September 1, 2021

The best time to be a beer lover in Israel

Israeli craft breweries have been around since 2006, but only last month two events came along to show that the industry has reached a new level of maturity.

Best sellers from the 
Tempo Beer Industries in Netanya.

Both of Israel's industrial brewers – Tempo Beer Industries in Netanya and Israel Beer Breweries Ltd. (IBBL) in Ashkelon – 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.

Tempo, brewers of the popular Goldstar, Maccabee and Heineken brands, has purchased a controlling share in the Shapiro Brewery, a family-owned business in Beit Shemesh.  According to Itzik Shapiro, president of the brewery and one of the four siblings who founded and manage it, the acquisition "will let us continue to do what we have until now, but we are now able to realize our plans and our new projects sooner than we could have imagined." 

Elad Horesh, VP Marketing for IBBL, stated that the company opted to build its own craft brewery rather than acquire an existing one, because, "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 first three Shikma beers:
Amber Ale, Märzen Lager and IPA.
(Photo: Firma Studio)

Shikma has come out with three beer styles: 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."   

Internationally, craft beer has been a growing phenomenon since the 1970s.  People are still debating the terminology and the definition, but basically we're talking about beer from smaller breweries which can give more hands-on attention to the beers they brew, make a number of different style beers, and make them in smaller quantities.

David Cohen, founder and owner of the
Dancing Camel Brewery in Tel Aviv,
Israel's first craft brewery. 

The origin of Israeli craft breweries goes back to 2006, when Brooklyn-born brewer David Cohen fought bureaucrats, skeptics and neighbors to build the Dancing Camel Brewery in Tel Aviv's Montifiore neighborhood.

Cohen had made Aliya in 2003 after working as a volunteer in a New Jersey brewery.  He ditched any thoughts about continuing to work as an accountant, and began making plans for opening up a brewpub in Tel Aviv.

"The Israeli bureaucrats involved in new businesses had no idea what I was talking about," he revealed.  "We had to educate them about what we wanted every step of the way.  Their attitudes varied from mild entertainment to abrasive and adversarial."

The old blogger enjoys a hearty meal 
after touring the Malka Brewery at its
new location in the Tefen Industrial Park.

(Photo: Mike Horton)

Cohen's success broke the ice for other brewers in Israel to follow suit.  In short order, micro-breweries were opening in other places: Bazelet on the Golan Heights, Malka on Kibbutz Yechiam, Shapiro and Mosco in Beit Shemesh, Negev in Kiryat Gat, Alexander in Emek Hefer, Srigim in the community village of Srigim (Li'on), Herzl in Jerusalem, and others.           

Today, Israel can boast of about 25-30 craft brewers who are selling beer commercially – although around ten dominate this market with quantity and distribution.

Even with our hot, dry summers,
Israeli per capita beer consumption
is near the bottom of the list.

Now here's the other side of the coin: All of these wonderful craft breweries account for under 10% of all beer sales in Israel.  The rest of the beer is coming from those two huge industrial breweries mentioned above, and of course, from imports.

Another fact holding back the growth of all beer sales in Israel – craft and mega – is our embarrassingly low consumption rate.  The world champions, who as you may expect are the Central and East Europeans, Irish and British, drink from 70 to 100 liters of beer a year per capita!  (The Czechs reach about 150!) 

Near the bottom of the list is Israel.  Even with our hot, dry summers, we drink no more than 20 liters of beer per capita.  Clearly there is room for growth.  Although there are some Israelis who warn against the dangers of increased imbibing, Judaism has never spawned a teetotaling culture.

Alexander Brewery CEO Ori Sagy (center)
is joined by 
operations manager 
Eran Weisman (second from left), 

and brewer Elad Gassner (second from right)
as they receive three awards at the
European Beer Star Competition in Munich.

More and more, our meager drinking habits cannot be explained by inferior beer.  In recent years, there is no doubt that Israeli beers have improved in quality.  Taste, of course, is personal and individual, but enough high marks are given by professionals and consumers alike to make the upward trend unmistakable.  The various "beer-ranking" websites also reflect this. 

About two years ago, Newsweek magazine named the Dancing Camel as one of the nine breweries in the world worth traveling for!  Before the COVID struck, Oliver Wesseloh, the world champion beer sommelier from Germany, visited five craft breweries in Israel in a project designed to increase "beer tourism" from Germany and, indeed, all of Europe.  These are tourists who will travel anywhere just to drink a glass of good beer.  We still hope they get here – as soon as Europeans feel the skies are friendly again.

If more Israeli craft brewers entered
international competitions, Israeli beers 
might be winning more medals.

Internationally, Israeli beers have not won much recognition, but this could be because Israeli brewers have been so hesitant to enter competitions.  Ori Sagy, CEO of the Alexander Brewery in Emek Hefer, is one who has been bold enough to buck this timidity – with excellent results.  His beers have won eight medals over the years in the prestigious European Beer Star contest.  Most have been won by Alexander Black, a seasonal Porter-style beer readily available in Israel.  It also took home the Gold a few years ago in the U.S.-based World Beer Cup.

Likewise, Beertzinut Brewery on Kibbutz Ketura won three medals in last year's European Beer Challenge, which is judged by professionals in the beverage and restaurant industries.

Along with a general improvement in quality, Israeli breweries now offer choices of beer styles that once were available only as imports.  There are easily 100 recognized beer styles in the world, plus many which are hybrids or blur the lines between styles.  Most craft breweries, not only in Israel, produce the most popular styles: a light lager, a Pale Ale, an IPA, a Stout, a Wheat Beer, maybe a Belgian Ale or two. 

One of the way-out beers brewed in Israel:
Opokhmel, a pickle brine beer from Birateinu,
made with cucumber, dill, garlic and salt.

(Photo: Mike Horton)

But Israeli craft breweries are now producing styles much more esoteric.  For example, have you ever heard of the following: Pilsner, Helles, Märzen, Saison, Bock (all cold-fermented lagers), Sour (or Wild) beers, Milkshake beers made with lactose, New England and Brown IPAs, smoked lager, beer-wine hybrids, fruited wheat beers, and even Kosher-for-Passover beers.

Not only that.  A few Israeli breweries are taking the lead in producing some of the most way-out beers in the world.  We're talking about beers made with halva, Hot Chili Stout, Imperial Pastry Stout brewed with blueberries or oreos and coffee or jelly donuts, beers made with rare lemons, pickle brine beer, kettle-soured apricot beer, double bock lager aged in whisky barrels, Bloody Mary beer with tomatoes, celery and tabasco sauce, and a Steinbier (involving glowing hot stones dropped into the liquid) brewed with mushrooms.      

If these lists get your taste buds quivering, you're a craft beer fan (even if you don't know it), and you couldn’t be living in Israel at a better time.      

[This article originally appeared in 
The Jerusalem Report magazine,
dated August 30, 2021.] 

1 comment:

Thanks for your comment. L'chayim!