Beit Shemesh, Israel — Back in the mid-1990s, Israel was a desert for beer drinkers wanting to imbibe something beyond the local ales and the mass-produced imports like Heineken.
In recent years, however, something startling has occurred: a bevy of boutique breweries have been popping up, thanks to craft beer devotees who — possibly inspired by the explosion of Israeli boutique wineries in the last two decades — decided to try their luck.
The result has been a bumper crop of compelling Israeli boutique beers — from dark-Belgium-style abbey ales to Bavarian wheat beers, to Irish amber drinks to American-style pale ales — that have given local enthusiasts something to both savor and wax patriotic about. According to the website Beers.co.il, some 20 boutique breweries and 39 home operations stretch from the Golan Heights to southern Israel near the Gaza Strip.
For devotees who want to sample this explosion of taste and color, learn how beer is made, or simply get a sense of the ecosystem of this blossoming industry, a handful of boutique brewers lie in the region known as “Ha’Shfela,” at the foot of the Jerusalem hills near the city of Beit Shemesh.
Just a half-hour drive from either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the area, located along a stretch of Route 38, is perfect for a day trip of visits to several interesting new breweries within a few minute’s drive of one another. Most of them require advance notice — and it’s preferable, for obvious reasons, to arrange for a designated driver.
I began at the Shapiro Brewery, located in the Sorek Industrial Park, a 10-minute drive off the Shar HaGuy exit on Highway 1 near Beit Shemesh. The brewery is housed in a nondescript warehouse with no outward sign that one of Israel’s best new boutique brews is produced on the premises.
The brewery is a family affair for Itzik Shapiro, 31, and his siblings, whose parents made aliyah from Riverdale. And it seems that much of its success is owed to brewmaster Yohai Shapiro, who came to the family brewery after having launched a successful run of craft beer on his own (more about that later).
Like most boutique brewers here, Shapiro started out home brewing with equipment bought from abroad. Shapiro shares with other craft brewers a sense of mission to pioneer uncharted territory in Israel. “We all had a dream that this is what we wanted to do,” says Yohai, while pouring a glass of wheat beer that boasts a brilliant maize candescence.
Shapiro calls its product “Jerusalem Beer,” and it’s no mere slogan. The vast majority of sales are to Jerusalem pubs, and that suits Shapiro just fine, even if a much bigger market lies in the more cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.
But it seems that you don’t have to be big sellers to Tel Aviv to enjoy some gravitas: in the tasting room, with a large wooden table for groups, there are three awards from the 2011 competition of Israeli boutique breweries, including Best Israeli Beer (the Pale Ale) and best new brewery.
Heading south on Route 38 past Beit Shemesh, you’ll take in the rolling hills and vineyards that evoke comparisons with Tuscany and the Napa Valley. This is the heart of the Yehuda regional council’s “wine route,” where boutique wineries seem to have popped up around every corner, from kibbutzim to monasteries. Following the tourism success of the wineries, the council has set out to promote the breweries as well, and even runs a bus tour in Hebrew.
Within a few minutes, you’ll reach the Ella Valley. The Bible lists the location as the site of the clash between David and Goliath, and you can take an easy detour to climb the Tel Azeka hill to enjoy a panoramic view.
Nearby along 38 is Srigim, home to the Srigim Brewery, which is located just inside the town limits. There’s a recently completed visitors center where co-owner Ofer Ronen will tell you how the brewery came about. Ronen said he got his love for beer while working for Israeli high-tech firms in Europe and Northern California.
The small visitors center has a bar and seven taps featuring the brewery’s beers, lending a pub-like feel to the place.
The beers with the label “Ella Valley” are crafted by his partner and are influenced by Bavarian and Belgian ales, while the “Ronen” label beers have a more American flavor, including one selection that is a tribute to Pete’s Wicked Ale.
“It was important to open the brewery in a tourist region,” he said, mentioning that archeologists recent found jars for beer on Tel Azeka. “We are reviving beer production in an area in which it is 3,000 years old.”
Part of the challenge for the boutique brewers is that because they import nearly all their raw materials and lack economies of scale, a product that should be affordable turns out to be very costly. At a recent music festival, pints of Bazelet Beer from the Golan Heights brewery were being sold for nearly $9. Bottles of non-craft beer go for half that in retail shops.
“I know my beers aren’t cheap. I invest twice as much in raw materials to get the full-body taste,” said Aram Dekel, who with his wife Batsheva runs the Abeer Haella brewery and café.
It is located in Moshav Tzafririm, a five-minute drive from Srigim; the moshav has bed-and-breakfast cabins and some restaurants.
“You can see I like beer,” says the barrel-chested Dekel. The gregarious brewmaster is eager to engage a visitor in conversation while munching on spicy zatar-laced popcorn and sipping homemade porter, which is dark strong and rich.
Over a platter of homemade goat cheeses made to complement his brews, Dekel, who sports an overgrown gray beard that gives him the appearance of an aging bohemian, explains that when he began home brewing several years ago neighbors started detouring to his house.
Unlike the Shapiro and Srigim operations, Dekel makes smaller batches of his beer and steers clear of any efforts to market to bars and stores. Pubs that want his beer have to come to the moshav and buy it.
After tarrying longer than expected with Dekel, I head for the industrial zone near the southern Israel town of Kiryat Gat.
The vineyards along Route 38 turn into expanses of wheat fields as I close in on the Negev Brewery; it’s partly owned by a Tel Aviv neighbor of mine who imports Belgian ales and owns the Tel Aviv beer restaurant Porter & Sons, rated one of the country’s best beer bars in recent years.
Negev was originally started by Shapiro Brewery’s brewmaster, Yochai Shapiro, and although he came up with two very compelling brews, he eventually sold the operation. Sagiv Karlboim, the 36-year-old manager of the Negev Brewery, shows a visitor the bottling machine as well as the rolls of bottle labels that are affixed by hand.
In a newly arranged sitting area, we sample Negev’s passion-fruit ale and amber beer. Like his boutique beer colleagues, Karlboim notes how small the craft-beer market is, and how hard it is to counter the perception of beer as a vice.
The Negev name seems well suited to the boutique brewery, because of the patriotic themes it evokes for Israelis — the frontier pioneers who built the nation, especially the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who retired in the desert.
In recent years, the Negev brew has been a source of pride for Israelis, as southern Israel has withstood rocket attacks from Gaza, Karlboim explains.
As the late-afternoon breeze picks up and the wheat fields turn golden in the waning light, the manager waxes patriotic.
“We feel like we are realizing the vision of David Ben-Gurion,” he said. “We are making the desert bloom.” ◆