): Three in the U.S., one in Lebanon, and one from the Taybeh Brewery in the West Bank.

The za'atar plant, a protected species in Israel,
and the blended spice which is made from it.
"The both of us thought about using za'atar at the same time," Jacob continues.  "It was amazing.  We wanted to use local ingredients in our beers, and za'atar is such an iconic and ubiquitous spice in Israel that we couldn't ignore it."

Yonah thanks David Cohen, owner of Israel's first craft brewery, Dancing Camel in Tel Aviv, for introducing him to the possibilities of using local ingredients in beer.   

"When I worked at the Dancing Camel as head brewer," he recalls, "we made some of our beers more 'Israeli' by using local products."

Beers from the Dancing Camel have included date honey (silan), etrog (citron), mint, honey, chili pepper, pomegranate, anise, carob, even salt from the Dead Sea!

Using za'atar, however, turned out to be a challenge.

"Za'atar's oils and compounds are a lot like hops," explains Yonah.  "The flavor will dissipate if you add it during the boiling process, and all you're left with is the bitterness.  So we steep the za'atar in the beer during the fermentation stage, a process known as 'dry-hopping' -- even though we're using za'atar and not hops.  It took us three or four attempts before we got what we wanted."

This would be a good time for me to tell you about Nomads Saison de Zion (Za'atar Beer), so I will.

It pours out of the bottle a light amber color, quite clear, with strong carbonation and a large white head.  The za'atar is very present in the aroma, along with hay or grass, and yeast.  (The aroma and flavor of za'atar is something you can't mistake.)  In the taste, you get the za'atar and the typical spice from the Saison yeast -- spicy enough so that I actually felt a tingling over my tongue.  The sweet hints of the za'atar and the spice balance each other very nicely.  The beer is medium bodied and a little dry in the finish.

Hummus and za'atar:
Made for each other.
Since I am a big fan of za'atar on my salads and on my bread, I enjoyed this beer no end.  It begs to be drunk with foods which are enhanced by the za'atar spice -- especially hummus. 

Yonah and Jacob plan to introduce more beers under the Nomad's label in 2020, also using local products, herbs and spices.

"In our age of instant and constant communication, you find the same beer styles being brewed all over the world," insists Jacob.  "We don't want to just take a foreign beer style and make it with Israeli ingredients.  We believe we are in a unique situation with all of our different immigrant groups bringing something to the table, combined with the native agricultural products that have always symbolized the Land of Israel.  We want to use this to develop a truly Israeli beer." 

November 14, 2019

The BJCP in Israel: Serious beer judging and what it means

If there is one standard in the world to which all good and true craft beers can repair, it is the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).

Begun in the U.S. in 1985 but now accepted and adhered to internationally, the BJCP seeks to ensure that all beers are judged by the same style criteria no matter where they are brewed.  A prize-winning IPA in California, for example, should finish in the money in Tokyo.  And a stout brewed in Cape Town which matches the flavor profile of one made in Tel Aviv, should score about the same in competition.

Today in Israel, almost all of the home-brew competitions adhere to the BJCP guidelines and use BJCP judges -- Mevshalim, B'tsisa, BeerYamina and Isra-Brew, to name a few.  To handle this task, and others, Israel now boasts about 40 home-grown BJCP judges.

Back when he was brewing with Basha-Flom,
Omer Basha (left) shared some of
his beers with the old blogger.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
The one person most responsible for bringing the program to Israel is Omer Basha of Beersheva, former partner (along with Dvir Flom) in what was the Basha-Flom Brewery, and a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics.

Omer was recently awarded the highest rank in the BJCP -- a Master Judge.  There are only about 160 of such in the entire world!

"We were able to get the BJCP to send two proctors to Israel in 2017 to give the first exam," explains Omer, sharing the credit with fellow brewer Ephraim Greenblatt.

The old blogger tries to make a point
while Omer Basha explains the details
of the BJCP program in Israel.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
"In February 2017, the first exam was given in Israel to 18 persons, and most of them were certified."

In order to become a BJCP judge you have to contend with not one, but three examinations.  The first is the online entrance exam, where you have to answer 180 questions in 60 minutes.

Then comes the tasting exam -- 90 minutes during which you have to taste and judge six beers, while filling out score sheets.

The final written exam is 90 minutes and consists of 20 true-or-false questions and five essays.

Only 160 in the world:
Omer Basha's Master Beer Judge certificate.
Omer explains:  "The examiners are looking for your abilities in perception, description, and feedback on how to improve the beer.  They also score your evaluation skills and completeness in answering."

Whew!  This is obviously not a test you can breeze by.  It takes studying and memorizing a vast amount of material; Topics such as beer styles, characteristics and ingredients; BJCP ethics and procedures; recipes, brewing processes and trouble shooting.

Here are some examples of questions you might come up against:

True or false:  Light malt sweetness is part of the flavor profile of Belgian Blond Ale.
                       Diacetyl in a British Brown Ale is acceptable due to the yeast strain.

The hops most appropriate for a Strong Bitter are:
a) Kent Goldings and Fuggles
b) Styrian Goldings and Saaz
c) Cascade
d) Hallertauer and Tettnanger
e) Any low alpha acid varieties

How did you do?

