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Five craft beers that taste like Israel in a bottle

Holy hops! Israel’s microbrewery scene is growing quickly, with an emphasis on creativity and local ingredients

The Tel Aviv Carmel Market's Beer Bazaar, tucked amongst the crowded and colorful stalls, has 92 different varieties of Israeli beer, including its own brew (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
The Tel Aviv Carmel Market's Beer Bazaar, tucked amongst the crowded and colorful stalls, has 92 different varieties of Israeli beer, including its own brew (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Israel may be known as the land of milk and honey, but it’s also well on the way to becoming the land of hops and barley. The country’s growing craft beer scene is taking inspiration from ancient words of scripture, local cuisine, and traditional agriculture to create a new and vibrant brew culture in Israel.

This week, Tel Aviv hosts Beer 2014 in the renovated Train Station compound in Neve Tzedek, featuring more than 200 kinds of Israeli craft beer. Along with the 10th anniversary of Jerusalem’s Beer Festival in late August, Beer 2014 is one of the largest craft beer events in Israel, and another sign that craft beers are an important part of the bar culture.

The craft beer scene is growing despite a crippling tax approved last April, which nearly doubled the tax on beer from NIS 2.18 per liter to NIS 4.19 per liter.

“It’s aggravating that imports [who can better absorb the cost due to their larger volumes] are rewarded and the local companies are not,” said Denny Neilson, a brewer based in Mevasseret, who brews Buster’s cider and beers for Isra-Ale. “But our sales are skyrocketing anyways. Sure, it aggravates the heck out of me; think about how many people we could employ instead of paying this tax.”

In order to highlight Israel’s growing craft beer industry, the Israeli Tourism Ministry invited Oliver Wesseloh, the 2013 World Champion Sommelier for Beer, to explore Israel’s microbreweries earlier this summer.

“Initially when I first heard about the trip, I thought, really? Israel? Israel wasn’t on my beer map,” Wesseloh said during his visit. “But when I started reading beer pages, how other people rated Israeli beer, I was really surprised.”

“Every time I leave Germany and go to other countries, I wish for that creativity and variety,” he added.

The first microbrewery in the region opened in 1995 in the Palestinian Christian village of Taibe, whose name in some Arabic dialects providentially means “delicious.” But the political situation during the 1990s, as well as the Palestinian Authority’s reluctance to support or advertise the product due to the Muslim taboo on alcohol, kept Taybeh Beer from reaching a larger market until the mid-2000s.

In 2006, David Cohen, an immigrant from America, opened the Dancing Camel, now Israel’s largest microbrewery. In the past eight years, microbreweries have popped up all over the country, from Jerusalem to the Negev to the Golan. Today there are approximately 20 different breweries in Israel brewing 120 different kinds of beer.

A menorah made of Shmaltz Brewing's He'Brew beer bottles. (photo credit: Shmaltz Brewing Facebook/JTA)
A menorah made of Shmaltz Brewing’s He’Brew beer bottles. (photo credit: Shmaltz Brewing Facebook/JTA)

“We have an established beer scene [in Germany], but that also holds us back because a lot of traditional breweries just stick to what they’re doing and don’t try new styles,” Wesseloh continued. “Not having that really opens the mind of the people.”

Wesseloh predicted that the craft beer market in Israel is far from saturated, saying he expects a number of new breweries to open in the coming years. “What I noticed going out is that Israelis are really into enjoying things and food,” he said.

After a difficult summer, it’s time to kick back and crack open a bottle of Israel’s finest brews. While the industry is still relatively new, there are some uniquely Israeli aspects to celebrate, like the fact that the “self-proclaimed hoppiest beer in the country” is called “Hutzpa.” Here are The Times of Israel’s recommendations for five local craft beers (ok, one is a cider) that taste like Israel in a bottle.

