August 26, 2021

Shikma: The new micro-brewery built by industrial beer

Just recently, Israel's two industrial breweries have reached out to embrace craft brewing.  Although some may call it a "bear hug" rather than an embrace, it's a clear indication that big beer wants to become a part of the craft phenomenon.

We already wrote about Tempo Beer Industries in Netanya purchasing a controlling share in the Shapiro Brewery, a family-owned business in Beit Shemesh.  [You can read that article here.]  Tempo brews the popular Goldstar, Maccabee and Heineken brands.  

The first three Shikma beers:
Amber Ale, 
Märzen Lager, IPA.
(Photo: Amir Yakoby) 

Within a week after that announcement, the other brewing giant, Israel Beer Breweries Ltd. (IBBL) in Ashkelon, began to market its own craft beer, named Shikma, which was made in a new brewery built for this purpose near the IBBL facility.  IBBL has brewed Tuborg and Carlsberg beers under contract in Israel since the 1990s.  

Shikma (which means "sycamore" in Hebrew) was chosen as the brand name because the tree is very prevalent in the south, where the brewery is located.  Shikma is also the name of the natural reservoir where the water for the beer comes from. 

Shikma means "sycamore tree" in Hebrew.
(Photo: Firma Studio)

What we have here are two models of how "big beer" can move into the craft market.  The first paradigm is acquisition, represented by the Tempo-Shapiro deal.  Here, the big guy simply buys an existing, functioning brewery which has a known brand, a quality reputation and a ready market.  The purchaser gets to add overnight a recognized craft beer to its list of products.  The purchasee gets a strong backbone with deep pockets to help finance expansion plans, new product development, distribution and marketing.                      

In the second model, which is what IBBL chose, the big brewery develops its own craft beer brand and sells it through its existing channels.  IBBL went a step further to distance its regular beers from its craft brand by actually building a new and separate brewery for the craft beers.

I asked Elad Horesh, VP Marketing for IBBL, why they opted to build their own craft brewery rather than acquire an existing one?   "Because," he answered, "we have the brewmasters with the most knowledge, we have the most advanced laboratory equipment in the country, and also the operational experience.  It was also important to let our brewmasters, who for years had dreamed of and played with different recipes, be the ones to make their dreams come true." 

The Shikma Stream and 
natural reservoir flows close to the 
Shikma Brewery and provides water for the beer.

Horesh also explained that IBBL has always felt "a responsibility to help develop the beer culture in Israel."  For example, IBBL held a craft brewing competition as far back as 2010 to encourage home brewing and micro-breweries.  The Carlsberg Challenge in 2010-2013 brought the knowledge of different new beer styles to Israeli consumers.

I asked Horesh why IBBL waited until now, 15 years after the first Israeli micro-brewery opened, to build a subsidiary craft brewery?  "Good things take time to ripen," he philosophized.  "We felt that only in the last three-five years has there really been a change in the openness of consumers to try and get to know new craft beers."  

Cheers! for the new Shikma beers.
(Photo: Firma Studio)

The first three Shikma beers are an IPA (India Pale Ale), Amber Ale and Märzen Lager.  IBBL's Chief Technologist and Head Brewer Avichai Grinberg, said that these styles were chosen after "we had an internal taste competition, and these three recipes came up as the best."  

The Shikma beers are brewed in small batches of 2,000 liters.  By comparison, the major IBBL brewery regularly produces "batches" for its flagship beers of 60,000 liters! 

Grinberg also explained that the IBBL brewery maintains the industry's highest standards for food safety and quality control, something where size really does matter.  "Shikma benefits from these high safety and quality standards," he maintained.       

As to what kind of beers we can expect from Shikma in the future, Grinberg said that, "it's too early to say.  We started with relatively familiar styles, but later on there will also be more surprising, bolder flavors."

Shikma Beer: "It was important to let our
brewmasters . . . be the ones to make their
dreams come true."