Certified beer judges judging, vs. . . . 
Omer continues:  "The judging rank you get is determined by your grade.  To become a Recognized Judge, you have to get a score of at least 60 in the tasting exam, and it's enough to take the entrance exam and the tasting exam.  If you get at least 70 in the tasting exam plus five experience points (you get a half-point each time you participate in a judging), you become a Certified Judge.   

"Scoring over 80 as a composite score in the tasting and written exams gets you the rank of a National Judge, and over 90 makes you a Master."

 . . . amateur beer tasters tasting.
(Photo: Mike Horton)
The 40 or so BJCP judges in Israel are in high demand for local competitions, and some even get invited to judge in overseas competitions.  I asked Omer if personal tastes can interfere with beer judging.  For example, I pointed out, a critic can give a movie or a restaurant a glowing review, while another person with different tastes can find them atrocious.

"It's not the same as judging," Omer answered.  "We evaluate a beer by the way it adheres to its style guidelines, not by our personal tastes.  I may love a beer that's called an amber ale, for example, but if its color, aroma, taste and/or some other characteristics are not what an amber ale should be, I have to take  off points and give it a lower score."

In the Israeli and foreign competitions that accept the BJCP guidelines, each beer entry is tasted and scored by two to four judges.

The BJCP Beer Score Sheet:
Not an easy task!
"Then we discuss the beer and explain our scoring," adds Omer.  "All the scores have to be within a certain number of points of each other to be valid.  It's normally three, five or seven points, depending on the competition.  If the spread is greater than that, the judges discuss it until they reach an agreement.  They almost always do this without difficulty."

What is difficult is the judging itself.  As Omer puts it: "It's hard work to break down a beverage and evaluate each of its aroma and flavor attributes -- and do it again and again!  We call this 'palate fatigue.'"

My take-away from all of this is that beer judges, whether BJCP-certified or not, are very dedicated volunteers who are working for the good of the "craft beer community," if you can call it that.  The judging sessions can easily stretch into hours, involving dozens of beers.  You have to stay focused, you have to treat each beer like it was the first, and you have to fill out the score sheet so it has value to the brewer who gets to read it.

This, Omer emphasizes, is perhaps the most important element in certified beer judging: Giving the brewer a chance to read what expert judges have to say about his or her beer and how to make it better suited to the style guidelines.  "In the long run," says Omer, "it is this feedback that will result in the overall improvement of craft beer in Israel.  This includes home-brewers as well as commercial micro-breweries.  Everybody benefits from expert and fair judging."

November 2, 2019

Beer Market brings "take-home draft beer" to Jerusalem

The new Beer Market
in Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
The concept is not a new one.  It's been in cities around the world for several years, and even in some Israeli cities since 2017.  But it's just arrived in Jerusalem.

We're talking about draft beer you can take-away and drink at home, or wherever else you want to.  Yes, the same draft beer that you drink from a tap in your neighborhood bar or restaurant.

"I don't know why no one else opened a place like this in Jerusalem before now," ponders Yuri Volman, one of the partners of Beer Market in the Machane Yehuda market (3 HeCharuv Street), which opened two months ago.  "I and my partner, Alex Lobanov, thought that the time was right to bring this idea to Jerusalem.  There are a large number of tourists in this city who want especially to try Israeli craft beers.  Jerusalemites too appreciate Israeli craft beers more than other cities.  Now they can bring the beer home fresh from the tap."

Partner Alex Lobanov mans the taps
at the new Beer Market in
Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
It works like this: Beer Market has three sizes of clean, empty, brown plastic bottles – half-liter, liter, and liter-and-a-half.  You pick the size you want and one of the 15 beers on tap.  The taps were custom-made in Russia and include a special apparatus for filling bottles.  The opening is sealed tight to keep air from touching the beer as it is filled, and to keep the amount of foam to a minimum.  The bottle is then sealed with an airtight screw cap.

"The unopened draft beer will stay fresh for about a week in the refrigerator," explains Yuri.  "After it's opened, you should finish it as soon as possible, since oxidation is a great enemy of beer."

The Beer Market's custom-made taps for
filling bottles with fresh draft beer.

(Photo: Mike Horton)
The Beer Market charges NIS 25 for a half-liter, NIS 39 for the liter, and NIS 59 for the liter-and-a-half.  You can also buy glasses of beer to drink there for the same prices, which are quite reasonable.  A tasting "flight" of four different beers (each cup 150 milliliters) costs NIS 34.
There are draft beers from Ronen, Emek Ha'ela, Malka, Negev, Jem's, Buster's Hard Lemonade, and Shoshana (an "Israeli" beer brewed with mint in Belgium).  There is also one rotating tap for special or seasonal beers which currently holds Alexander's new Saison.  You can also have liquors and cocktails at the bar.  Light snacks such as nacho chips and edamame are available.

Although Beer Market is the first to bring take-away draft beer to the greater Jerusalem area, two chains have been operating in other Israeli cities since 2017.  They carry both Israeli craft beers and foreign imports, while Beer Market sells Israeli craft beers exclusively.  There's Beer Station (with stores in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheva, Ashdod, Rishon L'Tzion, Bat Yam and Petach Tikva) and Beer Point (Beersheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Bat Yam and Rishon L'Tzion).  Bira Nekuda has a similar store in Rechovot.      

Jerusalemites have always known that the best beer you can have is fresh from the tap.  Now they can bring it home with them to share with family and friends. 

A version of this article appeared Friday, November 1, in 
The Jerusalem Post local weekly, In Jerusalem.