November 29, 2013

Mosco on the Mediterranean

Amir and Yaron: Brought back together by Mosco Beer!
In the year since the Mosco Brewery began production, it has been the subject of at least three Hebrew articles in print and on the internet.

Certainly, it doesn't hurt that the beer is good stuff.

But it's the personal story that has grabbed the journalists and the bloggers.

Two childhood friends in Rishon LeZion, Amir Lev and Yaron Moscovich, gradually drifted apart and went their separate ways over the years.  Amir became an ultra-Orthodox Jew, got married, moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh and had four kids.  He worked as an agronomist in hydroponic agriculture.  Yaron stayed single, secular and in Rishon.  Eventually, the two lost contact all together.

About seven years later, Yaron called Amir out of the blue.  "I just brewed some home-made beer," he announced, "and you have to taste it."  Amir was happy to renew the friendship and agreed immediately.

From that meeting, the two began to see each other again and began to experiment with different beer recipes which they shared with the families and friends.  After two years, they decided to make a business out of it.  The found a place for their brewery on Moshav Zanuach, close to Amir's home in Beit Shemesh.  They called their new enterprise "Mosco," which is Yaron Moscovich's nickname.

The old label . . .
The Mosco Brewery began production in November 2012.  Since then, the two partners, now both 38, have put time and effort into producing high-quality beers and into marketing them.  They almost immediately took part in the big Beers 2012 exhibit in Tel Aviv, and in regional beer festivals such as Jerusalem and Mateh Yehuda (Srigim).  In an effort to modernize the branding, they recently introduced a new logo and labels for the beer.

I first met Amir when he was giving out tastes of his new beer on Friday morning at the HaMisameach liquor store near Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem.  He remembered me when we met again at the brewery a few days ago.

. . . and the new!
We tasted the Mosco Blond, which is a delicious, full-flavored pale ale, just a little short of the hops and alcohol needed to make it an IPA.

The Mosco Red (sounds like a throw back to the Cold War days!) is a little darker ale taking its first steps towards the flavor of stout, with nice coffee tones.

Amir admitted that Mosco's two beers reflect the partners' own taste.  "We have to like the beers we brew," he said.  Amir and Yaron generally do not like, for example, wheat beers.  But recently Yaron developed a wheat beer recipe which changed their minds.

"We hope to be brewing and marketing our wheat beer in the near future," Amir revealed to me.  "Yaron is getting married in two months, and his fiance wants the first batch of our wheat beer to served at their wedding.  That can be your scoop."

The Mosco Brewery has a sparkling set of new, modern equipment -- mash tun, kettle and four fermenters -- made in China by an Israeli company.  "We are very satisfied," said Amir.  No artificial carbonation is ever used in Mosco Beer, and a second fermentation takes place in the bottle.  They are currently producing around 1,500 to 2,000 liters a month.

As with other breweries, Mosco imports all ingredients, but Amir, the agronomist, dreams of Israel one day growing barley and hops to supply its own domestic beer industry.  "Why not?" he asks innocently.   
Mosco Beer is now available in select liquor stores in Jerusalem and in the Tel Aviv area north to Netanya, as well as in bars and restaurants. 

I loved the Blond at first sip -- and that was before I knew that she had brought two old friends back together again.         

November 24, 2013

Where's the Wild Blond?

Do you remember Asif Beer?  It was a standard fixture at almost every beer festival for many years and was readily available in liquor stores.  It had a catchy label of an old-time sower of seeds against a background of a swaying field of barley.

I enjoyed their four regular beers and I also appreciated their names:

Wild Blond -- a citrusy wheat beer.

Enticing Redhead -- a fruity amber ale.

Flaming Brunette -- a very strong (8.5% ABV) dark beer.

Surprising Dark Haired Female (there's no word for that in English, is there?) -- a smoky porter.

As I was going through my contacts, I noticed that the Asif Brewery Facebook page hadn't been updated for about two years.  They had been using that in lieu of a website.

I called the owner and brewmaster, Shimon Osher, at Moshav Ramot Naftali in the Upper Galilee, and he confirmed: Asif has not been brewing beer commercially for more than a year.  Shimon has been brewing at home for his own family and neighbors.  His medium-term plans are to open a pub and to brew beer for the moshav and the region.

When I told him that I enjoyed Asif Beer and would like to see it back, he said, "So would we."

November 16, 2013

Dancing Camel's olde-new beers

I have found that the best selection of Israeli boutique beers in Jerusalem is at HaMisameach, an inviting liquor store on Rehov Agrippas near the Machane Yehuda shuk. One entire four-meter-long shelf is filled with over 50 different kinds of Israeli craft beers from 15 breweries. Trust me: I really counted.

A few weeks ago, I saw what to me were four new beers from Tel Aviv’s Dancing Camel, Israel’s first microbrewery, owner of two brewpubs, an active and creative marketer, and a brewer of a wide assortment of year-round and seasonal beers.