(Photo: Amir Yakoby) 

According to Grinberg, the ultimate aim of the new Shikma Brewery is very ambitious: To make the term "Israeli craft beer" more than just a geographic title, but to be a meaningful appellation, respected all over the world. 

So what do we have to say about the first three Shikma beers?

The India Pale Ale (IPA) is more in the tradition of the British version than the more hoppy American style.  It's a semi-hazy golden orange color, with fresh aromas of grass, earth and citrus.  The taste is bitter up-front and at the finish, with flavors in between of lemon, citrus and pine.  The mouthfeel has some warmth from the alcohol (which is 5.2% ABV), astringency, mid-body and mid-carbonation.  I had the feeling this is a well balanced beer, brewed with an eye for precision. 

A case of Shikma Amber Ale 
heads out to the thirsty public.
(Photo: Amir Yakoby) 

The Amber Ale is also true to its style.  On the lighter end of the amber color spectrum, it's slightly hazy with a thin, bubbly head.  The aromas have lots of yeast, bready malt and caramel.  The taste is basically sweet, with flavors of caramel, malt, zesty hops, and sourdough bread.  (That was either my discerning tongue or my vivid imagination.)  The finish is mid-bitter and acerbic.  Alcohol by volume is 5.5%.

The third beer is a Märzen Lager, probably the first of its kind in Israel.  The name means March (as an adjective) in German, and these beers were traditionally brewed at the end of the winter for drinking during the summer.  In time, Märzens became the beer style associated with the Oktoberfest, the giant beer festival held in September.                          

The Shikma Märzen pours out a golden amber with a creamy white head that bubbles away rather quickly.  Like with other lagers, you get scents of yeast and malt against a sweet background.  The taste is full and rich with caramel, sweet from toasted malt, but balanced by the hops.  The body is medium and the carbonation is low.  It's a smooth and refreshing beer, 5.7% ABV, brewed successfully as a summertime lager.                   

These first three beers from Shikma are neither extreme nor innovative, but they are solid examples of craft styles which should attract the wider beer-drinking public.  If that's what the Shikma planners and brewers aimed to do, I believe they will be successful.         

August 5, 2021

Herzl Embargo Nitro Robust Porter: Israel's first nitrogen beer

Embargo Nitro Robust Porter
from Herzl Beer:
Israel's first nitrogen beer.

Israel's first nitrogen beer is Embargo Nitro from Herzl Beer.  It is brewed in the Malka Brewery in the Tefen Industrial Park in the Galilee.

As with quite a few other trends in the craft beer world, nitrogen (or nitro) beers have been brewed for years in the U.S. and elsewhere, long before Embargo Nitro debuted in Israel.  The concept is simple, though not easy to execute.  Instead of being carbonated with CO(carbon dioxide), the beer is mixed with nitrogen, a gas which is not absorbed in the liquid.  Nitrogen bubbles are smaller and more profuse than carbon dioxide bubbles.  This gives the beer a very creamy mouthfeel which is appreciated and loved by many, though not all, beer drinkers.           

Most nitro beers are made for kegs or cans, where the gas is easier to handle, but not in bottles.  Since the Malka Brewery does not have a canning line (no Israeli micro-brewery does!), Maor Helfman, the founder of Herzl Beer, accepted the challenge to put his Embargo Nitro in bottles.  (Today Maor is the Brands Manager for Israeli Beers for Hacarem Spirits Ltd., Malka's parent company.)

"For me, it's a big issue to be a pioneer, the first to do something," Maor told me.  "The most fun of being involved in craft beer is learning.  The Embargo Nitro is the same recipe as Herzl's very popular Embargo Porter, which is brewed with tobacco leaves.  We tried the tobacco with the nitro, but it didn't work."

Nitrogen bubbles give nitro beers 
a smooth and creamy mouthfeel.

