I spent the last month in Israel. There was a war on the whole time we were there. There were sirens. There were booms in the sky from Iron Dome. There was 24 hour war news reporting on local stations. I hadn’t been back for 18 years. Thus, beyond visiting during another war, and beyond all that accompanied this trip early on, I knew I was going to eat a lot of falafel and humous. And I knew I was going to drink some beer.
Let’s face it. I drink a lot of beer. If you follow me on Instagram or Google +, you probably know that already. I spend most of my money on my mortgage and my kids’ fancy Montessori education. I spend the rest at Whole Foods and on beer. In the week and a half since I have been back from Israel, I have consumed 29 new to me beers. How could I not drink beer on this trip? From the first hours of our trip, a Saturday night in Tel Aviv when many shops are closed, and we found ourselves in the non-kosher AM/PM grocery, and my wife insisted we buy a Goldstar Unfiltered, I was drinking beer in Israel.
Not that Goldstar Unfiltered was that much better than my memories of regular Goldstar.
Rather than come to drink beer or hear missile sirens, I had come to Israel to revisit where I once lived. I had come to revisit with my kids, and then to write about that experience for my current book on travel, scholarly writing, eating, and kids. My intent is to shift food writing away from critique and decoding of representation to something more akin to what Roland Barthes calls “the pleasure of the text.” Still, even if I had not come to drink beer, I knew I would.
The Israeli craft beer scene is booming, and yet the craft beer scene in Israel can be difficult to locate when one is out to eat or looking for a beer. Unlike Lexington or many basic American cities, in Israel, there are few craft taps in bars and restaurants (Carlsberg and Turborg still dominate the country’s handles) and American style tap rooms are even fewer. In retail, most beers are sold as 12 ounce beers, and most cost at least $5 a piece. A “deal” on a six pack can run you about $24. Drafts are closer to $9 -$10. Highly taxed, appealing to a still small market (Israelis are not big beer drinkers), dominated by a few conglomerate players, the craft beer scene has many challenges ahead of it. But it is up and coming. And Israeli brewers are trying hard to develop that market with an array of choices – when you find them.
I tried over 30 Israeli beers during those three weeks. I bought them in the Carmel Market’s Beer Bazaar, Jaffa Port’s Beer Market, wine shops in Tel Aviv, and various grocery stores. Each night, I diligently updated photos of my purchases to Instagram. I diligently rated these beers on RateBeer. In some ways, I continued to do what I do in the U.S., only I waited a bit longer for the kids to go to sleep, and living in the middle of the city, my drinking was done to the background noise of the Peacock bar across the street where people, for some reason, felt compelled to stay up until three in the morning watching the World Cup (and letting us hear them watch the World Cup). Life during wartime can still be fairly commonplace or a routine of life elsewhere.
Distribution is fairly poor in Israel. Some craft beers make their way into groceries and wine shops. Basic Belgian beers (Chimay, St. Bernardus, Chouffe) do as well. Some cheap Ukrainian and Czech beers are available. Some basic German beers. Leffe. Heineken, of course. Stella. But not much else. Despite a global presence, Mikkeller is not in Israel. Neither are Scandinavian beers. Neither are Italian or Spanish craft beers. Neither are most European beers. Given Israel’s proximity to Europe and its beer variety, I am surprised no Israeli importer has brought much of European production to Israel to try and unseat the Carlsberg/Heineken monopoly. And forget about American imports in a country that has Pizza Hut, Ben and Jerry’s, and McDonald’s. I saw Sam Adams Lager on tap in a Tel Aviv used book store. I saw a few bottles of Brooklyn Lager on a shelf in Tel Aviv. Not much else. Most people are not aware of craft. Even when ordering a draft beer of Alexander or something else Israeli, I found that the server was not always sure that the Israeli craft beer in question had multiple styles to choose from. And “craft” in Israel is not called craft. It is called “boutique.”
Boutique culture is on the rise – at least since I lived there 18 years ago – in Israel. Boutique wine. Boutique beer. Boutique spirits. Boutique cheese (man, what amazing cheeses are now being made throughout the country). Boutique ice cream. In a tiny culture and a tiny country, boutique is the appropriate word. There is only so much one can grow into. One must remain boutique. Ice cream chains, specific to Israel, can be multiple and in multiple cities, but they are still boutique in a way Baskin Robbins or Hagen Dazs could never be.
Because bars tend to open late, because we had two kids with us, and because most bars are for the night scene and not for casual middle of the afternoon I’m a professor and can work on my laptop while drinking an Against the Grain draft hanging out, we had few drinking options. In Tel Aviv, Dancing Camel was one. Dancing Camel is a brewpub located on an industrial street in Tel Aviv (the street is called “The Industry”). Founded by am American, it showcases American styled beers. APA. IPA. And so on. While we were drinking and my kids weren’t eating the sandwiches I ordered for them, we noticed my sons’ backpack was full of ants. That was not Dancing Camel’s fault. That was the fault of the apartment we were renting.
Pavo, on the other hand, is located in beautiful Zikhron Yaakov. Nestled down a dirt road behind the Carmel Winery and a restaurant whose name I forget (barking dog and all), the brewery is difficult at first to find (and we had to ask where it was after several miscues). Perched up high, the taproom looks out over the valley with a fantastic view. At noon on a weekday, no one was there but us and a TV blaring VH1 hits. My daughter loved the videos and developed a sudden interest in Ke$ha for some reason. She also loved drinking her first ever Pepsi, a guilty acquiescence on my part for dragging her to a brewery on a hilltop in a small town south of Haifa where the only other thing to drink was grape juice and Pepsi, and no food was available (kitchen only open for dinner). My son settled for the grape juice, much to my relief. I have now allowed my daughter one time to drink a Pepsi, and she drank said Pepsi at an Israeli brewpub. That must be worth some parenting points if somewhat exotic travel can counter the failure of drinking a Pepsi.
At Pavo, the beers were superior on tap than they were in the bottle. Maybe the best beers I had in my three weeks. One reason tap trumps bottle may be the stacks of bottles sitting out in the sun that travel via the sun and heat to various locations around the country, where they often sit on warm shelves or in a small Carmel Market store in Tel Aviv that does not have air conditioning. Coming straight from a cooled keg in a brewery seems pretty easy next to that process. The sign on the wall in the Pavo brewpub reads: “Why is it preferable to drink beer over water? Because in beer there is water, but in water there is no beer.”
Out of those 30 or so beers I tried during my recent visit to Israel, I can’t say one was stellar. Many were fine. Some were pretty awful. Some lacked character. Some were fairly good. What impressed me more than quality, though, was the 18 year difference from the last time I had been in the country. At that time, Israel knew nothing about beer. And I knew nothing about beer either. I often bought four packs of Elephant from a liquor shop next to the Chinese embassy on Ben Yehuda Street. As the world has turned to craft, though, so has Israel. As I have turned to craft over the last 18 years, so has Israel. With great arrogance and confidence (rhetorical gestures of the age of new media), I will pretend that there is a personal connection. I will pretend that this little country has followed my lead. I will pretend that we are on the same cosmic beer drinking wavelength, hip to the wonder and aesthetic and taste and obsession of craft beer. I will pretend. I will pretend that I just wrote this post without stating what I felt about the war. I will pretend that my kids will remember this trip. I will pretend that we will be back next summer. I will pretend that boutique and craft are not just anomalies stretching from Lexington to Tel Aviv but overall cultural aesthetics that drive human obsession as much as human daily interactions.