The four new beers were:

Patriot – A pale ale beautifully hoppy with a twinge of sweetness to balance the bitter, and a dose of citrus.

Eve Blond Ale – A very light blond ale with the malt and hops in the background. This is a beer for a hot day, when you can’t just have one.

Midnight Stout – I’m not a stout fan, but I enjoyed this more than its famous Irish cousin. And there really is a chocolaty taste in there.

Olde Papa Babylonian Olde Ale – This is the heartiest of the four. Full of hops and sweetness and high in alcohol (7.5%).

I wanted to know more so I called up David Cohen, the owner and brewmaster of Dancing Camel.

“They’re not new,” was David’s surprised reply. “You’re just seeing them for the first time in the store.

“Midnight Stout is one of our standards, as is Eve Blond Ale. They’ve been around for years. You can read about them on our website.

“Patriot is just a new name we gave to our American Pale Ale. That’s also been around for along time.”

I liked that. I think beers should have personal names rather than just descriptions. After all, they are so complex and individual – or should be – so why not give them real names?

“But the interesting story,” David continued, “is the Olde Papa Ale.

“You know, for several years we have been tweaking our India Pale Ale to accommodate Israeli tastes. We found Israelis prefer a sweeter, heavier beer with more alcohol. So over the years, we have been bumping up the sweetness of our IPA with date honey and darker, caramel malts.

“Just recently, we decided to push the beer out of the IPA category entirely by 1) revving up the alcohol from 7.2% to 7.5%, 2) changing from English to German malts, and 3) changing from American hops to British hops.

“So now we had what was in effect a new beer and we needed a name for it.”

David went on to explain that brewers often look for inspiration and ingredients in their own area and culture.

“There aren’t too many illustrious Jewish brewers,” he said, “but one of the earliest we know of is Rav Papa, a rabbi from the Talmud who lived in Babylon. He had ten sons, founded a famous yeshiva in Neres, and apparently became quite wealthy from brewing and selling beer.”

Rav Papa brewed a beer called “sudny” which was made with date honey. Since that ingredient was already being used in the Dancing Camel “revised” IPA, they decided to name the new beer in memory of Rav Papa.

All my questions were answered.

“However,” added David, “you should have also seen a fifth beer in HaMisameach – Golem.”

He was right. Bottles of Golem were on the top shelf. This is a super beer. I tried it last summer after my friend Bob Faber bought me a bottle at the Mateh Yehuda Beer Festival. At HaMisameach, a 750 milliliter bottle costs a hefty NIS 49, but it’s worth it. Golem is a beer to savor. I call it IPA on steroids. It’s dark and strongly hopped, 11% alcohol with rich flavors that put most other beers in its dark shadow. My neighbor Moshe Lifshitz says, “it’s like drinking two beers at once.” I was happy to learn that Golem is on sale in stores and not just at beer fairs. If you see it, and you love strong beer, buy a bottle and give yourself a treat.

November 6, 2013

Welcome to the Beer Revolution

If you’re a beer lover (like me) and if you live in Israel (like me), you must have noticed that the last five or so years have been kind to us.

The Israeli beer culture is booming.  Stores and restaurants and pubs now offer the beer-drinking public a heady assortment of local and imported beers of all types and variations: ales and lagers, stouts and wheats, dubbels and tripels, fruits and bitters.  Go into almost any liquor store and you can’t help but notice that more and more shelf space is taken up by a rainbow choice of beers from all over the world.

 Home brewing is also taking off.  There are more places to buy equipment and ingredients to begin brewing beer in your own kitchen.  It’s a serious hobby in which, like stamp collecting or playing golf, you can invest as much time, interest and money as you want.  And the end result is not a lower handicap, but 19 liters of delicious and inexpensive beer. 

Amitai seems more interested
in the beer than in grandpa.

My neighbor here in Pisgat Ze’ev is an avid home brewer, and he boils up his wort and mixes in the malt extract, hops and yeast (and maybe some secret ingredients) right in his own kitchen.  Less than three weeks later, he has excellent beer – which he generously shares with favored neighbors who appreciate the quality!  

But most of all, boutique breweries (also known as craft breweries) have been springing up all over the country, liberating Israeli brew-quaffers from the duopoly of industrially-brewed, flavor-deficient beers.  No more is the choice between Tempo Beer Industries (Goldstar, Nesher and Maccabee) or Israel Beer Breweries Ltd. (Carlsberg and Tuborg).  They may hold the major share of the market, but not of the taste.  Independent small breweries are changing the way Israelis think about beer.  People who have been saying, “No, I don’t drink beer” all of their lives, are now saying, “Hmm. That one’s good!”  Just ask my wife Trudy.  