Maor explained that all of the nitrogen gas is in the neck of the bottle, above the beer.  "Before you open the bottle, you  have to give it three or four quick shakes to mix in the gas.  Then open it and quickly pour it very aggressively into the glass.  You'll be able to see the layers of nitrogen bubbles in the beer."              

Well, let's try Israel's first nitro beer.

My drinking partner Daniël Boestra and I shook up our bottles of Embargo Nitro quite vigorously and poured them out completely quite aggressively.  I used Herzl's own pint glass.  And there were the mini-bubbles, kind of floating in layers in the very dark brown, opaque beer.  The head we got was thin and not very foamy.  

Human beings are not the only animals
who like to chew on wood. 

There were aromas of oak, coffee and caramel in a sugary envelope.  (Where does the oak come from, I wonder?)  Daniël, ever the Dutchman, smelled some soft licorice.  It tasted like oak, cold coffee and some chocolate.  Daniël said it took him back to his childhood, when he chewed on wood.       

The nitrogen bubbles made their presence known in the mouthfeel: It was especially smooth and creamy.  We didn't feel the carbonation, just the creaminess.  In fact, if a feel could be called "bland," this was it.  The finish was sweet.

I think for the both of us, it was an interesting tasting and a noteworthy event -- but probably not a beer we would go out of our way to drink again.

August 4, 2021

Changes at Oak & Ash Brewery: New partners, new beers, new ideas

Changes have been apace at the Oak & Ash Brewery in Beit Shemesh (Sorek Industrial Park).  

Three partners of the Oak & Ash Brewery
celebrate their new beers and beverages:
(from left) Asher Zimble, Leiby Chapler
and Moti Horovits.

(Photo:Mike Horton)

A new partner has come on board, Amit Zeev, CEO of the Dor Alon chain of gasoline (petrol) stations, and with him, Moti Horovits, who is now working at the brewery in business development and marketing.  The brewing stays in the capable hands of Asher Zimble and Leiby Chapler. 

At the initiative of the new partners, a new beer brand called "A beer" is being brewed and marketed.

The Oak & Ash brand has been divided into two: Ash, which will be the regular line of beers, and Oak, beers and other beverages which are aged in oak barrels.

Oak Barrel Aged Cider:
The first product in the new Oak line
of barrel aged beverages.

The first Oak product is Oak Barrel Aged Cider, 9.2% alcohol, aged for six months in oak barrels which previously held whisky and red wine.  

And now for the details.

Amit Zeev recently announced that he will be leaving his position at Dor Alon at the end of the year to take up "new challenges" in the field of retailing.  It may be that one of these challenges is marketing the new "A beer" line and other beverages for Oak & Ash.  Certainly, Zeev has excellent contacts in the retailing world; the Dor Alon chain included the popular AM:PM convenience stores and the Alonit food stores at the gas stations.  

The four "A beer" beers
were conceived by 
Amit Zeev, a new partner
in the Oak & Ash Brewery:
"A beer" means "knight"
in Hebrew.

(Photo:Mike Horton)

Although Zeev conceived the "A beer" line of beers, it was Zimble and Chapler who transformed the idea into actual beverages.  The labels, which are entirely in English, are the brainchild of Zeev -- from the name "A beer" (which means "knight" in Hebrew) to the design of knightly armor and heraldry, and even to the wording.  The beer is called a "Product of Buldigania," which has a secret meaning known only to Zeev.  "Est. 1977" -- because that's when Zeev was born.  Even the bottle cap has has an "A" (for Amit) and the silhouette of a wolf ("zeev" in Hebrew). 

The descriptions of each beer are whimsical fantasies.  I can't resist quoting two of them here.  From the bottle of Dark Lager:

The only beer mentioned in the dark prophecies is the infamous A beer from the hills of Buldigania Island.  A mix of 42 ingredients, including Octiron, Spice Melange, Dust, Energon, Aether and Mithril.  Concocted during the gathering of Kal-Turak, Lessa, Haplo and Moses the Insulator on Juram's name day.  With a tang of Bupu's charm and a whiff like a Balrog's whip.  One does not merely drink the A beer but quaffs the unholy substance as cold as a Delta Vega midwinter day.

