Flip through an issue of Beer Advocate or All About Beer, and you will likely learn about a country – Brazil, Norway, Mexico – where craft beer is on the rise or where brewers are building an audience for non fizzy lagers. You’ll get a rundown on places to drink at, up and coming breweries, and unique usages of indigenous ingredients. You’ll read about most countries in these magazines, except one: Israel.
The irony is not lost on me. In every other media outlet, Israel is always in the news. But not in beer outlets. Lack of coverage might stem from just not knowing, politics, regional bias, or the feeling that Israelis are known for being tough, being good farmers, being a high tech start up country and being the type of people who don’t go out at night until it’s at least 11 pm. How could there be good beer there? There is. Instead of the endless barrage of negative Israeli stories that saturate contemporary media (from actual conflict to Zionist shark conspiracies), it’s time to start telling the story of Israeli craft beer. Craft beer in Israel today does not resemble the kibbutz pub drinking I experienced in my 20s: Goldstar 500 ml bottles chugged from the bottle. Goldstar’s packaging has changed; but the beer is still bad lager. Israel’s craft beer packaging, metaphorically, has changed as well, and for the better.
Last July, when I returned to Israel after an 18 year absence, I discovered a new world of craft beer. When we returned again this past June, we saw that world continuing to grow and develop. Hebrew has no word for “brewery,” so it borrows from the word “to cook” to designate both brewing and brewery. There are homebrewing clubs throughout the country (a homebrewing event took place in Beer Sheva this past June) and there is an active interest in craft beer, even if so little is available in the country. Imports are surprisingly limited to mainstream Belgian beers (Chimay, Achouffe) and cheap Russian, Czech, and Romanian lagers. While many American franchises have set up shop in Israel, the only American beers available are Sam Adams Lager and a few from Brooklyn. Israeli craft beer is following a trajectory similar to other countries: A market dominated by a few players (Goldstar, Carlsburg Heineken), poor distribution (even in such a small country, Israeli craft beer is difficult to find), and a lack of awareness (with little choice, Israelis default to cheap or easily available lagers). Ingredients are imported; and even though the country produces exquisite wines, and even though the country is known for agricultural advancements, no one is yet growing hops in the Golan or the Judean Hills (two ideal locations). Israelis also don’t drink as much beer as other countries, and beer is insanely taxed. Draught pours will run $7-10 and a bottle of craft beer is typically around $5. Many breweries do not own brewery facilities and contract brew at either Srigim near Beit Shemesh or Mivshelet Ha’am in Even Yehuda, Pre-1967 the popular narrative surrounding Israel was that of the underdog. Maybe with craft beer, that narrative can return. Imagine this blogpost, then, as my pretend contribution to All About Beer about craft beer in Israel written quickly on a Saturday morning before I drive to Louisville to drink some beer at Great Flood.
For the last few years, the only place I’ve know that one can sit at and drink a craft beer in the middle of the day (which is what I love being able to do in the States) is Beer Bazaar. Tucked inside the Shuk HaCarmel (Tel Aviv’s main outdoor market of food, clothes, yelling, and trinkets) in an old falafel stand, Beer Bazaar carries whatever is available from Israeli breweries. With a few stools, three taps, and no bathroom, Beer Bazaar’s first location does not resemble a typical American craft beer bar. If you want to buy bottles to take home, you lean over the counter and point at the bottles on the wall (with my eyesight, I squint). If you want to hang out and drink, you hope no one else is sitting on one of the few available stools. This June, Beer Bazaar opened a second location across the street in the market in an old butcher shop, doubling its tap handles, offering food, and there are bathrooms located upstairs.
Beer Bazaar has several beers brewed especially for them, including the always present Shesh Besh IPA (though closer to a pale ale) and the very smooth and drinkable Bhindi IPA. There is something mystical about walking through the market after hours, when it is closed and the piles of post-market trash are being carried away, the yelling has stopped, the crowds are gone, and turning the corner into a side street you find Beer Bazaar open. During my last night in Tel Aviv, I was invited to hang out at Beer Bazaar while a TV crew filmed a short piece on the new spot. As in America, craft beer still poses novelty and interest among an audience not familiar with beer. The rise of the middle class – in Israel and in America – brings with it a rise in food and alcohol fascination. The middle class wants to buy high quality foods (artisan, local) and wants to drink quality alcohol. Broadcast beer on TV and you have an instantly intrigued audience. You can see me on the show at the 19:40 time mark. My access to Beer Bazaar was very convenient; the apartment we rented was only a five minute walk away on Sheinkin Street.
Dancing Camel began craft beer in Israel, and introduced the brewpub concept where none existed. Since then, several other brewpubs have come and gone (Pavo in Zikhron has supposedly gone). Jem’s has two locations: Petah Tikvah and Ra’anana. We visited the smaller location in Ra’anana, a very polished, narrow spot with shiny tap handles, a beer menu, bottles in the cooler, and excellent sandwiches. I had the smoked goose (note to American brewpubs: serve smoked goose sandwiches). Whereas Dancing Camel still embraces the DIY look with its old furniture, tin roof and menu that doesn’t always have what is listed, Jem’s resembles the American brewpub’s finesse and attention to detail. In Israel, beer always tastes better on tap. Throughout the country, I have seen crates of filled bottles sitting out in the sun; delivery trucks (vans) with no refrigeration making stops, and poor air conditioning in many locales (this is the Middle East, after all; it’s hot). Jem’s is no exception to the draught rule. 8.8 – their take on a Belgian – is superior on tap than in the bottle. Both Dancing Camel and Jem’s, to no surprise, were founded by Americans.
I think HaDubim is producing the best beer in Israel. If there is an Israeli IPA brewer, it is HaDubim. Their tiny (I think) 400 litter facility looks nothing like any brewery operation I’ve seen in the U.S., and, unfortunately, they don’t have a tap room, and even more unfortunately, it is very difficult to find their beers, even in Tel Aviv. Local groceries don’t carry their beer, I have yet to see their beer on tap in Tel Aviv bars and restaurants, and the bottles I have tried either came through personal contacts (thank you Barak and Ariel), the now closed Beer Market in Jaffa (soon to reopen in Tel Aviv’s Sarona market) or from Beer Bazaar. The TRIO series – each with a different hop profile – was very good and on par with many American IPAs. Paradox, a Black IPA, offers roasty hoppy goodness. For such a tiny brewery, they put out a tremendous selection of variety.
I dream that Mikeller will open his next beer bar in Tel Aviv (one of the hippest cities in the world…hipper than Seoul!). I dream that European distribution will grow so that all those German, Belgian, Spanish, and Czech beers we don’t see in the States will be easy to find when I’m in Tel Aviv during the summer. I dream that more brewpubs will open throughout the country, hold regular drinking hours (which for a professor, like me, start at noon), and that the brewers will successfully lobby down the insane tax burden this tiny industry deals with. Until then, I have Beer Bazaar and these other bright moments of craft beer. I have my $25 six pack of Israeli craft beer to buy. I have my wife purchasing Goldstar still. “I like it,” she says as she throws three bottles for 30 shekels (about $9) into the cart while we grocery shop. I have my belief that one day All About Beer or Beer Advocate will cover the Israeli scene, too.