Today, there are over 20 licensed commercial boutique breweries in Israel.  The first one was probably Dancing Camel in Tel Aviv, opened in 2006 by American immigrant David Cohen.  David’s bandanaed head is a familiar sight at beer festivals and other social events, and his beautiful beers are readily available at many liquor stores and bars. 

The most recent boutique brewery may be Herzl Beers in Jerusalem – but I really can’t say because another one may be opening somewhere in Israel as I write these words.

Unfortunately, at the same time, others may be closing.  Which brings me to my last point for this posting: As the competition among craft beers heats up, sadly there will be casualties.  In order to survive, brewers will need more than an excellent product and a presence at beer and food fairs.  They have to be skilled marketers who get their beers into shops, restaurants and pubs.  Price is important too, but, as whiskey and wine sellers will tell you, Israelis are ready to pay for quality.  The sales tax on beer in Israel is quite high.  Although it affects all beer sales, it hits the small craft brewers harder, since the industrial brewers have the volume to absorb part of the tax. 

I recently noticed six packs of Butterfly beer (brewed in the Ramat Dalton industrial estate in the Upper Galilee) on sale near the Machane Yehuda shuk for only NIS 30!  I tried to contact Butterfly to find out how they could sell their beer at such a ridiculously low price – not that I was opposed at all!  I became suspicious when the phone number and the website both weren’t working.  I did some research and discovered (without much surprise) that Butterfly had gone out of business a few months earlier.  The remaining beer was obviously being dumped on the market to be sold at any price. 

Butterfly had its fans, but I found only the Sunset (dark ale) swallowable.  That may help to explain why Butterfly went belly up.  I don’t know.  But our craft breweries must remember that they are now competing against each other, and not only against the big guys.  They will have to give us, the beer drinkers, the best beer at the best price.  It’s a jungle out there.            

Jerusalem has a brewery!

Itai Gutman (left) and Maor Helfman with their beautiful Herzl Beers.
For some years, Canaan Beer has been calling itself the “Beer of Jerusalem,” but it’s brewed in Mishor Adumim. Shapiro Beer proudly calls itself “Jerusalem Beer” on its label. But it’s brewed in Beit Shemesh.

But now, finally, the craft beer revolution has really reached Jerusalem.

Last week I visited the first commercial brewery to open in the city: Herzl Beer, owned and operated by two 30-year-old Jerusalemites, Maor Helfman and Itai Gutman. The brewery is located in the Talpiot industrial area, right between the small stores and grimy workshops. But the beer, the beer is heavenly.

“We dreamed about opening a brewery together for about two years,” says Maor, “and we finally did around three months ago, after going through all the bureaucracy, the approvals, and the bank loans.” Maor and Itai both did internships in  beer brewing in Scotland.  Itai had previously studied beer brewing in Berlin. It didn’t take long after they met in Israel to decide that this is what they wanted to do with their lives: to earn a livelihood by brewing great beer.

Helfman and Gutman decided that they didn’t want to go mainstream. Most other boutique breweries in Israel will typically make a pale ale, a red ale, a stout (or porter), and a wheat beer. Herzl produces three different ales, and the names are inspired more by Jerusalem slang than by descriptive categories.

“Shesh Achuz Kapara” – A mild, red, British-inspired ale, with a nice aroma of fruit and hops. At 6% alcohol by volume, it’s a beer that makes a powerful, malty impression.

“Dulce de Asal” – The Spanish and Arabic name means “the sweetness of honey,” and this strong ale (8% ABV) doesn’t disappoint. This is for drinkers who don’t like their beer very bitter. Brewmaster Gutman says the beer is in the family of heavy Scottish ales, and influenced by the fermented honey drink of mead. Mead producing actually goes back 4,000 years, but Gutman looked at old medieval recipes and puts in the same exotic spices.

“IPA . . . v’Zeh” – My favorite. (I guess India Pale Ales will always be my favorite.) Helfman and Gutman say that very few other Israeli breweries make India Pale Ale.  In my opinion, this is a great beer. The taste and aroma of hops is massive (hops are added both during the boiling of the wort and after, during the fermentation process, known as “dry hopping”), the resultant bitterness is unbelievably refreshing, and the strength (7% ABV) lets you know that this is real beer.

Helfman is the marketing maven at Herzl Brewery, and he has big plans for getting his beer into the Israeli bloodstream. In the meantime, Herzl is available at pubs and restaurants only in Jerusalem, including Bardak (where I discovered it), Chakra, Adom, Colony, Shanti, Bourla, Tel Aviv, and Jabotinsky, and at the SOS convenience stores.

Today, the brewery produces around 7,000 bottles a month, a very respectable number, but Helfman and Gutman are always aiming higher. “Brewing beer is something we both enjoy,” concludes Helfman. “We just want to continue what we love doing – and perhaps make some money from it as well.”

Thanks to Herzl, Jerusalem is on the beer map, and we’re going to stay on the beer map.