For it was foretold -- A beer favors the brave! 

From the bottle of IPA:

Something new is brewing at Oak & Ash.
(Photo:Mike Horton)

A beer is the mind-killer.  A beer is the little death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my A beer.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.  Where the A beer has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain.

For is it not written -- A beer favors the brave!  

Innovative marketing aside, the four "A beer" beers are worth trying.

Once a journalist, . . .:
The old blogger interviews Moti Horovits (left)
and Asher Zimble at the Oak & Ash Brewery. 

(Photo:Mike Horton)

The Lager is 5% alcohol, pale and clear.  You don't see the carbonation, but you feel it.  Stick your nose in the glass (not in the beer!) and you'll get some smells of lager yeast, grass and wheat cookies.  The taste is lemony, with a mid-bitter, crisp and dry finish.  

The Red Lager is indeed a clear reddish brown, also 5% alcohol.  With the aroma, you get strong malt and caramel: On the mark for a red lager.  The taste is mildly bitter, with more malt, caramel and toastiness.  The mouthfeel is astringent with fine, tingly carbonation.     

Also being produced at the Oak & Ash Brewery:
Arak cocktails (lemonade and red grapefruit)
and Buster's Hard Lemonade.

(Photo:Mike Horton)
The Dark Lager is a translucent, very dark brown with a thin and creamy beige head.  There's an aroma of malt, caramel, chocolate and yeast.  The  flavor is a bit sweet, with roasted malt, dark bread, and caramel.  Actually, a very nice combination.  It's medium-bodied (5% alcohol) and you finish with a nice dry astringency.   

The IPA is a clear, mid-amber color with light carbonation.  The aromas brought some malt, and pine from the hops.  The taste was bitter, full of piney hoppiness and citrus.  No other distinguishable fruits that I could get, but if you're looking for a bitter pine IPA, this is for you.  Alcohol by volume is 6%.   

A panoramic view of the Oak & Ash Brewery
in Beit Shemesh (Sorek Industrial Park).

(Photo:Mike Horton)
As mentioned, the first product in the Oak line of barrel-aged beers is actually an apple cider.  But calling it a cider isn't fair.  Aging it in ex-whiskey, ex-red wine charred barrels for six months gives it aromas and flavors closer to wine: Oak, vanilla, whiskey, caramel and of course apples.  It really is an exquisite drinking experience, and should be enjoyed more like a white wine.  Be aware, though, that the aging process adds to the price.  A single bottle of 330 ml sells for 60 shekels.

In the Ash line of regular beers, there are five new beers which have just been released.  When I visited the brewery, the beers were not yet bottled, but I was able to taste them direct from the tank.

The five new Ash beers from Oak & Ash Brewery: 
(from left) Belgian Strong Ale, Cherry Sour,
Amber Ale, New England IPA, and Salty Caramel Porter.
(Photo: Yochai Maytal at the 
Beer Israel Facebook Group.)

Cherry Sour (5% alcohol) -- "Kriek with a twist" is what brewer Asher Zimble called this beer, referring to the famous Belgian tart cherry beers. Cherries and malt are noticeable here, ending very dry.

Amber Ale (5%) -- Nicely balanced with malt sweetness and hop bitter fruit.

Belgian Strong Ale (9.5%) -- Like a Belgian Trippel; dark amber, fruity esters from the yeast, and alcoholic.

New England IPA (6%) -- Hazy orange, tastes of pineapple, pine and fresh hops. Creamy and juicy enough to qualify as a real NEIPA.

Salty Caramel Porter (6%) -- Really dark brown, aromas of caramel and roasted malt, flavors of chocolate, caramel and salt (what else?).  A successful combination of sweet and salty.

To sum up, there are lots of good things going on at Oak & Ash: New blood, new ideas, new beers.  It pays to be paying attention.