Bend, Oregon is a town of 80,000 people and nine breweries. In contrast, Jerusalem is a city of some 800,000 and just one brewery — Shapiro Beer, which technically isn’t even located in Jerusalem, but in nearby Beit Shemesh. No matter, though, says Itzik Shapiro, one of the six siblings in this family-founded brewery, “it’s a Jerusalem beer.”
That, it is. Shapiro — also known as Shapira in Hebrew and Shabeera in Arabic — is a quintessentially Jerusalem beer, though not because of any particular holy city flavors infused in its hops and yeast. No herbs in this brew, “no orange peel or parsley,” warned Itzik Shapiro, just straightforward ales, stouts and seasonals such as their winter brew, a toe-warming concoction of chips soaked in Jack Daniel’s and then brewed in an oak barrel for three months.
From the beer-swilling lion on its label to the fact that Jerusalem bars were the first to feature Shapiro, the brewery is Jerusalem to its very core, and, in fact, the capital city is where they are selling most of their beer for the moment.
“Jerusalemites like having their own products, the things that are made here,” said Dani Shapiro. “The city has a big hype lately,” added Itzik Shapiro, “people come here, for the shuk, for the kotel, for [restaurant] Mahneyuda, we’re part of that.”
Dani Shapiro is the brewer, a 34-year-old with degrees in Jewish philosophy and Bible, and a love for the earthy drink. The next sibling in line is Itzik, 30, who studied economics and management and handles accounts, sales and distribution. Avi, 27, follows Itzik, and keeps track of all small and large details at the brewery. Their father and three other siblings, including one sister who is an attorney, all help out — particularly on bottling days — and have invested in their business in one way or another.
The brewing first began in their parents’ basement in Jerusalem, when their older brother brought them a home brewing kit while studying in Milwaukee, the American brew capital, and their mother’s hometown. They began making their own beer, “pioneering,” adds Itzik Shapiro, toying with flavors and recipes, and found a willing audience for their brews. But it wasn’t until he spent a summer working at a microbrewery in Colorado that they began giving some serious thought to turning the hobby into a business.
They opened their small, ten-barrel microbrewery in August, and have been pleasantly surprised to find how successful they’ve been so far. They attribute that to the fact that craft beers have become an acceptable part of the drinking and eating scene in Israel, and to the other microbreweries — including Dancing Camel in Tel Aviv and Jem’s in Petach Tikva — that preceded them.
“The whole beer thing has been waking up. There are many more home brewers, so you can get ingredients, equipment… it’s not like it was ten years ago,” said Itzik Shapiro.
At the same time, “Israelis don’t drink,” he added. “You get a wider range of imports, but people don’t drink a lot in this country and that means you open up a small brewery. It’s big for Israeli standards but no one in the States would start that small.”
As for the beers themselves, they’re sticking to classic, straightforward offerings. A pale ale based on an India Pale Ale (IPA) they used to make at home, a stout and some seasonals, which will include a wheat beer this summer. No “crazy beers,” said Itzik Shapiro, “but we offer something a little different; we go and look what’s happening in the States and follow their angle.”
“The cool thing about a microbrewery is that it’s flexible,” said Dani Shapiro. “You can make a test batch and if it’s good, you sell it. If it’s not good, you drink it.”
Israelis tend to appreciate craft beers, he added. “They like eating and drinking locally made goods, whether it’s wine, olive oil or cheeses.”
With a small marketing budget, the Shapiro brothers have been peddling their beer door-to-door, spending time with customers, introducing them to the beer. They did invest significantly in their branding, but turned to social media for spreading the word about Shapiro Beer. With a series of very short, clever videos made by a friend, Vanya Hyman, that were then posted to the Shapiro Beer channel on YouTube, the videos went viral with more than 400,000 views. Fans then began creating copycat videos that are continually posted on the company’s Facebook page, helping spread the word.
“People don’t believe that we’ve only been selling beer since August,” said Itzik Shapiro. “Because of these videos, we got a lot of exposure.”
For now, they’re sticking with the business plan: They can brew about 5,000 liters a month and are adding kegs to allow for tap accounts. Most of their sales are in Jerusalem, and the beer is also being sold in specialty grocery stores and wine shops, as well as in some bars and stores in Tel Aviv. After all, “it is beer for everyone,” says Itzik Shapiro, mimicking their video tagline.
Beyond that, they’re planning a wheat beer for the summer, and have thoughts about a Jerusalem brew pub. But not quite yet.
“I don’t know if we’ll increase the amount of beer people drink, but it will be something that people prefer,” said Dani. “Imports will go down, locals will go up, and we hope we’ll be one of the leading ones.”