Milk, Honey, and Microbrews: Craft Beer in Israel

Beer Without Borders by | Aug 2012 | Issue #67

In Israel, known for its bikini-clad Mediterranean coastline and ancient religious landmarks, cold beverages are not usually the images that make the news. Since Israel borders four Arab countries (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan), it may be surprising that artisan beer is on the rise at all.

Approximately the same size as New Jersey, the country has various microclimates, which creates a different feel for every region. And from the lush green north to the barren desert in the south, to areas just outside Jerusalem, microbreweries are proliferating all over the Jewish state.

A young country at 64 years, beer is nothing new to Israelis. Two large-scale macrobreweries, both owned by Tempo Beer Industries, produce the country’s mainstream golden lagers—Goldstar and Maccabee. The craft beer world is still in its infancy. The majority of professional microbrewers in Israel are expats, primarily American, who wanted to bring their love of beer to the Holy Land.

Susan Levin, head “brewster” at Lone Tree Brewery in Gush Etzion, relocated to Israel in 2006 from Potomac, Md. She says there were two things she missed when she moved to Israel: Sundays and good beer (in Israel, the work week is Sunday through Thursday). She explains, “We could deal without Sundays, but not having craft beer was a problem that needed fixing.”

After spending a year and half setting up their facility, she and business partner / neighbor David Shire opened a nanobrewery, producing about 800 bottles a month in a 164-square-foot facility. They brew seven types of beer, distributed mostly in Jerusalem, including an English Northern Ale, London Pale Ale, American Brown and a seasonal, which is currently Pomegranate Date Ale.

Because of the upstart community, Levin says the small group of brewers in Israel are an “extraordinary friendly group” and will buy ingredients off one another if a brewer is short.

This kind of exchange can be key, since barley and hops are hard to come by in Israel. In fact, aside from bureaucratic licensing, getting essential ingredients is one of the biggest challenges of brewing in Israel. Brewers usually import barley and hops from Germany and England. Although, they do use local ingredients whenever possible, including spices from different regions—dates, for example, often show up in seasonal ales.

David Cohen, owner and head brewer at Dancing Camel Brewery in Tel Aviv, says that when he first started brewing, it was challenging to be consistent with the beer because it was difficult getting supplies.

Cohen, who is originally from Brooklyn, moved to Israel in 2003, leaving behind a life as a New York accountant. He says that while in New York, he picked up what he calls “a pretty nasty homebrewing habit.”

Sitting in the Dancing Camel Brewery in an industrial area of Tel Aviv, where he runs a small restaurant with Aviv Kastoriano, Cohen says that he was inspired to move his family to Israel after working on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center (prior to 9/11). Cohen says that, after the 9/11 attack, knowing the dreams of those who died would never be actualized inspired his decision to make the move to Israel.

Dancing Camel has an unassuming storefront—so unassuming, in fact, there is no sign indicating that it is even a brewery. But this doesn’t stop the regulars who show up to drink Cohen’s beer, like Gordon Beach Blonde, the summer seasonal spiced with rosemary and mint.

If it were not for a sign or two in Hebrew, not much would distinguish where it was located. With ads for beer pong tournaments and American football nights, Cohen attracts expats and Israelis who have a taste for a fine craft beer.

Over an hour and a half north of the secular urban center of Tel Aviv, in an artist colony called Ein Hod, charismatic Danny Schlyfesterone runs what he calls “Danny Bira.” With picnic tables and local musicians playing an impromptu jam session outside the pub in the shade of large olive trees, Schlyfesterone is inside his one-room production area and bar.

Schlyfesterone, who calls himself the “grandfather” of beer pubs in the country, says he opened up the funkiest brewery in all of Israel. And funky it is. He bottles his beer in recycled glass bottles, and he offers “beer comedy” and life stories while customers drink his brews, which have names like Candy Amber, Yo Mama’s Ale and Yeasty Beasty.

Other microbreweries are located around urban centers—Haifa’s LiBira, Jem’s Beer Factory in Petah Tikva, the Tel Aviv Brewhouse and Negev Brewery in the south—and their success promise that more will come.

As many brewers are quick to mention, fermentation is an ancient science, and is even referenced in the Bible. So, perhaps microbreweries are not such a new idea in Israel.

“Beer has been enormously fun,” says Levin, of Lone Tree Brewing. “I have a great sense of gratitude for contributing to the culture of Israel and bringing people to this part of the country, and enjoying great beer.”