Negev Passion Fruit Beer
Negev Passion Fruit Beer (photo credit: Melanie LIdman/Times of Israel)

1. Negev’s Passion Fruit (Hebrew link), 4.9% Alcohol By Volume (ABV), Negev Brewery, Kiryat Gat

Wesseloh called Negev’s Passion fruit beer one of the most Israeli beers he tasted while touring the country. “A lot of local, natural ingredients are being used for making beer and this is a great example of that,” he said. The passion fruit taste can be very overwhelming at times so this is only a good choice for those who like fruity beer or juice.

Where to have a l’haim: Glen Whisk(e)y Bar in Jerusalem offers a tasting plate of beer samples that will give you a tour of Israel or Europe through beer, and they serve Negev’s Passion fruit on tap.

Tapping some beer at the Jaffa port market (photo credit: Leeor Bronis/Times of Israel)
Tapping some beer at the Jaffa port market (photo credit: Leeor Bronis/Times of Israel)

2. Lela’s Wheat (Hebrew link), 5.4% ABV, Lela BreweryModiin

It used to be that visitors to Israel would be overwhelmed by the smell of Jaffa oranges when the plane opened its doors. This Belgian white pays homage to that scent by featuring spicy coriander melded with sweet orange.

Where to have a l’haim: Grab some bottles at the eclectic Jaffa’s Beer Market, located in the historic old port near the fish markets, and make it a casual sunset beer on the beach.

David Cohen at the Dancing Camel Brewery (photo credit: Dancing Camel Brewery)
David Cohen at the Dancing Camel Brewery (photo credit: Dancing Camel Brewery)

3. Dancing Camel’s Olde Papa, 7.5% ABV, Dancing Camel Brewery, Tel Aviv

Brewer David Cohen calls this beer, similar to an IPA, a “Babylonian Old Ale.” The recipe was inspired by a beer reference Cohen found one day while he was leafing through the Talmud. He did more research in other religious texts and found references that recommended adding silan (honey made from dates) to beer to aid with fermentation. In Cohen’s Olde Papa beer, the silan offsets the bitterness present in most IPAs and bumps up the alcohol content.

Where to have a l’haim: The Dancing Camel brewery near Tel Aviv’s Maariv Junction has an open mic every Friday afternoon, but the new pub it opened in the trendy Florentin neighborhood sells the best wings this side of the Mediterranean.

Honey, apples and pomegranate. (photo credit: Liron Almog/Flash90)
Honey, apples and pomegranate. (photo credit: Liron Almog/Flash90)

4. Buster’s Dry Cider, 6.7% ABV, Buster’s Cider, Mevasseret Zion/Beit Shemesh

Ok, ok, we know, it’s a cider, not a beer. This crisp dry cider made our list because of the season (apples dipped in honey for Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner) and because cider is becoming all the rage in Israel, especially served with ice during a hot summer. Cider is technically a weak wine, because it has the same fermentation process, but it is served from the tap in many places like a beer. Buster’s Dry Cider, brewed by California import Denny Neilson, is less sweet than the other cider he offers, which has 4.8% ABV. The sweet cider sells more, but serious beer drinkers will appreciate the dry version, which is less tart and has almost a sour taste, similar to some beers.

Where to have a l’haim: Try both ciders, as well as Neilson’s new alcoholic lemonade made with fresh lemons, at the Beer 2014 event this week at the Tel Aviv Train Station on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

Ori Sagi, owner of the Alexander microbrewery. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Ori Sagi, owner of the Alexander microbrewery. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

5. Alexander’s Black, 7% ABV, Alexander Brewery, Emek Hefer

This beer put Israeli craft breweries on the map, after the Black won a gold medal in the robust porter category at the World Beer Cup in Denver in April. The heavy beer has notes of caramel, chocolate, and licorice.

Where to have a l’haim: You’re more likely to find Alexander on tap at restaurants and bars around the country than other craft beers, but an excellent place to combine quality local beer and local live music is Jerusalem’s Avram Bar.

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