Israeli beer fans looking to indulge in a guilt-free pleasure can now sip in solidarity with Israel’s besieged southern farmers. Craft brewery Alexander Beer recently rolled out a special edition“Otef Aza” (Gaza Border) wheat beer, made in part from wheat harvested from fields belonging to Israeli communities bordering Gaza.
This spring and summer, large swaths of southern wheat fields were destroyed by fires sparked by incendiary devices launched by Palestinians from Gaza.
“I grew up in a farming family in Kibbutz Misgav Am in the north, and seeing fields burn makes me sad. I decided I had to do something to help. It’s not a political statement. It’s one of solidarity,” said Alexander Beer founder and CEO Ori Sagi in a recent interview at the brewery in the Emek Hefer industrial zone near Hadera. All profits from sales of the beer will go to the Israeli farmers, he said.
Since March 2018, more than a thousand acres of agricultural fields — mainly wheat — in the Gaza border area have gone up in flames. This has translated into at least $1.7 million in losses for Israeli farmers. In addition, thousands of acres of forest, woodlands and nature reserves have been destroyed.
In an effort to prevent additional losses for the wheat farmers, late last spring the Israeli government urged them to harvest their crops early. The government offered the farmers NIS 60 ($17) for every dunam (quarter-acre) harvested. The Agriculture Ministry announced at the time that NIS 2 million had been allocated for compensation to the farmers, to be paid by the state’s property tax department.
For some of the farmers, this is a drop in the bucket.
Sagi acknowledged that the profits from “Otef Aza” beer likewise won’t be life-changing for the farmers.
“It’s more about bringing the farmers’ heartbreaking situation to the public consciousness,” Sagi said.
Alexander Beer fans expecting a unique taste to the special edition brew will be disappointed. It is very similar to the brewery’s regular light-tasting 5% alcohol wheat beer, and is made from the usual ingredients: water, malted barley, wheat, hops, and yeast.
“People have asked me whether the beer is supposed to have a smokey taste,” Sagi said in all seriousness. This reporter has sampled it and can confirm it doesn’t.
Alexander Beer is one of the microbreweries that kicked off the last decade’s Israeli craft beer boom. After his discharge from Israel’s air force in 2007 following a 30-year career as a pilot, Sagi 54, decided to become a brewmaster. Putting his hobbyist’s love for brewing and his business degree to use, he launched Alexander Beer eight years ago with the support of investors, including restaurateurs Yoram and Ari Yarzin.
Today, Alexander Beer has 12 employees and regularly produces six different kinds of beer, as well as special edition beers a few times a year. “Otef Aza” is the first one for charity.
The brewery produces 50,000 litres of beer — bottles and kegs combined — a month, which is available at bars, restaurants and selected supermarkets where 330-ml bottles sell for around 10 shekels ($2.75) each.
As brewery employees shod in high rubber boots hosed off fermentation vessels and other equipment for the weekend, Sagi explained how his company’s name and logo — a turtle with wings— represent his philosophy.
“Craft beer should be related to the place it is made. We are named for the Alexander River that runs near here, and there are turtles in the river,” Sagi said. Turtles are well-known for being slow, and that’s exactly how Sagi believes good beer is made.
“Craft beer is like bread. It should be fresh and local,” he said.
The challenge, of course, is brewing “local” beer when key ingredients are imported. For example, the malted barley and hops Sagi uses are imported from the US and Europe.
“It’s simply too hot in Israel to grow hops,” Sagi explained.
In an attempt to be as Israeli as possible with his beer, Sagi uses local unmalted wheat in his wheat beer, which poses a technical brewing challenge. For a special edition “Milk and Honey” collaborative brew with the Danish Mikkeller brewery, lactose and local Israeli honey and orange peels were used.
According to Sagi, his unpasteurized and unfiltered beers are designed to deliver more flavor and aroma than industrial beer (which still makes up 95% of the Israeli market). Several of Alexander Beer’s brews have won gold and silver medals at the European Beer Star and World Beer Cup competitions, but the company is focused primarily on the Israeli market.
The company doesn’t invest in standard advertising: “Our way to bring out our story is to tell it, bring out new beers, and do events. We rely on social media and word of mouth,” Sagi said.
For the special edition “Otef Aza” beer, Sagi bought wheat from a distributor who works specifically with the farmers whose fields border Gaza. So far, 25,000 bottles and 1,600 liters in kegs of the beer have been brewed and packaged.
“The response has been huge, bigger than anything for our special editions in the past. We’ve gotten lots of positive feedback,” Sagi said.
Sagi could not yet say what the exact profit margin per bottle or liter will be, but was confident that the donation to the farmers will be “in the many tens of thousands of shekels.”
Reuven Nir, who is in charge of the fields in Kibbutz Mefalsim and Kibbutz Kfar Aza, reported that 1,000 of 7,000 dunams of their wheat crops were lost to kite terror. He said he was grateful for Alexander Beer’s initiative and for the extra money it will bring beyond the compensation from the government.
“We had always sold our wheat to make bread, never for beer. This is a new product that we can profit from,” Nir said.
Danny Rahamim, a farmer from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, where 20 percent of its 5,000 dunams of wheat crops burned, said he was impressed when he met Sagi and others from Alexander Beer
“I’m not naïve. I know that there is a public relations aspect to this. It’s good that they will be donating to us, but even if we didn’t get the profits, it’s good to know that people care about us,” Rahamin said.
Nir is pleased that the initiative is aimed at raising awareness. “We are suffering a lot from the situation. We support peace, but it seems the other side is not willing to compromise,” he said.
“We want quiet on the border and we know that those in Gaza are suffering, too, but they bring it on themselves. It can be different. We can be good neighbors,” he said.