Locals like to joke that a person who drinks one beer a day is considered a heavy drinker in Israel. Beer has never made much of an impact on behavior-conscious Israel, a land where wine and nonalcoholic beverages have much wider acceptance. Unlike Israel's Middle Eastern neighbors of Egypt and Mesopotamia -- the lands from which the first beers were produced -- beer never caught on in Israel. Despite the influence of 5,000 years of history, some Israelis are trying to change this.
Amid the glamorous and alluring cafes and clubs of the sizzling "see and be seen" city of Tel Aviv, a handful of Israelis at the Tel Aviv Brew House are offering quality craft brews to the drinking public. The brewpub is the first and only of its kind in Israel, and it has made quite a splash in the sun-drenched seaside Mediterranean town.
The idea for the brewpub was spawned during a trip the owners made to Switzerland. Co-owner Erez Toerin dined at a local brewpub while visiting Geneva, and an idea occurred to him. The Swiss brewpub was doing such phenomenal business that Toerin snatched the opportunity and brought it back to Israel with him.
"We went out for dinner, and something clicked in me. Two years later, the Brew House opened its doors," said Toerin. To learn the trade, the owners went to Austria and spent a year completing a professional brewing course. After their studies, they returned to Israel, ready to begin their brewing endeavors.
Despite the quality craft brews offered, this brewery was not born out of love for beer but out of a sense of business. Toerin is a very self-confident businessman, and he makes no bones about his view that brewing is a business. The co-owners promote themselves as individuals who saw a good idea and grasped for it. When reminded that others around the world would love to work with beer as their day job, Turin admitted, without so much as cracking a smile, that the job does offer "some joy and fun."
Before his European trip, Toerin, like most Israelis, was not heavily into beer. Putting his business sense first, Toerin was concerned not only with how a brewpub would fit into the beer-weary culture of Israel, but also how it would mesh with the out-and-about nightlife culture of Tel Aviv.
First off, Toerin knew that the brewery could encounter some hesitancy on the part of the drinking public. If you are looking to visit a locale for a beer pilgrimage, Israel may, in terms of relative attraction, fall somewhere just above those countries that follow strict Islamic law. Israeli consumption of beer hovers around a meager 15 liters a year, compared with more than a hundred liters in America and most of Europe. What little beer Israelis do consume is most often the local favorites, Maccabee and Gold Starópale, simple lagers akin to American pilsners.
Toerin decided that his products would be a success if he could slowly convince the public that fresh beer was preferable to the bland, processed industrial brews that dominate the Israeli beer market. He places great emphasis on the unpasteurized nature of his beers. Toerin enjoys telling his customers that drinking fresh beer is like drinking milk directly from the cow. Toerin relies upon the public's ability to notice the difference between commercial brews and fresh beer.
In deciding what beers to offer, Toerin observed that "there is a negative reaction in the Israeli market to fruity-type beers and ales." He noted that "this is a lager country." The Tel Aviv Brew House offers three beers, all of which are a welcome respite from the bland commercial lagers of the country. The Quantum, the lightest beer offered, is a golden-colored beer with an initially sweet flavor that eventually becomes more bitter at the finish. The beer has a slightly fruit hint but not enough to offend the picky Israeli market. The beer is unfiltered, as are all of the brewery's beers, and it has a clean aftertaste.
The Moonshine is a light brown-colored lager with an initial burst of deep, sweet malt flavor. Toerin told me that the beer was named Moonshine because it was traditionally brewed on full-moon evenings. It is based on a formula dating back to 1841. The beer has a perceptible deep peppery flavor and a mild diacetyl hint. This beer is slightly less hazy than the other two offerings, with a clear, foamy head. Moonshine, at 5% abv, is the only beer with a perceptible, lingering aftertaste.
Tel Aviv's final offering is the Masters lager, a 6.5% abv beer with a dark roasted malt flavor. It has a very full head and a fresh, earthy smell. The beer, based on a 150-year-old recipe, has an unfiltered ruby haze and a distinctive roasted malt flavor. The brewery gets its hops mainly from Europe, with a focus on Czech, Austrian and Slovenian offerings. The brewers employ no additives and strictly follow the German Purity Law of 1516.
When asked how many barrels of beer the brewery produces in a year -- information so basic to American brewers that it is usually offered before a question is even posed -- Toerin's suspicions were raised. In a country obsessed with security, information at the brewery is treated much like a state secret. Toerin was tight-lipped on the specifics of brewing, and he refused to tell me the quantity of beer produced. Later, when asked what beer he would suggest with a particular dish, Toerin gruffly stated that "all the beers go with all of the food." Toerin was willing to tell me that the .2-liter containers are the preferred method of consumption and run about 11 NIS (New Israeli Shekel, or about U.S. $2.65). One liter of beer runs about 40 NIS (or U.S. $9.75).
The brewers craft their beers on a 10-hectoliter multinational brewing system that was custom-assembled from 14 countries. The owners did the integration and assembly themselves. There is a beautiful, unenclosed copper brew-kettle directly behind the bar, in full view of all curious, onlooking patrons. Compared to some similar setups in the United States, this system appears tiny. But the beers it produces are actually quite impressive. In what would become a recurring theme, Toerin took great pains to note that none of the parts were "off the shelf." This fits with the popular attitudes in Tel Aviv, where style is elevated over substance and the serious political and religious issues facing nearby Jerusalem seem far removed.
After securing himself with the success potential of his beers, Toerin turned his mind to designing a pub that would be worthy of style-conscious Tel Aviv. The place is more restaurant than pub, he suggested, but it is a combination endeavor. The brewpub has an all-original design, with no print artwork and "nothing off the shelf."
Building on the precision required in brewing beer, the owners and designers agreed upon a "movement of time through space" motif. There are three elements relating to time that are represented throughout the establishment. One is an hourglass; another is a wall clock in perpetual motion that is guided by an intricate system of pulleys and 12 wooden spokes that careen across the ceiling in different lengths and symbolize the hands of a clock. There is also a raised, cross-shaped table in the middle of the barroom that supports the column from which the 12 beams radiate.
Due to the relatively confined nature of Tel Aviv business property, the brewing of the beer occurs within sight of the dining and drinking area. In a quiet attempt to indoctrinate novice beer drinkers with the fundamentals of beer enjoyment, malted barley-filled cups line each tabletop in the bar, much like a pretzel dish might in the United States.
A definite staple of any Tel Aviv hot spot is the music. The brewpub features classical music during the day to set a mood for business patrons and other lunch guests. In the evening, the place is a popular nightspot that features New Orleans-style jazz twice a week.
"The place is packed most every evening," said Toerin. In this divided and diverse society, Toerin suggested that the Brew House "attracts all walks of life, all ages -- a beautiful mixture of Israel." The brewpub is open until 4:00 a.m., and Toerin described it as one of the "hottest places in Israel."
According to Toerin, "People came initially out of wonder, then for the beer and then for the food." With respect to this last area, the pub offers a wide variety of dishes from around the world, adapting them to Israeli tastes. The menu ranges from Monte Cristo shrimp to spicy buffalo wings, filet mignon to brew burgers and the decidedly non-kosher pork chops. The brewpub also takes advantage of its coastal locale by offering a wide range of fresh fish and seafood. Appetizers run about 35 NIS (or U.S. $8.50), and main courses run about 65 NIS (or U.S. $15.75).
In the face of a long history of apathy towards the consumption of beer, the Tel Aviv Brew House has found a niche providing fresh craft-brewed beers to the Israeli people. The test of time will show whether the brewery can overcome this history, or if it will be condemned to succumb to it.
Tel Aviv Brew House
Tel Aviv, Israel