When one thinks of Israel, Manischewitz wine comes to mind more than beer – and Manischewitz isn’t even produced in Israel but at a winery in Canandaigua, New York. The ancient Israelites were always more prone to wine, just like the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. One of the prayers to bring in Jews’ Friday night Sabbath is prayer over wine. When Jews get married, they smash a wine glass. Perhaps that’s all changed in the new millennium, but if prayers are being said over beer and beer mugs smashed, I’ve yet to hear about it.
After Jews were exiled to Babylonia in the sixth century BC, beer slowly became embraced. Very slowly. A few rabbis became notable brewers. That pretty much marks the end of beer in ancient Jewish history.
It was the British who brought beer back to the region in the 1930’s. The British had a mandate on the region, then known as Palestine, and the British resident there desired beer. The Palestine Brewery was the sole provider of beer to the Israeli market throughout the 1940’s.
The demand certainly proved to be there, even after Israeli independence in 1948. In 1952, construction began on the National Brewery just outside Tel Aviv, with an annual capacity of 400,000 barrels of its Abir beer.
Thereafter, Israel went through the same merger mania seen elsewhere. Things just happened a lot faster in the Israeli market. Twenty years after National’s founding, it merged with the Palestine Brewery and another upstart known as the Galilee Brewery. This new National entity controlled 90% of the Israeli beer market. A decade later Tempo Beer Industries bought out National to become the largest brewer in Israel, a title it has retained ever since.
If one were to have traveled to Israel in the late 1980’s, as I did, he would have seen two main brews dominate the shelf space, Goldstar and Maccabee, much like you’d see in other nations. Both are pale lagers with a strength of 4.9% ABV, just like you’d see in other nations, too. The difference? Tempo Beer Industries manufactures both brands. [Nesher Malt is the third beer in their stable and has been around since 1935, but was less common]
Neither of the beers is renowned for stupendous quality. Maccabee is probably (slightly) better known outside Israel, being marketed in the US and Europe as well.
You would not imagine Turkish food to be of the highest caliber and most authentic in a place like South Korea where few Turks live and the cuisine is practically unknown. Beer – or, for that matter, alcohol of any kind – is minimally consumed in Israel. The countries with the lowest alcohol consumption among the 34-nation Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) list are Turkey and Israel. Israelis only consume about 14 liters of beer on average per year. With heavy Russian immigration over the last few decades, the Israelis have become the second biggest consumer per capita of vodka in the OCED after Finland.
Israeli taxes on alcohol don’t help consumption either. In mid 2013, the Israeli Knesset passed new taxes on alcohol. These raised the purchase tax on beer from NIS 2.18 (USD 0.55) to NIS 4.19 (USD 1.07). Arak, the popular anise-flavored beverage Tel Aviv residents called their city’s drink, rose in price by 70%.
Beer popularists continue to think beer has a future in the Holy Land. Wine has always been sipped, but until the 1980’s, the wine quality in Israel was on par with Manischewitz. Since then, the country has experienced a burgeoning boutique wine movement that beer lovers hope is replicated with beer.
The craft brewing scene started late in Israel. In 2006, an American transplant opened Israel’s first microbrewery in Tel Aviv called Dancing Camel. The owner, David Cohen, didn’t simply ape the popular styles of the United States. He tried to embrace Jewish seasonal customs by offering a Rosh Hashana pomegranate beer and a wheat-etrog beer for the holiday of Sukkot.
A few years later, another American émigré opened Jem’s Beer Factory, Israel’s first kosher microbrewery. Jem’s owner differed from other aspiring brewers in that he actually had brewing degrees and experience.
Other boutique breweries followed, one of the more popular ones being Shapiro, started by three siblings who, once again, are American born. By 2013, Shapiro was producing about 100,000 liters a year, ranging from the usual pale ales to oatmeal stouts and wheat beers. In that year, Israel numbered about 20 boutique breweries. Two years later, that number had risen to over 50.
Boutique brews were already pricey before the taxes. Israeli beer prices are among the ten highest in the world and beer taxes are among the world’s five highest. Today, a supermarket price for a craft brew can reach $4-5.50 per bottle and in a pub over $10. A lot of it remains a scale problem. The Israeli beer market was never huge to begin with and now has to be shared among the giants and the upstarts, many of them just one step up from a home brewer. Abeer HaElla prides itself on producing Israel’s most expensive beers, a range consisting of allspice beer, honey-wheat beer, and chili porter, yet produces less than 4,000 liters a year. Nearby Srigim brewery, located on an a moshav (a type of traditional Israeli collective), produces less than 70,000 liters a year.
Proper distribution remains a problem. Most of the breweries offer a pubhouse atmosphere complete with food, just like all Portland, Oregon’s breweries do, only Portland’s beers find distribution in supermarkets, liquor stores, chain groceries, and even overseas. When the Beer Market opened in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv in 2013, it was a big deal for Israelis simply because you could find 92 different varieties of local beer in one place, something a Californian or a Belgian has been taking for granted for well over two decades.
To gain traction, Israeli brewers have to look to the export markets. Srigim managed to export a pallet of beer to a Jewish Federation event in Washington, DC, but such sales for the moment are too few and far between.
Israel has commonly billed itself as the land of milk and honey. Being known as the land of hops and barley could take a few more decades.